NOTE: “AMoS” stands for A Muse of Shadows, the working title for my novel in progress. In this and subsequent posts, I talk about the various sources for my initial ideas for the (still extremely unformed) book.
Write what you know, say all writers too lazy to do the research. And writers are a lazy bunch; even those of us who enjoy research tend to start from a solid, familiar base. The result is a lot of books about writers, or artists of some ilk. My novel is guilty as charged, but at least I’m going big by writing about five writers.
These days, there is also a liberal pressure upon many writerly industries to publish a wider variety of voices. It’s a very healthy and important movement, but it comes with a troubling downside. When paired up with the first maxim, it discourages authors from crafting characters of other races, ethnicities, genders etc., because we lack the lived experience to write them accurately.
For AMoS, I have split the difference. I want to write characters who have profoundly different backgrounds and identities from myself. And I want to do due diligence with my research, even if in practice that amounts to a lot of hasty Wikipedia searches. But even though my writer protagonists will (hopefully) represent a broad cross-section of society, they’re still all gonna be me, at some level.
The first theme I want to explore in AMoS is inspiration. When I sit down to write “what I know” about writers, my alpha and omega is: writers can’t not write. That’s kind of a scary premise, in the sense that any compulsive activity or loss of control is scary, and I want to make that manifest by make the creative process a genuine threat to life, limb, and sanity. But beyond the obsessive need to pour forth words, there are loads of motivations for writing, and I have a lot of them tucked away in different parts of my brain. In the novel, each motivation gets embodied in a different character.
In 1853, William Wells Brown was a former slave, having escaped from labour on a Mississippi steamboat. He was living in exile in Europe, since even the Northern states were compelled to cooperate with slave hunters. He wrote a novel called Clotel, or the President’s Daughter – the first African-American novel ever published – as a fictionalized argument designed to stir up English opposition to slavery in the States. His political agenda was urgent; lives were at stake. Brown wrote to change the world.
In 1895, Herbert George Wells was also having visions of how the world could change, for better or worse. His scientific romances were often warnings about the devastating consequences of unchecked human advancement. But mostly, I think, Wells was thrilled by his own inventiveness, and he wanted to share his ideas to incite discussion and further speculation. H.G. Wells wrote because he was amazed by his own thoughts, and he wanted to amaze others.
Back in 1833, Edgar Allan Poe was amazing his readership too, not only with speculative tales but also with stories of mystery, terror, and psychological intrigue. Poe was destitute for most of his life, so his chief conscious motive for writing was eking out a living; but his poetry in particular betrays a painful yearning for understanding and empathy: “Since childhood’s hour I have not been / As others are; I have not seen / As others saw…” His visions have a much less political agenda than Brown’s, and less calculation than Wells’s; they seem like bursts of cathartic creativity, calls for understanding thrown into the dark. Did anyone see through the same clouded lens as he? Poe wrote in search of connection.
The most famous of all literary inspiration stories comes from the summer of 1816, when Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein on a kind of dare. Following a reading of ghost stories during a stormy night, the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, together with John Polidori and Percy’s wife Mary, all agreed to try their own hands at spooky fictions. Mary’s Frankenstein is far and away the most remarkable result of that night, and the deeper one dives into it, the more inspirations and motives lurk under its ice.
Perhaps, like Wells, she sought to amaze her readership with a speculative tale about the dangers of scientific advancement. Indeed, like Brown, she may have felt a political impetus, or at least a philosophical one, since Frankenstein is preoccupied with the moral issues surrounding education, good government, and justice. At the same time, Mary was grieving the death of a child; perhaps Frankenstein is a metaphoric cry for empathy. Or maybe Mary was just trying to drum up a bit of cash to support her penniless family. I’m intimidate and intrigued by the challenge of untangling her motives.
And then there’s Shakespeare. How can we begin to plumb the depths of his creative process? Was he a workaday, profit-minded professional who just happened to be a genius? Or did he write for the thrill of audience acclaim – the sounds of laughter and applause, the way his words took on an independent life on the stage? Not to get too provocative (or spoiler-y), but I’d guess that whoever wrote Shakespeare’s plays held his (or her) quill the way a Catholic holds the rosary – as a spiritual conduit, a means of accessing the divine within themselves.
On a mindful day, I can see all of these motivations churning around inside myself, too. I may lack the urgency of an escaped slave like Brown, but I still want to believe that my writing can make the world a better place. And like Wells, I often astound myself by what I can cook up, and I just want to see what readers will think, or how other artists might pick it up and run with it. And I’m neurotic like Poe, perpetually convinced that no one shares my twisted outlook, yet desperate to be understood and accepted. And writing should be spiritual, and even though I know I’ll never be Shakespeare, I can use my words to get closer to my sense of the transcendent (or to bring others there). And yes, maybe like Mary Shelley, I could stand to earn a dime on top of all that, too.
Maybe, most of all, I want AMoS to speak to other writers, or to young artists of all kinds. I want its message to be: writing is hell, even though you can’t not write. But the reasons we write – whatever they are – are valid, and important, and worth the effort. Even if the effort includes research.