Multicultural Muses

Muses to Inspire Creativity

The Story as Muse

How stories of other writers inspire and inform our own work.

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated September 10, 2018

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"We hereby give you creative license to speak your own truth and express your story in your own words. We give you permission to create indiscriminately, just as you wish — wildly, freely, and without asking permission from anyone. Tell your tale, paint your masterpiece, sing your song. Tango with the Muses. We send you inspiration, strength, creative energy, and our wildest hopes and dreams!"

Signed, Jennie Nash, Author, and Molly Anderson-Childers, Writer/Artist

How can the stories of other writers — true or fictional — inspire and inform our own work? Writers are often voracious readers, and with good cause. We have much to learn from the stories, letters, diaries, and memoirs of others.

Art projects and writing prompts based on your favorite books and authors can be an interesting way to use stories as a jumping-off point to inspire new work. Also, reading is a good way to learn the basics of writing your own stories, and to familiarize yourself with the tools and mechanics of the writing trade. It is often given as a general rule for writers to read the type of work that they themselves wish to write. If you want to write romance novels, you must read romance novels, young writers are generally told.

My own advice is to read a little bit of everything — literary promiscuity is your watchword. Be bold and unafraid to try new things. I have found many new favorite authors this way. The classics have a lot to teach — but so do the modern-day poets printing their own zines in secret, dingy rooms. Raw unfiltered genius, hot off the presses — but you'd never know that unless you picked up that little broadside in the local coffee-shop. Read anything you can get your hands on. Read every Banned Book you can find. Read anything classified as subversive, rebellious, revolutionary.

You will find some extraordinary ideas this way. You'll also find a lot of bloated rants, soap-box conspiracy theorists, and plain old bad writing, but I maintain that you can even learn from the horrible stuff; you can soon begin to recognize it, judge it for what it is, and learn how not to write.

For the purposes of my discussion, I have chosen several of my favorite novels: Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood; The Only True Genius in the Family, by Jennie Nash; White Oleander, by Janet Fitch; The Incantation of Frida K., by Kate Braverman; and The Probable Future, by Alice Hoffman. These remarkable works of fiction are books which I have found to be truly inspirational. I also wish to include the works of memoirist Mary Karr: The Liars' Club, and Cherry in this discussion. Her bare-bones truth-telling style speaks to me on a gut level. She's one writer who's not afraid to tell it like it is, and in this age of politically correct mealy-mouthing, that is something of a relief.

These books, though some are novels, and others — deeply personal memoirs — all share a common theme, and one which truly speaks to me. In these books, the main character is an artist, writer, or other unusually gifted soul who must come to terms with and accept her unique gifts, ultimately discovering the healing and redemptive powers of creative work and following one's dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As a struggling artist and writer, reading these books has inspired me to continue my creative work, no matter what obstacles stand in my way, and to dare to believe in my dreams.

Look for books with a universal theme that speaks to you. Read to inform your own work: Dialogue, strong characters, setting, plot, pacing — all of these things are essential parts of a story. Some writers do them well; some do them badly — again, you can learn from everyone, even if you're learning what not to do.

How do your favorite writers tell a story? How do they deal with flash-backs? Dream sequences? Memories? Does the story's language and pacing hook you from the beginning, or does it take a few chapters to get really interesting? When you're especially intrigued by a certain character, stop to ask yourself why. What is it about this character that is real, believable, and engaging? And if the character just doesn't work, ask yourself why not. Where are the false notes; what is off-putting or awkward about the way he speaks, and acts?

Find out how the masters do it. Pick things apart, and take whatever tools you have in hand to practice these methods for yourself, and use them to inform and improve your own work.

Creative License

View stories as a jumping-off point — or, better yet, a rock dropped into a stream. One by one, they build an awkward bridge you can hop across, landing in a place beyond your wildest dreams — a place where you can finally tell your story… a place where that is honored and understood, and passed along to inspire the others, who will come later, with a hunger to tell stories of their own.

The courageous, raw, truth-telling style of Mary Karr may inspire you to write your own explosive memoir — or, perhaps it will inject your stories with a few down-home truths about the hard, dark, and ugly parts of life. Janet Fitch's masterful White Oleander may help you to find beauty, strength, and grace in the most unlikely places. The wild imaginings of authors like Allende, Atwood, Braverman, and Hoffman may lend a hallucinatory quality to your fictitious landscapes; awaken you to the little bits of magic in everyday life, and give you the freedom to dream.

