The Broken Gate and the Muse Calliope

Last week I spent eight days at a wilderness star party in a comfortable motorhome on top of Mt. Kobau. Star parties are designed for people like my husband who love to stay up late viewing and photographing stars, and then sleep all morning, followed by an afternoon talking with other enthusiasts about stars, nebulae, telescopes, and astral photography.

For me, Mt. Kobau is a magical Writer’s retreat (no phone, no Internet, beautiful wilderness environment). I was counting on the mountain to help me finish the first draft of my short story I’d promised to write for the upcoming Pen Warriors anthology.

The last time I wrote a short story was during the dark ages of the twentieth century. So I trekked up the mountain with a thousand words of beginning, a fuzzy idea of what the ending might look like, and no clue what to put in the middle. Back at the last Red Door, I’d impulsively named this story The Broken Gate, so at least I had a title.

I also had a hefty case of writer’s anxiety. I hadn’t touched my beginning in months and felt hyper-aware of my inexperience with the short story form. I felt like a bicycle marathon rider handed a unicycle at the starting gate.

I needed the mountain to answer some basic questions, like: What belonged in the middle of my beginning-ending sandwich? What was the significance of a broken gate in the story? All I had was those 1000 words, my laptop computer, and a determination that eight days on a mountain would produce something.

My mountaintop retreat turned out to be filled with internal psychological drama—the sort that’s boring to anyone but the poor writer experiencing the drama.

My 8 days on Mt. Kobau

Day 1

Unwound from hectic trip preparation, walked dogs. Subconscious presumably wrestled with The Broken Gate.

Day 2

Reread and edited beginning of The Broken Gate to get back into the story.
Day 3

Walked dogs, slept late, read other author’s novel. Hoped subconscious was more productive.

Day 4

Woke up determined to write. Opened computer, wrote a few words, and then deleted them. Behaved like one of those stereotypical movie authors who type a sentence, then tear it out of the typewriter and throw it away.

Realized that what I’d already written was hopeless garbage and I faced the depressing fact that I had no story and no hope of coming up with one. My creativity was gonzo.

Decided I needed to go back to bed—an easy decision since everyone else was sleeping off a night viewing the stars. I shut down my computer, took off my slacks, and climbed under the covers.

Two minutes later a new idea flashed onto my mental whiteboard. My Muse, bless her heart, had rescued The Broken Gate and made the gate (a story element I grabbed out of nowhere) absolutely meaningful.

I threw back the covers, got out of bed, and started making notes.

Decided it was time I gave my muse a name (Calliope). She’s earned it!

Days 5-8

Wrote the scenes I’d sketched out after Calliope visited me. Found the writing challenging and emotional. Realized that just because short stories are short, it doesn’t mean they are easy or quick to write.

Halfway through the final day I wrote The End on the first draft of The Broken Gate.

Lessons (re)learned:

When I’m writing a story or a novel, I’m never sure I can finish it until I write The End on the first draft. I should stop expecting anything different and just write the darned story.

Essential parts of my storytelling process take place outside my conscious mind. I’m dead in the water weeds. My resolution for next time—don’t forget that this is a partnership between my writer’s conscious mind, and that unconscious storyteller portion of me that I’ve decided to call Calliope. (as nominal creator, I reserve the right to change Calliope’s name if it’s not working for me.)

Don’t miss the upcoming Pen Warriors anthology of short stories:

5 Long Shadows – an Anthology of Short Stories

  • The Stone Heart by Bonnie Edwards
  • The Broken Gate by Vanessa Grant (and Calliope)
  • The Wrong Move by E.C. Sheedy
  • The Trouble with Apples by Laura Tobias
  • The Last Fortune by Gail Whitiker

Also posted on PenWarriors.com

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