Seeing through a glass, darkly

Unhurried imagination.

That phrase occurred in a passage Amanda quoted in her Tuesday column, and it… so to speak… caught my imagination. Because that’s not how my imagination – or Amanda’s, to judge from her comments – works. Ha! Imagination should only be so polite as to present itself in long, leisurely segments that fit my typing speed! It tends more to arrive with the speed and finesse of a runaway train!

A long time ago Diana Gabaldon told me something about her writing process that exactly described my own (Yeah, I know, too bad my results aren’t as wildly successful as hers). I’ll try to paraphrase from memory:

“You’re typing in a fog, trying to make out your characters from flashes of movement or the glimpse of a red coat, straining your ears to eavesdrop on them. Then, if you’re lucky, the fog lifts suddenly and you can see and hear exactly what’s going on.” And the thing to do then, we both agreed, was to thank the Muse politely and type as fast as you could before the fog came back down.

That’s one of the ways imagination works, and by far the most benign, though for beginning writers it can be a snare and a delusion. Experience that quasi-magical trance state once or twice, and they may be fooled into thinking that this is the only condition in which they can write. I’ve seen friends fall into that trap, and it’s very sad. They may spend the rest of their lives waiting for that fog to lift again. Because (pro tip) the best way to recreate that experience of the lifting fog is by recreating the precursor conditions: Butt in chair. Fingers on keys. Mind on story.

And that’s one of the ways, pace Amanda’s unnamed source who thinks we shouldn’t write so fast, that you get to 4, or 6, or more books a year. If you’re constantly courting the muse by producing words in a row, in the course of a year you’ll have a lot of those words lined up… even if the fog seldom lifts for you.

Other visitations from the Muse aren’t as conveniently timed, but you should offer thanks even if they result in socially awkward moments. One cannot, for instance, put down one’s fork at a dinner party and announce, “I’ve just figured out how I want to kill Baron Jenneret.” Not unless one’s dinner companions are also members of our peculiar club. Normal people get upset if you say things like that at dinner. Or on airplanes.

Once my head is well stuck into the current book, whether plotting or writing, I get ideas while I’m doing long tasks that temporarily preclude typing. Hand quilting a new quilt is good; it takes forever and I can hardly type while my hands are occupied with needle and thread. Long walks on hiking trails used to be good also, but unfortunately my bad knees have removed that option. The dentist’s office makes for a productive morning a couple of times a year – all that time staring at a blank ceiling while I concentrate on not thinking about what he’s going to do with that sharp, shiny tool. And this summer,  interminable PT sessions are some substitute for the long walks. I can worry about how to get my Regency heroine into a compromising situation while raising and lowering my right knee in any number of strange positions.

The ‘socially awkward’ part happens after the solution to a plotting problem flashes through my mind. Having my entire body occupied with supposedly therapeutic contortions, and being without a notebook, I try to remember the solution by condensing it into one sentence that I can mutter over and over until it’s engraved on my memory. This has led to some awkward conversations, like yesterday’s:

PT: “What was that? Something about healing? Am I doing something wrong?”

Me: “No, no, it’s just something I want to remember about the current book until I get a chance to write it down.”

PT: “You’re writing a book about healing?” (Probably a therapist’s worst nightmare, a patient who’s using him as material.)

Me: “No, no, it’s fantasy, I just figured out that I need a healing well that also protects against the evil eye.” (Under my breath: “Now are you happy?”)

PT: Huh who what that doesn’t make any sense.”

Me: “I’m a science fiction writer, I’m supposed to be weird.”

What kind of social complications has your imagination gotten you into lately?



  1. I don’t know about social, but today a coworker broke my aeseptic plane while I was in the lab. Because I had gifted her a copy of my latest book after we had a long conversation about reading (she loves to read) and she was so excited that it was a Real Book she had to come tell me. And lean on my bench while we chatted (she’s admin, not lab). Sigh. It was very nice of her to be so excited, though!

      1. It’s what I used to do when I was a nurse, clean a working area with alcohol to make it aeseptic. Though in this case, Cedar is working in a lab, but same rules apply.

      2. Exactly what Ashley described, only I had cleaned my working space (bench, think countertop area) to ensure it was free of DNA and microbes with a special solution. It’s not sterile, but a step below that.

        1. what, you mean Abby could have her hair down and loose and be switching from hacking a phone on her pc to the mass spectrometer to the centrifuge all without wearing gloves? [/sarc]

      3. Think “sterile field”.
        If you ever need to don sterile gloves, you quickly realize how difficult it is to keep things sterile.
        (Especially if you happen to be married to an ICU nurse who wants to make sure you’ll be able to do it right, quickly, under stressful situations!)

