Stalking the Wild Muse: On the Road Again

MusemedA series exploring the props, habits, and drugs that fuel the writer’s productivity. Past, present and future! Look for BVC writers, plus other authors we know and love.

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.

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Stalking the Wild Muse: On the Road Again — 7 Comments

  1. You didn’t mention it, but I bet that it is essential to drive alone. You could not think properly with another person beside you in the car, changing the radio station, fidgeting with the GPS or the newspaper, demanding to stop at the next gas station, noisily sipping soda through a straw.
    Reading these things, I realize how much of the process involves diverting one part of the consciousness, so that the other part can work freely. Driving obviously uses part of your brain, but only part — the other part is untrammeled and can gallop off into the wilds of fiction. I find that church services also do the same thing, forcing me to sit still and relax.

    • Yes, driving alone is the best. But it’s also OK if you’re traveling with another person who likes to read or drift off into their own thoughts. If you’re traveling with someone you enjoy talking to, you get good conversation which may also lead to good ideas, but you don’t get those creative flashes from your muse.

      I think you’re right about why it works, too. And, of course, nasty traffic or other complications screw it up.

      I imagine if you’re driving with small children in the back seat who fight with each other and ask “Are we there yet” every 15 minutes it wouldn’t work. My mother used to drive my sister and me across the state of Texas every summer, back in the days before the average person’s car had AC. I admire her more with each passing year.

      I’ve got several solo road trips planned this summer and am looking forward to what comes up from them.

  2. I agree about the coffee. I drink fearsome amounts when I am pushing to finish a story. I also agree about travel. I-90 in South Dakota is fabulous. Since I don’t drive, I travel with Patrick, but we get along really well when traveling. Talk is not required. I am pretty much a stick-in-the-mud, so travel is unsettling. When I get home I am so happy with a familiar place and familiar routines. But the travel stirs me up in useful ways. The unsettling gives me new things to think and write about. I could not have written “Mammoths of the Great Plains” without our trips to the Dakotas.

    • Doing things that unsettle you is probably another way to invoke the muse.

      And I love traveling across South Dakota. In the spring and early summer, the high grass blows in the wind. The land rolls a lot, especially near the Missouri, and then you’ve got the Badlands and the Black Hills in the west.

  3. Driving to new places does nothing for me — all travel is too disturbing, I suppose. Commuting — a well-known route — always works. Being forced to sit and do nothing, if I don’t fall asleep, works well. Lectures. Meetings. Sermons. It helps to have my knitting on hand, so that I don’t fall asleep — droning male voices are very soporific, like the buzzing of giant bees.

  4. Interesting that Eleanor finds long distance travel “unsettling” and Brenda “disturbing.” I find dealing with large cities when I’m on the road unsettling and disturbing, but I don’t feel that way about low traffic highway travel or small towns.

    Commuting doesn’t work well for me. Traffic interrupts my flow. And the trouble with meetings is that someone always says something that I feel the need to respond to. I should know better, but …

    • BTW, this all demonstrates that there is no “right” way to be a writer or get inspired, etc. Much as I like hanging out in coffee shops, I’ve given up trying to write in them. It’s much easier to write in my office, where the keyboard is the right height and the monitor is big. I do sometimes take my work to coffee shops to edit.