23 December 2008

Writers, abandon your muses – they’re a work of fiction!

This first (proper) post is something of a mission statement. You see, I don’t believe in the concept of the muse. The idea is a complete myth. I mean literally, it is. Wikipedia told me so:

In Greek mythology, the Muses … embody the arts and inspire the creation process with their graces through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance.

The muse concept is still going strong.  Writers often cite their muse, or lack of one, when they’re struggling to write. But I’m not having it.

To me, the muse is a nonsense-notion spouted by writers, artists and other creative types who want to give their procrastinating a fancy name.

Excuses, excuses

Here’s the sort of claptrap they come out with:

‘I wanted to write, but my muse deserted me.’

No, you wanted to write, but Strictly Come Dancing* was about to start and that sounded like more fun and less work.

‘I couldn’t possibly write as my muse wasn’t working.’

Rubbish. The ideas didn’t come easily, so you started thinking about what to have for lunch and whether to go downstairs for another cup of coffee.

And you know what? That’s just fine.

If your mind’s not on it or you can’t find the words, it’s okay to walk away. Don’t write. Accept that sometimes you’re not going to have the motivation or the sparkling ideas and do something else instead. Anything. So long as it’s legal.

How writing really works

Let’s get one thing clear: there’s no celestial literary overlord hovering above your brain-box, all dressed up like Big Willy Shakespeare, throwing ideas into your head via your ear holes.

The truth is, sometimes you’ll feel like writing, sometimes you won’t. One day the ideas will be there, the next you’ll feel like you haven’t a creative bone in your body. At times, you’ll have all day to write, at others you’ll go a month and not put pen to paper.

If you take nothing else from reading this blog, please remember that writing is a process. It’s almost entirely nuts and bolts, with the occasional flash of inspiration that keeps you, and your readers, coming back for more.

But here’s the important bit. That inspiration comes from you. No one else.

Those occasional moments of literary, journalistic or blogging brilliance are entirely your own. So, for crying out loud, make sure that you take the credit. Enjoy them. They’re why you write. Not to satisfy your fictional muse.

You see, the muse is nothing but a writer’s luxury. It’s a non-truth. An excuse for not getting things done or for simply trying too hard. Accept that and you’ll write more frequently and with greater freedom. I promise.

* dancing with the stars if you’re from the US and barely-famous people dancing on television if you’re from anywhere else.

Are you ready to get rid of your muse?

Do you need an ethereal being nearby to help you write effectively? Can you walk away when you’re suffering from a bout of brain-block? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

49 Comments

  1. Meg

    Great post! My muse has abandoned me at this time . . . think I might go get another cup of coffee and sit in the sunshine for a while ;)

  2. I have to disagree Iain… My muse is alive and kicking, she’s part of me, but has her own ideas, rhythms and moods… for which I’m very grateful. I don’t wait for her to start writing, but when she whispers words to me, I come up with my very best stuff.

  3. Iain (Author)

    @Joanna Young Oh crikey, my first post and I’m already arguing. See, I think it’s the personification of the muse that troubles me.

    I’d argue that her ideas, rhythms and moods are actually yours. Just like when those things aren’t around, that comes from you too. And not in a bad way. It’s probably because there’s something more interesting going on or to be thinking about.

    That said, as with all things writing-related, there’s very rarely a correct way of working or thinking and I’m very grateful for your comment!

  4. It was my pleasure! Forgot to say… congratulations on getting started, and good luck with your new blog.

  5. Zoe

    The muse is like the imaginary friend you had when you were small. That person that no one else can hear, who says the things you’re probably embarrassed to say and does the things you’re not cool enough to do yet.

    I don’t use the word “muse” but I know when my writing’s “on” and when it’s not. If people use “muse” to talk about their writing flow, hopefully they see that it’s ultimately just another part of them…!

  6. Iain (Author)

    @Meg Sounds like a plan!

    @Joanna Young Thank you!

    @Zoe Absolutely agree with your final point there Zoe. I believe that, for the most part, writing is a process and sometimes we’re just not in the right state of mind to carry the process out.

    And that’s perfectly normal.

