Monsters in the Sea of Distraction (Rescuing the Muse)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have attempted to cast my tiny vessel out into the Seas of Distraction, to traverse their waters and find myself triumphantly on the other side, one step closer to my Muse locked away in her dragon guarded castle. Every day I tighten the ropes that hold my little raft together and push her out into the unrelenting waves. Each time I set out the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. By the time I make it fifty feet away from my isolated shores, they have darkened. Gray clouds heavy with rain roll in from the horizon, bleed across the sky as the wind rallies it forward. Each time I cling to my little raft as the waves pummel me to the wooden deck, intent on knocking me down like set of bowling pins. 

I can feel a stirring in the waters around me, a shadow moving beneath the frothing surface of the sea. I cling tighter to my vessel, squinting through the salty spray flying back at me from the bottomless abyss. I am afraid to look, hoping and praying that the movement I catch out of the corner of my eye is just a trick the water is playing on me. But no, I have spotted this beast from the safety of my shores, turned my head away time and again when the serpent of the sea railed against the Earth. The shadow circles slowly, not quite touching my vessel, but I know it is only a matter of time. I know she is waiting, sizing me up; the mouse that has come out of its hole to play.

The slap of flesh against water electrifies the air behind me. I whip my head around and just make out the tip of a tentacle slipping back below the waves. She is toying with me now, waiting to see how I will react. But there is nothing I can do from here. She is too large and I carry no weapons. So I do all I can; I cling to my raft and pray she gets bored. 

Another slap echoes to the left of me. I close my eyes and refuse to look. Why watch my own destruction when I am utterly helpless to change anything? The raft jars as the next slash hits closer to home. A hefty jab pushes my sorry excuse for a boat high in the air, and suddenly I’m flying through the salty sea spray before plummeting back to the frigid waters below. The waves wash over me, flooding into my lungs, tearing me from the little wooden deck that is my only salvation. I find myself sinking into the sea, unsure of which way is up and which is down. I kick and thrash, desperately searching for the sanctuary that is the open air. But I can’t find it before everything goes dark.

I awake with fresh air in my lungs and an expanse of twinkling little lights speckled across an expansive blackened sky. Not even the slightest breeze is ruffling my clothes, which are stuck to my body, crusty with sand and dried salt. The storm has once again passed. I know without even inspecting my surroundings that I am back on my island. Driftwood settles on the beach beside me, carried in on a lazy tide. The remnants of my tiny ship, my only companion in this desolate place. Tomorrow I will collect the pieces, lash them together, and try once again. Perhaps I will only get through one wave, perhaps I will finally make it to that distant shore. But for tonight, I will lay back in turn my face to the stars. I have not given up, no, not yet. 

The funny thing about a bad habit: it doesn’t want to let you go. My Digital Detox: well, let’s just say that I have fallen off my raft a couple of times in the attempt. It’s harder than you think to release a lifeline when you are afraid of drowning. I thought that this journey would be a simple one: declutter my mind by simplifying my life, rekindle the spark of inspiration with all that fresh space. I thought a week away from Shop Titans and Facebook would give me the clarity that I needed to focus on my goals. And yet, what I learned: the distractions are merely a symptom of what is truly wrong. To cross the Sea of Distraction you have to understand why you decided to swim to that little island to begin with. And this, my friend, is the most terrifying monster of all.

It is never an easy task to look within yourself and search for your own monster; that little gremlin within you that’s constantly fighting your every push towards success. I buried myself in distraction to keep my brain from turning to the one thing that could cripple it. I left my mind intentionally shallow because I was terrified of how deep my waters could go if I allowing myself to truly explore their depths. It can be a dark place at times, diving into the heart of your own soul.

I used to be laser focused, I could do it all: work full time while taking a full load of college courses, walking the dog every night and maintaining my relationships while still keeping up on my TBR pile. I could finish a first draft of an entire novel in less than a month and still have some energy leftover to edit. I could kick ass, take names, dance backward in high heels and smile about it the whole time. Granted, I worked myself to the point of panic attacks, so I can’t say it was always healthy. But I could do it. I could put my head down and work. And now? Now I keep myself so busy with mindless activity that I never stop to think my own thoughts. It was safer that way, I reasoned. If I didn’t slow down, then I wouldn’t have time to feel everything, I wouldn’t have time to consider whether I had truly dealt with the demons I claimed to have slain already.