Jennie Nash's novel, The Only True Genius in the Family, is an especially inspiring and enlivening work for artists who are struggling to have faith in their gifts and their work, and are attempting to create within an environment that does not support their creative vision or nourish their dreams. The message of this book is that each of us is marvelously gifted in different ways, but these unique gifts can be stunted, dwarfed, and amputated if you lack belief in your own talents, and have no friends or family who support you as an artist.

If, as in Nash's work, an artist is not given the proper support, the creative fire can be completely extinguished; or grow so dormant that we wonder if that spark was ever there at all. Even more important than reading the stories of others is the courage to tell your own story, any way you can.

If courage you lack, I hereby give you creative license to speak your own truth; to tell your story, as my fourth grade teacher used to say, "in your own words." I give you permission to create indiscriminately, just as you wish — wildly, freely, and without asking permission from anyone. Tell your tale, paint your masterpiece; sing your song. Tango with the Muses. I send you inspiration, strength, creative energy, and my wildest hopes and dreams.

Try This!

Following are some projects I've designed to help you draw inspiration for your artwork and writing from stories:

  • Create a sketch, painting or collage of your favorite fictional character. It can be representational or abstract; the important thing is to capture the essence of the character in a new way.
  • Use a poem or short story as the base for a collage or painting, layering images and words to create a new visual interpretation of the work.
  • Write an alternative ending for your favorite book, short story, or fairy tale.
  • Borrow a secondary character from your favorite novel- someone who intrigues you — and use this as the basis for a writing exercise — interview him, put him on the witness stand, give him his own talk show, or put him into a new story, just for fun. It's not kosher to publish something like this without permission from the original author, but it can be a fun exercise to include in your journal or writer's notebook.
  • Write your favorite character a letter, and then write his/her response to you.
  • Design a new book-cover for one of your favorite reads.
  • Connect with authors who inspire you. Send an email, if you can find a website — lots of writers maintain their own sites and fans can connect with them there. Alternately, you can also send a letter, card, or story-inspired artwork to your favorite writer in care of his or her publishing company. Most writers (myself included!) agree — putting paper to pen can be a lonely life, and many of us would appreciate a sincere letter from a fan. Even a quick email letting them know their words inspired you can make a writer's day.

Creative License Inspiration & Intention:

I have spent the past three years interviewing creative professionals from all fields, and all walks of life. I've discovered that one of the most common challenges facing artists, writers, and other creative souls is a lack of faith in their own abilities. They feel that they are not good enough; not talented enough; not smart enough... many times, we receive these negative messages in childhood and internalize them. Sometimes, the messages come from inside; other times, from the very people who should be giving us support and encouragement. What matters is not where these negative messages come from, but where they finish up — creating a massive wall that stands between the artist and the fulfillment of her dream.

Artists need support and encouragement in order to create their best work. This type of support is sadly lacking in our culture today. More often, they are told they cannot succeed; that the odds are stacked against them, and there is no point in trying. 'Dream on, kid!' my teacher used to say scornfully, when I voiced an idea that was too wild, too creative, or too hopeful.

In discussing this with author Jennie Nash, we both noted that many creative individuals seem to crave permission to create. In her book, The Only True Genius in the Family, the protagonist is denied this permission from a very early age, and it affects her for the rest of her life. She has no true belief in her own genius; her own vision. This is a common fate shared by many fledgling artists. Nash and I agreed that it was a deplorable situation, and decided to do something to combat it, and through the Creativity Portal Web site, the Creative License was born!

I encourage you to dream on, to dream wildly, to sail away from the nay-sayers and the dream-killers in their grey cities of fear and hatred. Dream of a day when every child is told, 'You are an artist. You are a gifted soul. What you have to say truly matters. Only you can tell your story.' Dream of a day when every person on this earth realizes they are uniquely gifted, and moves toward an unimaginable future.

I am not a priest or pastor. I cannot give you faith. That, you must find yourself — wherever you seek it. I am an artist, a writer, but such blessings as I have, I grant you. I hereby give you permission and full creative license to dream wild, delicious dreams — and make them come true! — Molly Anderson-Childers, Artist/Writer

Many people have asked me what "true genius" means to me — a fair question, given the title of my book! True genius is, in my mind, having the guts to speak in your own true voice — to finally write the book you've wanted to write, knit the sweater you have envisioned in your head, take the photo that has been haunting you. It's rising above the constraints of time, obligation, and your dirty laundry to embrace your own sense of creativity. True genius comes in many guises and is available to us all. Sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to feel your own creative power, but it's well worth the journey. The first step? Give yourself permission. How? Download this Creative License and just do it. — Jennie Nash, Author

Next Muse: Coming Home

©2009 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.