By Nancy Jane Moore
I always make a cup of coffee before I sit down at my computer in the morning. If I’m in serious work mode, I grab a bowlful of almonds to eat while working so I can wait longer for lunch. And if something absolutely, positively has to get done regardless of how tired I am, I consume caffeine in large quantities. (At Clarion West I once stayed up all night on chocolate-covered espresso beans after my stomach rebelled at the idea of another cup of coffee or even a Coke.)
In more sane times, I get up and take a walk when my work starts to go stale. But these are the tools for getting the day started or finishing the work at hand, regardless of whether I feel inspired.
When I really want to invoke my muse, I drive.
I drove to WisCon this year. That’s about 2,400 miles round trip from Austin to Madison. It was made more exciting this year by the tornadoes stalking the midwest — every time I looked at the weather map before setting out there was this big red blob that completely covered my planned route. I did modify my plans to skip Oklahoma City after the first tornado ripped things up, which allowed me to discover that there is very pretty country in Eastern Oklahoma along the old U.S. highways.
It’s not excitement I’m looking for, so I was grateful to miss the bad weather. My muse shows up when I’m driving down a road through nice country with only mild traffic. Driving always requires paying attention, but in low-stress situations it doesn’t require your whole brain. On the way up, I got to my friend Diane Silver’s house in Lawrence, Kansas, with so many ideas pounding in my head that I rudely holed up with my computer to write them down.
Years ago when I went to Clarion West, I drove from Washington (D.C.) to (Seattle,) Washington. Everyone thought I was nuts, but the truth was the trip got me ready for the intensity of Clarion by calming me down. Once I got west of Chicago, I had about 2,000 miles in which to let my mind roam. I was relaxed and calm when I hit Seattle and I had a story about three-quarters written to boot. (A salable story, I might add. It’s called “Dusty Wings” and BVC reprinted it in Dragon Lords and Warrior Women, in case you’d like to read it.)
I can’t invoke my muse with ordinary driving. A run to the grocery store won’t do it and commuting not only drives away my muse, but also makes me very, very cranky, which is not conducive to anything.
Here are the driving conditions that invoke my muse:
- Distance: At least a couple of hundred miles. I need the first hour or so just to clear the cobwebs.
- Good weather: That is, weather that doesn’t put extra strain on driving, like snow, ice, fog, thunderstorms, tornado warnings …
- Mild traffic: I’m at my best if I can just glide along at about the speed limit without great worry about the other drivers or too many situations that bring everything to an abrupt halt.
My favorite roads for this are the old U.S. highways. In some places, the interstates were built right on top of the old highways, but in other places they more or less parallel the interstates. They’re slower, especially because they go through a lot of smaller towns, but they’re not heavily traveled for the most part. And the small towns can be a bonus. Stopping every so often to write things down (not to mention making a pit stop and stretching your legs) is useful and it’s easy to stop at a small town coffee shop (or at least a Dairy Queen) when you’re driving through town.
But some stretches of interstate highway are good: I-10 west of San Antonio. I-90 across South Dakota and Montana. Others aren’t particularly good: I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth and the entire length of I-95 (I’ve sat in miserable traffic on that highway in every state from Maine to Florida).
I realize that driving is not an environmentally friendly way to invoke one’s muse. My trusty Scion gets decent mileage, but driving anything with an internal combustion engine is not carbon neutral. It would be nice to if I could find my muse on public transportation.
But airplanes don’t do it for me — after going through the Kafka-esque security line and then being herded onto the plane with my fellow sheep and finally being wedged into a seat, I can barely read something challenging, much less be open to the muse.
Trains work. In fact, trains are great because you can write while traveling. But there aren’t a lot of good train options where I live. My muse is picky: catching a 5 AM train and having to change in Fort Worth or San Antonio is not conducive.
So I’ll stick with driving. I wrote most of this post in my head during the last leg of the trip home from Madison. And I was even stuck in traffic on I-35 while writing it.