The Muse

The only chair in my office aside from the one I work at is a loveseat that sits in front of me, across from the desk. Nevertheless, whenever I sit down to write, it doesn’t take long before I inevitably feel the presence of someone just behind me, usually over my left shoulder. Standing before the bookcase where the reference works reside in lonely isolation these days, all of them remembering the halcyon days before the Internet when they had purpose.

Some people talk about the muse as something separate from story — an entity, a presence distinct from you and the work that helps to connect you to the work. My experience has always been different.

For me, the best moment attainable in the process of writing — the point at which you realize you’re actually writing, not just typing — is the moment when the characters take over. At some magical, unlooked for, unseekable point, you realize that the characters are the ones writing the story, and that you’re only along for the ride, transcribing what they say and do as fast as you possibly can. And when that doesn’t happen fast enough, I can feel those characters standing behind me, just over my left shoulder. Reminding me that I’m falling down on my commitment to bring their stories to life. Telling me how I should write those stories.

The moment when you understand that your characters are alive is the moment when story happens.

Some years ago, I was working on a feature screenplay — a small-town Canadian hockey homecoming story (yeah, I know, that old thing). The main character was a young lawyer who had grown up in the aforementioned small town, raised by his older brother after his parents died. After having left his hometown and abandoning both his brother and his girlfriend immediately after graduating high school, the character makes a forced return to the hometown and the erstwhile girlfriend after his older brother dies, an uncomfortable and emotional journey that’s the core of the script. This was a point dangerously early in my writing “career,” but the script was pretty good nonetheless, with some solid character story and some good emotion and a number of jokes that people other than me laughed at when they read it. But even as wrote the story, I had this nagging feeling that something was missing.

I did a second draft. I improved the character story, I made the one sex-comedy sequence I quite liked even funnier. Still something missing. I set the draft aside, then came back to read it with fresh eyes. Still missing. I went back to a couple of the better screenwriting books I relied on for guidance in those days. I broke the story down to beats, down to character arcs to try to figure out where it was coming up short. Nothing.

I did a third draft. I moved a few scenes around, cut this bit, added another bit. Still something missing, and by this point I was starting to freak out a little bit. Because even though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, I had come to instinctively know that what was missing was something important. Something big. An emptiness at the heart of the story that I could feel but not see, but that made no sense given how closely I was looking.

Then just at the point when I was prepared to give up, when I was ready to let the script go even though I knew something was wrong, I was flipping through it doing a fast proof-read when I saw a thing I hadn’t noticed before. The thing that was missing — only it wasn’t actually missing from the story itself, which explained why I hadn’t been able to see it. Because with a certain amount of embarrassment, I realized that I’d never established how the main character’s parents had died. A stupid mistake. A bit of backstory glossed over because it had only ever been a minor setup to define the strength of the relationship between the brothers. An easy fix, a couple of lines of dialogue thrown in somewhere.

And then a revelation hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. With a feeling that I can only describe as akin to being kicked in the chest, I sat motionless at my desk and I realized — it wasn’t that I had forgotten to mention how the characters’ parents died. It wasn’t just a bit of missed backstory, a minor slip-up of plot.

The character was hiding that truth from me.

The truth of what happened to his parents was a thing buried deep within the character — a thing he never spoke of to anyone. A thing hidden at the very heart of who he was, and of why had left his small hometown immediately after graduating high school.

A thing that he had kept hidden even from me.

And I felt him standing behind me then. Watching me, seething with the same rage that had threaded through him since he was a boy, screaming at me to not do this thing, to not make him reveal this truth, to not force him look at this thing that haunted him.

I didn’t listen, and I added the one scene that the script was missing — the scene where the past and the present met and everything the character did, everything he had done, came together. The scene that completed the story, and which elevated it from the level of something that was simply pretty good to something built around a foundational emotional truth. And when it was done, both of he and I collapsed, and I held him and I let him weep on my shoulder like he wept in the pages of that new scene, and I swear by whatever passes for god in my life that I felt the pain in him as starkly as I’d ever felt it from any living person.

The moment when you understand that your characters are alive is the moment when story happens.

Someone is reading this over my shoulder, telling me impatiently that it’s done. Telling me I’ve spent long enough on blogging, and on answering emails, and on paperwork, and on editing an anthology, and on putting the finishing touches on the layout for my daughter’s first book. Reminding me that he’s got a story to tell.