14 | An Essay by Poet Laureate Wendy Van Camp
Remembering James Gunn: Tapping into Your Muse for Creativity
Wendy Van Camp
As a panelist at many literary science fiction conventions, I speak on a myriad of topics, from editing anthologies, podcasting, writing tips, and speculative poetry. This year, I answered a call to speak at the 21st Annual Science Fiction Conference in Bangalore, India. The conference was virtual with invited guests from all over the world to give literary insight about science fiction. As a poet laureate and speculative poet, they invited me to speak on a panel about “Poetry & Science.” The Guru Nanak College of Arts, Science & Commerce in Mumbai, India sponsored this panel.
An academic writing conference is different in tone from the science fiction conventions I normally attend. Instead of published authors and poets reading their creative work, the speakers were professors of Indian universities that spoke about research, history, and the impact of the past on the future in literature. One reason this conference caught my attention was one of its founders was James Gunn, the professor and founder of the James Gunn Science Fiction Writing Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas and founder of the Campbell Conference. Since Mr. Gunn passed in 2021, the school he founded is now the Astra Center for Science Fiction and the Speculative Imagination and is directed by Kansas University Professor Chris McKitterick. The annual advanced science fiction workshop still occurs and is now referred to as the Ad Astra Speculative Fiction Workshop.
When asked what topic I would speak on, I decided I would discuss my time as a student at the Ad Astra Workshop during the summer of 2017. I was part of the last wave of students Mr. Gunn gave his creativity lecture to before his death. Since Mr. Gunn is so highly revered in India for his efforts in establishing science fiction as a genre in their nation, I thought that a personal accounting of being his student would be of interest.
When I was a student at the workshop, I focused on novels and short stories because poetry was still a hobby for me. As a science fiction writer, one milestone of our genre is to be accepted and attend various advanced writing workshops for our genre. These workshops range from two to six weeks and serve as a writing retreat or boot camp. Shaped by these workshops, science fiction writers can become bestselling writers in their genre.
I credit Mr. Gunn for this transformation in my creativity based on the long lecture he gave on how to develop your personal muse as a writer. While our instructor was teaching about writing short stories and novels, his techniques have served me well as a speculative poet.
A Modern Commonplace Book
One of the main points of Mr. Gunn’s lecture was to gather information to use later in stories. As a science fiction writer, this could mean scientific journal articles, newspaper stories, or conversations you hear at science fiction conventions. The import thing to remember is to gather this data in a system that is meaningful to you. My personal system involves being subscribed to a multitude of online science journals which I curate from time to time for possible speculative poetry concepts.
When I find a likely article, I save it in an app called Pocket. Why use Pocket? I discovered that my Kobo ereader has access to this app. Not only can I read saved articles there, but it removes all the photos and leaves only the text. It is a portable machine that I can slip into my writing bag and take with me wherever I choose to write. I also use Google Keep for notes and can access this on my phone.
The key is to have a file system in place and actively add new material regularly. You do not have to use Pocket. Other online systems such as Evernote, OneNote, or Notion are also good choices. You can even go old-fashioned and write the data into a paper bound notebook like people did for centuries, but I view this as a less useful method since you can’t use a search engine for your notes. Train your eye to observe what is going on in the world and have a basic understanding of scientific principles.
Activate Your Muse
All human beings have two parts to their mind. The conscious logical mind where thoughts, identity, and structure happen. Your Ego works with your Id, an ancient wordless place where images and information bump into each other. Both are equally intelligent. Both are you. The poets of old called this hindbrain their muse. The ideas that sprang forth from this part of their brain felt as if they came from another source. We now know that these ideas are not the whispers of women deities, but are part of ourselves.
Training your Id as an active part of the writing process is the key to higher creativity. Your muse understands the data that you have read and saved, but the connections that it makes for you as a writer happen when you least expect it. The Id has no sense of time or logic. The ancient part of your brain functions as a tool for discovering patterns for your survival. It also works to develop creative connections for writing.
One detail about James Gunn that astonished me was how highly trained his muse was. There was a good reason he was such a highly accomplished, awarding winning writer all the way to his death at 97. His mind had developed complexity over the decades and he had fully trained his brain to accelerate those unique connections that made him the writer he was. As his student, I had already taken the first steps toward training my muse, but as I listened to Mr. Gunn speak, I realized how much more depth he had. Mr. Gunn said to not wait for inspiration to strike, instead train your muse to work for you.
When I direct my muse, I pick out ideas from my research that appeal to me. I focus on those ideas I want my poem to be about. Then I walk away. A few hours or a day later, an image will burst in my mind, a character or scene will appear, or lines of poetry based on my researched material will spill from my fingers. I’ve noticed as the years have gone by, the process is faster. Sometimes it is as if the poetry flows out of me from someone else. It is my muse at work.
When you first attempt to train your muse to create new ideas, the process will be slow. It is like training muscles. It takes time and repetition. Don’t be discouraged. Mr. Gunn was an old man when I was his student. He had been training his muse for many decades. I can only imagine the sheer complexity and richness of his creative mind at the time I knew him.
Apply Ideas into Poetry
The final step is to gather these new connections and plug them into your speculative poetry. In my case, I take the muse-generated words and put them into a paper notebook via a fountain pen. I like to take my thoughts into a more permanent place where I can preserve the old, discarded lines with the new ones. By going back and forth between the two, most of my poetry is born.
When I complete the poems, I return them to electronic form. I use Scrivener to organize my poetry storage and keep track of my submissions. Every author and poet has their own method that works for them. This was the final lesson that I learned from James Gunn. He acknowledged that his intuitive method of creating stories was not for everyone, but he could only describe what worked best for himself.
As I spoke about Mr. Gunn at the Science Fiction Writing Conference in India, I tried to convey the sense of place, the character of the man, and the lessons that I gained from him. James Gunn had reached out to numerous countries and devoted himself to bringing science fiction to the world. It is a powerful legacy and a testament to his raw genius and courage. I am grateful that I met him before he passed away and will always remember what he taught me.