My biggest problem when breaking away from distraction? The silence it left me with.

When you slow down and stop staring out at all of the shiny things in the world, you are forced to look within yourself. If you are anything like me: you perhaps have a few boxes that haven’t been unpacked yet. When you slow down, you are forced to open up those little cardboard nests and delve into what they have to offer. You will be tempting to shy away, to turn up the music as loud as you can and shut your eyes so you don’t have to look. But if you do that- the monster will just toss you back into the sea, and you’ll be starting back at the beginning; do not pass go, do not collect $200.

My distractions stem from events that took place a year ago. I was on a very particular path, one that filled me with the most immense joy I have ever know. And then the world shattered and swallowed me whole. Suddenly everything I had been so sure about went up in flames like it had been drenched in gasoline. I was left standing there in shock with the ashes raining down around me like snow. I spent the next year rebuilding, recreating a version of me I could live with. But there was a portion I didn’t touch, a piece of my future I still couldn’t sort out on my own. I spent the next year in a self-imposed limbo: too terrified to ask myself “What now?” What would I do if I path I had planned for my whole life eroded away, what would I do if I could never find it again? I didn’t want to answer the question. So I didn’t let myself ask it. I turned away and looked at something else until the desire for questioning had passed.

I built up these tiny habits all in an effort to fill the silence that my brain desperately wanted to use for thoughts I wasn’t ready to explore. I became too good at my own game, running to distraction until I began to veer towards it without any prompting, building habits out of nothing; habits that still don’t want to be fully broken. I pretended it wasn’t a problem until I couldn’t pretend anymore. When you fill every crack with something loud and shiny, you begin to lose focus. The distractions sapped away the thing that I prized above everything else: my spark, my voice, the creativity that makes me feel like I’m actually engaged in this life. It was time to break the cycle and face the truth I had hidden from.

I’ve been fighting this monster for several weeks now. Truthfully, I expected to be well on the path to adventure, the Muse nearly in my grasp. But I didn’t anticipate the strength of the beast I had created. One day I will be great: allowing my brain to wander in the silence, phone away, words pouring from my pen onto paper, rediscovering the things I was once so passionate about. And then other days I am lost in the sounds, filled to capacity with everything bright and shiny. I am playing a tug of war over my own attention.

And yet, a few days ago I think I may have finally made some progress. After a week of near-panic attack moments I found myself on the verge of tears for no apparent reason as my partner and I drove to his parents’ house for dinner. I was staring out at the trees and the river as we drove towards the town of our childhood, and something cracked inside. Finally, I spoke up, filling the silence in the car with the questions I was too afraid to ask on my own, “What do we do now, if this never works out for us? What will happen if I have to find a new path? What kind of life will help me find a new happy?”

I didn’t have an answer that night. But we started talking over milkshakes from our favorite drive-thru. It was liberating in a way, facing these questions that had haunted me for a year- but facing them with someone beside me, someone who knew how to turn my worst-case into something less scary, someone who had survived the same heartbreak I had when the earth shattered a year ago. Saying it out loud made the fears less powerful, it dulled the pain because it acknowledged that it existed.

I still don’t have an answer to my question. I still have no idea where my path is going to lead. But I’m finally learning to take steps towards something, even though I’m entirely sure what that ‘something’ is. To defeat the monster you don’t have to come up with the perfect solution. This isn’t that kind of story. To slay the beast you must simply stand your ground and face it. You have to surrender to silence and learn to live in it again. You have to stop hiding behind screens and noises and shiny things.

The first monster you will be forced to face as you wade through the Sea of Distraction: the one you created yourself, the one that is keeping you locked on your island. Good luck, my friends, it is an unrelenting foe.

Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

She stands in the window of the tower, staring forlornly at a world she no longer belongs to. She remembers what it had been like, back when she could escape these four walls that held her. She remembers the way the dewy grass felt underfoot as she ran across the early morning fields. She can picture what it was like to sit beside a crackling fire sharing stories, fingers sticky with melting sugars and cheeks sore from laughter. The girl sighs, turning back into the dark and dingy room. That had been her life before; before the monsters came and stole her away in the dead of night. They whisked her off to this far away place and locked her in a fortress, destined to be forgotten by the world below.

