Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working
A few months ago, I was texting with a friend while wandering around the University Library. “I’m at the library” I said, “searching for my muse. I’m sure it was out there somewhere.”
“The elusive muse…” responded the friend, and – not knowing what his words would come to ignite in me – he added: “You should set traps”.
Muse traps! How did I not think of these before?!
It has been about four months since this casual correspondence, and this idea has not let go of my mind. How do I trap muses, and particularly elusive, intellectual, snobbish academic muses?
I am a third year PhD student reading ancient Chinese history. The upcoming year marks the fourth and final year of my studies here, at the end of which I am expected to submit an 80,000 word-long thesis (PhDs in the UK last a maximum of four years. For any student, but for international students in particular, it is tremendously difficult to overdo this time).
This past year has been marked by a constant sense of struggle. By now my ideas are formed, I am excited about this work and feel like I’ve found my thing; I have a structure for my thesis and know what I want to say in every chapter, and what I want the thread tying the thesis together to be.
Yet words escape me, and my thesis remains silent; it exists pretty much in thoughts only.
With less than one year to go, and zero chapter-drafts submitted, this silence is accompanied by guilt and shame – what kind of an academic do I make if I cannot find the words by which to articulate my own ideas?
A year of struggles, it has become a year of exploration: I started reading blogs and books about academic writing; I watched videos and listened to podcasts, attended writing workshops – even organised some writing sessions of my own – all in order to solve my issues with writing. Occasionally these explorations helped a bit (although sometimes I still doubt it that I can ever get this thesis written). I now have a messy 18,000 words written (two thirds of two different chapters). But I have not yet cracked the mystery and found the secret to successful writing, and I suspect that I never will, as I have come to think that there is no one secret – no one secret to suit all people, but also no one secret for me as an individual writer. I have come to believe that the process of writing, like writing itself – needs to be refreshed, relearned, re-explored, and changed constantly. One of the tendencies of procrastinators such as myself is that we resent routine and seek excitement. After this year of exploration I know this, and I am coming to terms with the fact that my process of writing will have to continue undergoing constant changes if I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life (and I do).
I am starting this blog as a place where I can document these explorations, and will thereafter follow it wherever it leads. With time, I am hoping to document different types of creative processes (academic writing, but also other types of writing, music making, and so on) and different aspects of life as an academic. I hope that, in time, this blog will somehow become useful for other academics and people who work creatively.
My first task, however, is to trap (even for a short while, even for a few paragraphs, a few thousands of words) this academic muse of mine.
Whatever should comprise of a muse trap, I have no doubt in my mind that it must involve words. Written words, not only words thought of. Words for an academic muse are what cheese is for mice (within or without traps) – words are its food.
Inspiration has to find you working, as Pablo Picasso is known to have said. The muse of the painter feeds on colours and shades; the muse of the musician feeds on resounding notes. The muse of a writer (be it an academic writer, a novelist, a journalist – any kind of writer really) feeds on words. All of these are where skill meets magic, but magic does not come without practice of skill.
Fingers on the keyboard, pen touching paper, ink or pixels – this is what it takes for one to trap the muse of a writer. Intellectual thought, theoretical knowledge, research data, and big ideas – all these are of course necessary. But at the end of the day these are words. Letters, spaces, commas, full stops, semicolons – gathered into sentences and paragraphs – these are the food of muses.
This blog thus aims to act as a feeding station for my hungry elusive muse. I will try to write the blog posts as warm-ups for my academic writing (warm-up writing sessions are one of the tools I’ve come to know over the last year), and use them to practice my wording, as well as to document my experiences with academic writing, academic life, and other creative ventures.
While this is a more public one, it is still an experiment of mine – an attempt to learn a new thing. I am willing to accept the fact that it might not be the way. I am ready for the possibility that I might get bored, idle, or anything else – and give up. I know I might (like in my previous attempt of a blog) stop writing after two or three blog entries (I’d better not! I just bought this domain, trying to assure myself that I will, indeed, write!). But I’m willing to try. So here I am, setting muse traps word by word, searching for the words that are playing hide and seek with me (why am I always the seeker though?!), hoping that all this will end with a thesis, or – better yet – that the thesis will be just the beginning.
She’s a beautiful beast, this muse. Let’s find where she’s hiding!