We face a clean sheet of paper (or computer screen) and begin our stories and poems – starting tabula rasa. But are we really? Is it a clean slate in front of us? Are our characters pure before we bring them into being? And what about the plot of our stories or point of our poems? Do they just pop out of the ethereal ether? What is the role of the muse if not to bestow upon us eureka experiences to write about?

As much as we would like to think we receive our ideas in an uncontaminated form and then transform them into our writing, it isn’t true. All of it comes from who we are, what we care about, where we live, what our life experiences are, and what we feel we need to say to the world. Our characters are drawn from our own selves and those we know, as well as others we may catch a glimpse of in the grocery store or at a ball game. These characters spring forth already formed in our own minds.

There is no tabula rasa in writing – we must admit the ideas, characters, plots, and eureka moments all come from deep within us. Truman Capote said you can’t accept blame for what your characters say, but in truth, we can. Certainly, we need to give them the opportunity to become who they truly are – and sometimes that does feel like magic when it happens. But still, they are our creations and who they are comes from us.

This is why we can’t just depend on the universe to fill us with what needs to be written; instead, we must take the time to explore and give free rein our own minds in an effort to discover all those hidden-away parts of us. Not just the shadow side that we tend to keep hidden, but also the raucously funny side, the naïve side, the brave side, and the obsessive/compulsive side of our personalities. These parts of ourselves bring life to our writing and give readers something to connect with.

William Stafford, the poet, said you should look at poetry sideways – but I would say, as writers, we should look at the whole world from such an angle. Our job is to bring something new to the table. We all read the same-old, same-old prose in our newspapers and magazines. Our commitment is to provide our readers with another way to view the world – whether it is what a mollusk shell looks like or how to find forgiveness when threatened. A muse is not going to float above our shoulders and provide us with this perspective. We have to do it for ourselves and, once we have, present it to our readers.

So face the blank page and fill it full of yourself.

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