    1. Reading this and the comments makes me sooooo glad I haven’t been in a clean room in a long time – I don’t miss wiping equipment done, using super tight gloves in case I had to type, etc….

      1. I’m lucky – it’s barely a BSL lab, and PCR in our lab is not looking at human DNA so we don’t have to keep the level of sterility other labs must. It’s not as casual as the chemistry lab, though!

  2. This post reminds me of Maria Ostiz’s song La Musa No Viene Sola (transliteration: The Muse Doesn’t Come Alone)

    Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the either the song or the lyrics, and don’t have time to find my copy (on a tape somewhere!)

      1. “Video is unavailable”
        Not sure if that’s true for all of Youtube or just blocked for US

  3. Heh. I have a truly atrocious memory, so when story ideas pop up in inconvenient places, I must find a way to write them down, no matter what. And I do.

    I’ve begged paper and pen at the gym, jotted notes down on the backs of sales receipts, on my skin, on napkins, on a swatch of folded duct tape—whatever it takes to be sure I don’t lose that idea. 😉

  4. Clueless Normie(CN):”So, your character is trans?”

    Me: “No. Her body is female, fully and genetically. Her memories from being a male, her personality, everything that makes up human consciousness, was downloaded into the new body. She’s female.”

    CN: “So, your character is trans? What is her gender identification? Xie? Hir?”

    Me: “She’s female. ‘Her’ is what she calls herself, when it isn’t ‘ma’am.’ Anything else is things made by stupid narcissists that clearly haven’t been spanked enough as children.”

    CN: “So, your character is trans! That’s easy, now I understand, but you’re being ignorant about trans rights and LGBTQAAAA++++ inclusion and…”

    (Hits CN in the face with a pipe wrench.)

    Got a lot more of these…

  5. I really must invest in a handheld voice recorder and keep it with me at all times, including on the nightstand. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a great idea while I’m drowsy, don’t do anything about writing down, and an hour later I’ve lost most of the details.

    Just yesterday, I went into the store where I do some accounting a couple of days a week, and one of the checkers came running over to me with my first book and a pen. “My husband said I have to get you to sign this book!” I find that thing embarrassing in general, but the fact a bunch of tourists turned around to stare at me, trying to figure out if they should care, made it way worse. They quickly discerned I wasn’t anyone they cared about and went back to buying overpriced snacks. I was relieved, but a little disappointed at the same time. My poor, silly ego.

    1. There’s an app for that. (And you can most likely transcribe it into exportable form, as well. )

      If you’re going to have a smartphone, you might as well make use of it.

  6. One of the nice quirks of modern life is that almost any cell phone has a way to write a quick email or note, and most people are quite willing to give you a moment to write a quick email. You don’t have to tell them that you are sending it to yourself…

  7. A friend years ago related how he and his wife were in a small restaurant. The patrons quickly cleared out when he asked his wife (in a normal voice volume) “How can I poison XX people and have it look accidental?”.
    Norms are funny about things like that. They’d be more terrified if they could actually see what we think about at times.

    1. I was so excited to find out this week that there is a treatment for thallium poisoning — pharmaceutical grade Prussian blue.

      But it is also the treatment for cesium poisoning, so you have to get it from nuclear/public health stockpiles. So suddenly this jerk poisoner had a boatload of FBI and radiation and public health officials up his butt. Could not have happened to a more deserving guy!

  8. My favourite writing mantra, stolen from KKR is, “Inspiration just called and said to tell you he’s not coming today so start without him.

    Makes me laugh every time.

  9. I get some of my best scenes while driving long distances. One con in Dallas . . . I checked into the hotel, got to my room, grabbed the laptop and started writing. I haven’t the faintest idea what I missed . . . at the con.

  10. Roald Dahl thought along on similar lines – he would scribble ideas as they came to him. And if he had interesting dreams, he would scribble notes about them first thing, before he forgot.

  11. BTW, to get back on topic, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t think authors should dumb down, but maybe we can make sure references or unusual words can be guessed from context or aren’t critical.

    (A somewhat related side note: I write tech documents that are primarily used by people in Asia, so English isn’t their first language. I do try to watch my vocabulary and style a bit, but I’m not sure what words they do or don’t know).

  12. Margaret, I’m not a writer but as I’ve finally caught up with the MGC comments again, I will take this opportunity to tell you that I have just finished re-reading “Salt Magic” and I liked it even better the second time. Thank you for putting it on KU!

    I’m looking forward to whatever you publish next. 😉

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