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, hauntingly sad eyes staring straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I, myself, created. This isn’t the first time the damsel in distress needed rescuing; though the walls to this tower seem much thicker than they once were, the monsters are bolder, aware of all of my usual tricks.

Nonetheless, I take a deep breath and picture a tiny little hero stepping onto the field, long brown hair blowing in the wind in the striking way that only Hollywood can achieve. Her tall leather boots are tied all the way up her shins. Her traveling clothes are bedraggled and threadbare from the climb to this precarious place. The hilt of a silver sword glints at her hip , and a roughly hewn wooden shield bounces against her back as she steps forward. She takes a moment to tie her hair back into a neat little bun before squaring her shoulders and grasping her weapon in one hand. She glares at the tower, eyes scanning every brick and grasping vine of ivy on its way to the top. She is here to save the damsel, to rescue her Muse from the grasping clutches of the emboldened enemy.

My inner struggle with writer’s block has turning into a raging battle. It has become a ruthless war of creativity; a struggle for the words that will save the Muse from her dragon-guarded keep. In truth, it is no wonder that the inner war has grown so intense; I never slow down long enough to allow myself to create. By the time I am finally able to sit down and spill a few words from my soul, I discover that the well has run dry. I am simply exhausted.

We live in a world that is constantly vying for our attention, overly connected and tuned in to every shift of the wind. We fill every single moment with a distraction, not wanting to miss out on anything important. We don’t even notice our attention span starting to ebb as we switch from reading entire magazines to glancing at snapshot headlines. We never realized that we were locking our Muse away behind a wall of notifications, locking her in a paper mâché prison of to-do lists. We fed the beasts of distraction never realizing that they were suffocating our creativity. We didn’t notice until we ran out of words, until the mocking blank page was too painful to stare at anymore.

Cultivating a mental and physical environment for creativity is a daunting task in the modern age. And yet the only way to rescue the Muse is to fight for her; to give her the nurturing space that will allow her to fight for herself. So, how do we save her, my friends? Like any true adventure: we must peek at the map.

The Map to the Muse:

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

My lovely band of wayward adventurers, we are currently marooned on the Island of the Lost (bottom left of the map: that little campfire, that is our humble little home base). The mission: to get to the upper righthand side of the map: the dragon-guarded keep imprisoning our Muse. To begin this journey we must do the unthinkable: traverse the Sea of Distractions. Do not let it’s alluring waves fool you- this trek is not for the faint of heart. To survive this first challenge we must do the single thing that strikes fear into the hearts of even the bravest traveler: learn to be bored.

Science has shown a direct link between boredom and creativity. There is a reason why most of us get our best ideas while in the shower (about 72% of people have reported this is where most people have their greatest eureka moments). There is something about the combination of a mind finally able to wander aimlessly in whichever direction it chooses, coupled with the vulnerability and intimacy of standing naked under a stream of water. Our brains are wired for stimulation; and when we can’t get it from the outside world, we create it on the inside. Boredom gives your brain a chance to fire different neurons, processing events that have taken place, making new connections between unrelated ideas, working through problems, and providing insights that can lead you down the path of inspiration.

Unfortunately for us, we live in a world of constant connection. We are on a never-ending loop of notifications, plugged into the world around us, desperate to soak it all in so we don’t miss anything. While technology is capable of making our lives so much better: connecting us to people we would never meet otherwise, giving us valuable information with the tap of a finger, or simply help us manage our day-to-day lives; it is also far too easy to get drunk with the power you carry in the palm of your hand. Much like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, our techy sidekicks have both the light side and the dark side within them. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be slipping towards the dark more often than not.

This first hurdle for me is going to be one of the hardest: detoxing from the distractions in order to open myself up for more creative thought. There will be a lot of trial and error, perhaps some painful insights and diving deeper into the root of why I let my monsters steal my Muse without much of a fight.

Tonight we gather around the fire one last time before climbing into our rickety row boat in the morning. So tell me, my friends, when you face the Sea of Distractions: what kind of monsters are lurking below the surface? And do we dare to face them together?

