The Mystery of the Muse

I think I know who she really is

From time to time, I get on a writing roll . Words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters come pouring out of me.  It’s like magic, and I can practically see the ultimate book coming together in front of my eyes, almost effortlessly.

Those times are heady.  I get cocky, think it will always be like that, start doing the math in my head (“If I can write ten pages a day every day, I’ll have an entire book written in five weeks!”) and figure pretty soon I’ll be the most prolific author in America.

And then it stops. 

Sometimes there’s a physical component: I’m sick, I’m not sleeping, I’m depressed.  Other times, I’m distracted: the kids are sick, they’re not sleeping, my husband’s depressed.  And sometimes–most often–I just can’t get the words out.   It’s not that I’m incapable of writing a sentence, it’s just suddenly hard.  Instead of sitting and typing at a steady, calm pace, I’m forcing out a few words, darting over to check facebook, going back and rereading the last couple of pages, wondering why so much of it is bad, wondering why I can’t recapture the feeling I had just a couple of weeks earlier, when the story and the characters and the words chased each other happily out of my head and onto the page.

I wonder what’s happened to me and if I’ll ever write again.

Most writers (and students) know that feeling.  We like to call it writers’ block.  Those inclined more to a spiritual view of things talk about muses: sometimes your muse deigns to visit you and that’s when you’re productive.  Sometimes she abandons you and that’s when nothing flows.  It’s out of your control–it’s all up to one very mercurial and insubstantial lady.

So here’s my theory about the whole thing.    (And you should pay attention to me because I have absolutely no credentials, proof, or scientific studies to back me up, and since those deficiencies allow Jenny McCarthy to cast herself as some kind of autism spokeswoman, I figure they’ll stand me in good stead.)

Anyway, here’s what I think: that people are at the mercy of their own internal, physical body rhythms (I guess you can call them bio-rhythms but that term may refer to something more specific so I’d better avoid it).  No matter who you are or what you do, some days you’re going to feel energetic and productive, and other days you’re going to feel sluggish and downright useless.  There are probably lots of reasons for these highs and lows, ranging from the effect the season has on you to your basic health to the chemicals in your brain to the way your home life is going.  Whatever.  The point is that for everyone, sometimes his or her brain is ON and sometimes it’s more kind of OFF.

But if you’re a normal person with a normal kind of job–say a school teacher or a salesperson or a doctor–you can’t really have off days, so you trudge ahead and do what you need to do.  Your schedule tells you you have to keep going, so you do.  You may feel a little less enthusiastic and your reactions may be a little slower, but you get through your appointments or work hours for the day because you HAVE NO CHOICE.

But we writers are a strange lot.  When all you do is stay home to write, it’s a lot harder to “just push through.”   Mostly because you don’t have to.  Deadlines can make it happen, of course, but most of the time the deadline is far enough in the future that on any given day you can fritter your time away without immediate repurcussions.  When I sit down at the computer, I’m suddenly VERY aware of my mood and my energy level.  Does my brain feel like it’s working or does it feel kind of tired and creaky?  Are the words coming smoothly or are they reluctantly and awkwardly trickling out?

In other words, I think writers are slaves to their “muses” because they CAN be.  And other people, whose schedules require them to stay in action, simply can’t stop to think about whether they feel tuned in or not.

Some author famously would insist that his servants lock him naked in a room empty of everything but his desk, paper, and quill so he would get a certain amount of writing done every day.  (I can’t find this story through Google so it’s probably apocryphal.)  That’s one strategy to overcome the “not in the mood” issue.  Me, I go to Starbucks when I can and force myself to stay there at least an hour and a half.  Sometimes something clicks and even though I started out unable to work, after a little while the writing starts coming more easily.  Other times, it’s like pulling teeth all the way through and I can’t wait till I can walk out of there.  The one thing that keeps me going is that simply getting ANYTHING down–no matter how stilted or bad–keeps the project moving forward.  I know I’m going to rewrite anyway, so it’s all about not just giving up.

The truth is that we full-time writers are too much in our own heads.  We spend too much time alone with a computer and not enough time having to be somewhere with someone else.  It makes it easy to slide into a constant awareness of how energetic or creative you feel and that, in turn, makes it easy to realize you’re just not in the groove on any given day, which is probably a self-fulfilling realization.

On those good days, though, it’s an awesome thing.   Nothing feels better than writing something you’re happy with. 

In fact, I think I’ll go bake my muse some brownies right now.   She’s a woman–she must like chocolate, right?


1 Comment

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One response to “The Mystery of the Muse

  1. There was a great article from the l.a. weak-ly that i had taped to my wall years ago called “the talent of the room” that talked about powering through the “off” days.

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