A capricious muse comes to call (or, a walk through the neighborhood) eye-dancers

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue. I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself. It’s not like I don’t have any ideas. On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities. None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba. But they’re something. They represent a start.

The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes. Sure, they’re workable. But only in the barest sense. I don’t get excited about them. I don’t really care. The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore. And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.

Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere. It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.

So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon? Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself. For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story. Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will. But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever. Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver. And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease. I need to write something! But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.

After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic. Is that it? Has the well run dry? I can’t make ideas happen. They either come, or they don’t. And if they don’t, what will I do? The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading. The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.

So, in response, all I can do is live my life. If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would. Any writer would. If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent! Alas. The muse cannot be paged or prodded. It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.

For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company. The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it. It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows. Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.

I frequently take walks through this neighborhood. On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour. When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one. Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way. Something about the place struck me–which was strange. After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions. What was so different on this day? And yet, I was transfixed. If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.

The house had seen better days. The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing. The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch. In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.

The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more. Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming. Crying. Especially that last one. Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light. Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead. Or perhaps it was the silence on the street. Not a soul stirred. No one was outside. The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes. Whisperings. Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me. But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was. Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came. It wasn’t complete–not even close. The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story. But that would come later–with hope. At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings. Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.

In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend. Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry. Anger. And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little. Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done. We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident. How can he erase the past, or even change it? Is there a way? And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends? And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be? Would something unintended happen? Is he risking too much?