Tell Me a Story (Writing Prompt): Fears of the Future

Write a story inspired by the prompt and/or the photograph below. All styles and word counts welcome. May the odds be ever in your favor, my friends.

“Much like Icarus flying too close to the sun, our arrogance had been our undoing. In our boastful confidence, we never took the threat seriously. We had been giants for far too long to feel the true danger we were in; not once did we realize that we were Goliath on the verge of meeting David. Oh, how the world shook when we toppled. Some celebrated, some mourned; but everyone knew that nothing would ever be the same again. The meek did not inherit this earth, something more sinister did. That was a generation ago, and we still have not found our road to redemption.”

Original photo taken by myself in Seattle, WA. Shamelessly filtered later
Be bold and brave: leave a link to your story (or the story itself) down in the comments.

The Allure of the Mythical Vampire

We all privately crave the darkness and the dangers that are lurking within. We want to feel our blood rushing through our veins as our heart pounds in our chests; we love to be scared, to feel slightly out of control. Fear, if done correctly, can be intoxicating, daring you to remember how alive you really are- and how quickly that can change.

Many of us stopped fearing the things that go bump in the night when we grew out of our dinosaur pajamas. Instead, those fears began to morph, to change to more practical terrors: burglars, natural disasters, the math teacher, taxes. And yet there is still a part of us that might ensure that the closet door is actually closed before going to sleep, because you never know when the boogeyman will decide to reanimate beside your hanging sweatshirts and wreak havoc on the living- for old time’s sake.

Vampires have inundated popular culture in recent years; books, movies, TV shows- we see them everywhere. However, when you look through history, this is not a solitary incident. The popularity of the fanged creatures ebbs and flows, standing out as a beacon, peppered periodically throughout the ages. They embody the fears of the time periods that created them, allowing us to analyze our very real fears through the lens of fiction. Lets take Dracula, as an example- the epitome of the vampire novel. Bram Stoker wrote this book in 1897. At the time, England had the largest ports in the world- which led to a general widespread fear of incoming diseases, foreigners and immigrants. Stoker brought to life the fears of his contemporaries by bringing a foreign monster onto European soil. He wasn’t the only one, this same rule seems to apply to every time period that has reawakened that love of the paranormal. For example in the 80’s- vampires were written as parasites, a disease to be spread from one unsuspecting human to another. This also happened to coincide with the AIDS epidemic, a fear which raced like wildfire through unsuspecting communities.

Fast forward a few decades- what about now? Surely I can’t honestly tell you that the inner workings of the brooding Stephan Salvator or his opposing badass brother, Damen (thank you, Vampire Diaries), could really be telling us something about the psyche of our current society? In fact, I thinks that’s exactly what I’m about to do. If you look through virtually any modern vampire story- The Vampire Diaries, True Blood (or the Sookie Stackhouse series if you prefer the books), The Vampire Chronicles, even Twilight- you will notice a very common thread tying them all together. They concern themselves with the battle of morality vs self acceptance. What is the line between man and monster? Every human being carries within themselves a darkness, as much as we would like to ignore our genetics, it is there. The question is how far do we allow ourselves to delve into this darkness? It is about balancing our desires. When we read about vampires, we are given a venue to explore our darkest desires from a safe vantage point. Whatever that darkness entails: a thirst for power, for vengeance, sexual gratification- it doesn’t matter.

We live in a world filled with fear and a strong sense of the social norm. Our world is unstable, filled with greed, corruption, war, constant fear of job loss, a tumultuous housing market- is it really any wonder that we gravitate towards fiction that circles around a being that is powerful enough to transcend our current problems? They embody the cold control that we do not have in our own lives.

They are all of the things that we wish we could be. They are powerful, but not in an obvious way. They are strong- without the bulging biceps that would give their strength away. They don’t need any gizmos or gadgets, they can be completely autonomous in their actions. They are the loners who are never lonely- thriving in a solitary existence where we flounder, hoping and praying to find someone to befriend. We want to be self-reliant and independent, but we are not.

