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Museum of Writerly Inspiration


Writers love nothing more than a good distraction, especially if they can pretend said distraction is “research.” That’s how I came to abandon my writing desk one afternoon a few years ago to visit the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick in Cleveland, a tiny space crammed full of Wiccan artifacts. My brain needed a break from novel revision, and I knew I’d come away from viewing a collection of occult paraphernalia feeling refreshed and inspired—because the experience of visiting museums, I’ve found, is often inextricably tied to the writing process.

For starters, consider the storytelling potential in the treasures I encountered inside the Buckland: a crystal ball, alchemy bottles, Osiris powder (to “reinforce male qualities”), a spirit trumpet, a Church of Satan membership card, silverware purportedly bent through telekinesis, a ritual wand, a spell cord made by a famous Salem witch, a three-headed hydra candleholder, a cast-iron pentagram trivet, and, last but not least, a demon in a box. Yes, a “demon” that the late curator and renowned Wiccan, Raymond Buckland, claimed to have trapped in a tiny carved box.

If you can step into a place like the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick and not come out with a new idea for a story or novel, then at least part of you is dead inside. That’s because a museum can be a writer’s best friend. Writers are curious observers always on the lookout for a new perspective on the world. Museums, meanwhile, organize material and information to construct a narrative that gives meaning to those objects. Sounds an awful lot like writing a novel or a short story to me, complete with the horrors of editing for space and clarity.

I’ve long been a lover of museums. As much as I appreciate the behemoths, like the Mets and the Smithsonians, it’s the smaller, scrappier museums that most capture my writer’s heart. Take the National Mustard Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, which I visited in 2015 on my way to AWP in Minneapolis. This place gave me a taste (pun intended, because the Mustard Museum would want it that way) for offbeat museums with a single-minded dedication to one thing and one thing only, which is exactly how I’d describe the novel-writing process. My favorite object in the whole place was a framed newspaper article detailing how a woman’s house burned down after she went out to buy ketchup. Had she used mustard instead, the caption implied, she might have noticed the fire and saved her house—a sick ketchup burn that proves museums, much like MFA programs, can be ruthlessly competitive.

As in fiction writing, specificity is gold when it comes to museum exhibits. One of my favorite exhibits focused on blue—the color, the emotion, the music, you name it. After much agonized brain-racking and, finally, writing to the museum to confirm, I can say this exhibit took place at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City in 2003. (Like AWP conferences of years past, museums and exhibits can start to blend together over time.) Or there’s the exhibit I saw at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History that covered all aspects of poison—from poisonous animals and plants to poisons throughout history and myth and beyond. The writer’s brain loves this type of organization because it entails drawing connections between related (or not-so-related) things and using them to tell a larger story. Also, poison is always something to think about when you need to kill off a character, or when you’ve been revising your novel for years and are still struggling to perfect it. Or so I hear.

Museums can also be places of great fun, like when the Cleveland Museum of Art filled a room floor-to-ceiling with purple balloons and invited visitors to get lost amid the static-filled chaos. At the heart of it, writing a novel or poem should be enjoyable at least part of the time. If you can’t rush into a balloon-filled room and swirl your arms around in a frantic whirlwind before succumbing to claustrophobia and screaming for help, then I don’t really know what you’re doing as a writer in the first place.

Even bad museums can inspire writers. At one small art museum, I was so disappointed in the collection and how it was presented that I sat down on a bench and started taking notes for how I would run a museum of my own. It’s like reading a shitty novel and feeling confident you could write a vastly superior one yourself. Easy, right?

Then there are the non-museums that are still totally museums, like the Island of the Dolls in Mexico City. Museum, shrine, tourist trap—call it what you want, but this place is a delicious nightmare that comes complete with a creepy origin story. According to legend, a man who lived alone on this floating island in the canals of Xochimilco in the 1950s was so distraught when he found a drowned girl that he started collecting dolls and hanging them all around the island. Today, hundreds of mud-encrusted, malformed, cobwebbed, battered dolls haunt the place like a beautiful nightmare. It takes a two-hour, hand-poled gondola ride to get to the island, but the good news is there’s beer and mariachi music along the way, ingredients I also consider non-negotiable for the novel-writing process.

Even museums that exist purely in the digital space can spur on the writerly muse. Take the Museum of Menstruation, a gem I came across while researching my taboo story collection. Menstruation enthusiast Harry Finley originally maintained a physical museum of period-related information and artifacts in his home, but he’s long since moved the party online. This place inspired me to write my own short story about a museum focusing on menarche. So I took a two-dimensional museum, made it three-dimensional in my mind, and then set it loose into the world in 2D form again via a story published in a literary journal. It’s kind of like the human centipede, but for museums.

Speaking of bodily functions, medical museums like the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia or the Dittrick Museum of Medical History in Cleveland can feed the writer’s imagination and capacity for horror and despair. Places like this tend to be full of skulls, body parts, and horrifying medical instruments, and there’s nothing more stimulating for the writing process than a good, old-fashioned fear of mortality. Go home and write your heart out afterwards because we’re all going to die anyway, that’s for sure.

Finally, just like the writing life, museum-related experiences (or lack thereof) can be full of regret. Like how I once spent two full weeks in Iceland but never once went to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. A museum dedicated to the penis, and I missed it! I claim cynicism and tourism fatigue, but this was probably the kind of balls-to-the-wall museum experience I so love. Maybe next time.

As far as the Buckland Gallery of Witchcraft and Magick goes, I left with some new knowledge (that I didn’t know what a Jenny Haniver was before this visit deeply distresses me) plus renewed respect for anyone whose beliefs run counter to the mainstream. Most of all, visiting the Buckland served as a healthy reminder that writers must always strive to ask questions, embrace the uncanny, and investigate new ideas and wonders. In other words: we live in a twisted, deranged world, and someone has to write about it.

But I still don’t think we should try to crack open Buckland’s locked wooden box, not even in the name of literary growth. Some demons are better left undisturbed.