The fears that encumber us mean nothing to them. Imagine- living in perpetual youth without the constant fear of equalizing death hanging over your head. What would you do, what would you try- if you knew that you had all of the time that the world had to offer you? We can imagine the context of our own mortality, as well as the things that are truly important to us- when we envision a life without the limitations of time. They survive and endure.

Vampires embody all that is desirable to us, they are the bad boys we mistakenly thought we could reform in high school. They provide us with a sense of danger, they are selfish without apology. There is a certain hazardous rush that comes with the concept of knowing that another carries full control over you- they could protect you with every fiber of their being, or destroy you in a single heartbeat. If they want something, they have no qualms about pursuing it, taking it, and enjoying every last moment of it.

There is also that interesting concept that pops up in many versions of these stories- it is the element of the discovery. It’s exciting to think that others are not, in fact, what you would expect them to be. Much as you are aware that you have aspects to your own being that those closest to you would be shocked to find out. We live our lives behind masks, always forgetting that we are not the only one.

Vampires exist as metaphors for our deepest desires, the ones that we hide from the rest of the world. When we read about them or watch them, we get to delve into that piece of us that rarely sees daylight. Our entertainment is a reflection of our lives. It embodies the pieces of ourselves that we are not comfortable openly discussing, so we mask them in the shades of our fiction, wrapping them up in make-believe until we feel we are at a safe enough distance.

 

World Building Brick by Brick

A truly gifted author will transport you to another realm without you even noticing. You can smell the stench wafting from the gutters, hear the clicking of your boots on the marble floors, feel the droplets of rain pattering against your hood, dripping onto your nose. You will nod your head in agreement, faintly believing in the back of your mind that you have been to this world before, you have run your fingers over the mortar of it’s brickwork, you have listened to the locals bicker about politics by the flickering flames of a campfire or stared in deep concentration at a map trying to figure out how to get back to the main road. A talented writer will gently lie to you, lulling you into the dream of a world that never existed. When you wake from it, you will ache for that place, long for a world you desperately wish you could hop in your car and drive to.

So how do you build castles from thin air? I know I will probably never join the ranks of J.R.R Tolkien, J.K Rowling, or Patrick Rothfuss when it comes to their detailed worlds, but I would like to think I have learned a few things over the years. I love creating an entire society out of nothing but my words. I am an over-planner, I thrive on details. The vast majority of what I plan doesn’t actually make it into my novel, but it does influence the way that I write and helps me give my world a certain feel, painting it in the appropriate shades. It creates authenticity out of something that is essentially a lie.

You will be tempted to color your world from the moment the reader opens the first page; this in itself is not necessarily bad, you want your reader to be able to visualize your creation. However, a twenty thousand word explanation of the culture and socio-economic strengths and weaknesses will not draw your reader in, enticing them to turn the page. If you want to teach them about dragons, don’t have a character regurgitate a text book; perhaps create an argument between two of them, maybe one does not believe and the other swears he has seen them. The scene may be longer, but your reader will walk away with more than just a bulleted list of information. They will learn about the culture through the argument, the beliefs of the characters that will fill your pages, and perhaps they’ll start to get a feel for how your characters view one another. Their is an art to the way you present your world; usually less can be so much more. Don’t tell them, show them with subtle hints and clues. Describe your world for them through actions, not through flourishing paragraphs that, though beautiful, do not actually add to your plot.

As I said before, I over-create. I like to make the background of my story as rich as I can, though only a small percentage of it might make it into the final product. I want to understand my world. Over the years I have created a general worksheet to help me plan. It gives me a roadmap, a template that I can base the rest of my work on. With this new map, I can find the foundation that I need for a consistent story; at the end of the day, it is the consistency that will make your novel feel genuine. It’s only a general outline, every story will have different areas that might need more vetting out before I start my actual writing.

If you decide that you might be interested in trying it out yourself, you can find a Word and PDF version, along with other little goodies I like to use, on my resources page right here:

Top Shelf: Writing Resources

That page is continuously updated, so feel free to check back again for new content.

Without further ado, I present to you:

The World Building Worksheet

Physical Traits:

  • World Name:
  • Type:
    • Planetary: Earth? If not, what is the planet like? Mostly rock? Three moons? A purple sun?
    • Style: Is it more medieval, modern or futuristic? Steampunk? Magical?
    • Style: Is it more medieval, modern or futuristic? Steampunk? Magical?
  • Geography:
    • Make a map (surprisingly fun, no artistic talents required)
    • Where are your major resources and settlements: Such as rivers, forests, lakes, agricultural , etc. (keep in mind the people you will have living there and how they will survive, along with any social issues that might cause- for example, fighting over resources)
    • Climate: Keep in mind your general geography, as well as the people living in each area

Settlements and Societies:

  • Settlements: I usually do a separate sheet for each major settlement
    • Type: City, Town, Village
    • Population:
    • Layout/Geography: are the houses close together, far apart? Is it clean, dirty?
    • Security: Gates surrounding, soldiers, form of law enforcement (if any)
    • Allies and enemies:
    • Building types: wood, brick, etc.
    • Technology Level:
    • Transportation:
    • What are the inhabitants: certain type of creatures, magical, race
    • Education system:
    • Type of medicine: doctor, priest, wizard
    • Major professions of the people: Mining community, predominantly agricultural
    • Economy:
      • Rich area/poor area:
      • Monetary system:
        • Type of currency:
        • Trade:
    • What resources do they use:
    • What resources do they need:
    • Political system/Government:
      • Type of government:
      • Local leaders:
      •  cities/people that may rule over them:
    • Religion:
    • Language:
  • Creatures/Types of People: (for this subject, it is good to create a separate page for each creature/type of people)
    • What creatures populate your realm:
    • Where do they live:
    • Clothing styles:
    • Their allies and enemies:
    • Interesting facts/histories:

Magical Elements

  • Magic: (if any)
    • What type of system (ex: arcane, dark, etc.)
    • How does it work:
    • The magic laws:
      • What can be done with the magic and how:
      • What cannot be done:
    • How do people feel about it:
    • Who can use it and who can’t:

World Background

  • History:
    • Major wars or conflicts:
      • Key players:
      • How it started:
      • Major battles/events:
      • Who won and how:
      • The aftermath: (how were the people treated, how did they rebuild themselves, any remaining grudges)
    • Key figures:
      • Why they are important:
    • Current conflicts:
      • How they began:
      • Current status:
      • The ‘sides’:
        • Prejudices between groups:
      • Reasons:
        • Ways to fix them:
    • Important myths/lore:

 

Urban Fantasy

I’ve done it! After hours of internal debates over several days- I have finally decided what my Camp Nano project will be. In the spirit of my goals for this year- I am trying something new. That’s right, I am dropping my security blanket and venturing out onto new literary avenues. This nano, I will be delving into the world that is: Urban Fantasy. I’ve done straight fantasy, futuristic dystopian-style works, regular fiction: I’ve followed down many of the other branches, but the urban style was new to me. In fact, it is actually fairly new to the literary world in general; it did not become an acknowledged sub-genre until the late 80’s to early 90’s.

Urban fantasy is a very specific collection of works in which the piece itself is set primarily in the ‘real world’ with paranormal/fantasy elements. A few examples would be: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grimm, Supernatural, The Belador series, The Mortal Instruments- the list goes on and on. Now, it’s not a necessity that these stories take place in contemporary times; any futuristic or historical setting is also acceptable.

Personally, my biggest question about this genre: how is it different from Paranormal Romance (because to be honest, a lot of what I’ve read looks like it could fit in either category). As it turns out, about 90% of the elements of both genres are fairly intertwined; these are the fraternal twins of the written world. The key difference: if you remove the romantic element, do you still have a story? If your answer is no- you are well within the boundary of paranormal romance, but if you said yes- then you still stand a chance. A paranormal romance focuses on the relationship itself and how the outside forces effect it, whereas urban fantasy can survive even if that relationship is edited to become a platonic one.

It’s grown momentum rather quickly in the modern era, where we are so quick to welcome any escape from the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. After all, don’t we all secretly wish we could gain some kind of power, transform into our favorite animal and slink off on an adventure? Or perhaps find ourselves entrenched as a key party to a subtly fought war between vampires and werewolves (this is where the paranormal romance aspect starts to look good). I will have no shortage of inspiration as I begin my trek down this winding path. Perhaps this will be a niche I didn’t know I belonged in. There is only one way to find out.