    Sometimes, we are in a perfect state of mind and the ideas flow. Either way, it comes from within.

    Thanks for the discussion folks. Keep it coming!

  7. I tried very hard to stop myself from writing an entire blog entry in response to this fascinating thought provocation, but failed. So, blog response it is. Still, I’ve managed to keep it quite brief by my standards: With or without my muse.

  8. Well, some interesting comments here on the muse.
    For me, in the beginning there was the muse. Then came work from the muse and from the work from the muse came pressure – and from the pressure from the work from the muse came panic and from the panic came….. nothing – and the muse was gone.

    So I had to step out of my normal routine and booked myself in to a writer’s weekend retreat.

    I was dubious about the benefits of taking such drastic action and packing my bags, saying farewell to my loved ones and installing myself in a rambling Victorian mansion. But desperation is a powerful emotion.

    I arrived at the retreat on Friday. I was exhausted and thought I would spend the weekend sleeping.

    By Saturday afternoon I was sitting quietly in a beautiful sunlit room surrounded by other writers, all silently, enthusiastically clicking away at the keys.
    The power and presence of such dedication began to seep into my system and by the time I packed my bags on Monday morning I had broken the back of my dreaded project and was back on course.

    I beleive that if I’d stayed in my usual environment, dealing with the daily pressures and waited for the muse to return, the frustration would have mounted and it would have taken too long and I may have lost out. I took action and the writer’s retreat was a great decision. I’d recommend a retreat to anyone feeling the weight of pressure in their life burying their creativity.

  9. Interesting post, Iain. I think everyone is different and therefore everyone’s approach to writing is different. I can only describe the way it works for me and I’ll use the example of how I wrote my novel Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law in 3 months.

    I wrote this as a trial run book for my new publishing company – somewhere to make inevitable newbie mistakes as a publisher.

    This was the first releasing aspect of the enterprise because there was nothing precious about it, it was a task I had to get done and nothing more. I wasn’t aiming at (and did not achieve) literary greatness, merely aiming at writing something that would make people feel good by 1) arousing them sexually and 2) making them laugh.

    The process went like this. I had already pinpointed the best time of day for me to write – from the time I wake up until about midday. So I scheduled every weekday morning for writing. There was no argument about whether I was in the mood or had “the muse” with me or not. It was a job which had to get done, rather like setting out to clean the bathroom and not letting anything put you off.

    Then I would make a cup of tea, have a bowl of cereal (brains need food), make sure all the phones were switched off and go back to bed (no distractions) and write on the laptop until my batteries ran out. I don’t mean the laptop batteries, I mean my batteries. That would be between 2 to 3 hours, usually, or 1000 words on a slow day, 2,500 ish on a good day.

    There would be little bursts of inspiration, almost like being plugged into the mains and your hair standing on end, when the best material would flow out, but in the main it was going into a different state of consciousness until the juice went. When the juice goes you can feel it draining away and that’s when it’s time to stop. At this point, I’d save the work, get up, go downstairs, and get on with the next job on my list which could be to do with the house, setting up the company, the needs of my left-home-children or tedious everyday chores.

    So for me, the muse doesn’t exist. Writing is a job to be done and there is nothing big or clever or precious about it. Just like cleaning the bathroom. And just like cleaning the bathroom, you can give it a quick once over or you can steel yourself and although you really don’t want to go all the way and lift that removable sink plug and clean out all the gloopy body gunge and hair that have accumulated for months, you do it.

  10. KjM

    The Muse idea is a complete myth. Indeed it is. But the lovely thing about myths is the fact that they are true. They exist as an explanation of something that is very real in our lives and are widely enough experienced to have attained the status of, well, myth.

    How else to explain that creative place within us from which these moments of literary, journalistic or blogging brilliance spring?

    And, for good or ill, we humans personify our divinities.

    So yes, my muse is a Myth. And so very true.

    Enjoyed the post. Got me thinking. Thank you.

  11. Jeanne Tomlin

    You are doing no one any favors with there comments and they’re not what writers need to hear–what they want to hear maybe. But not what they need to hear.

    Don’t bother to write and you’ll still be good at it. Nonsense.

    “The truth is, sometimes you’ll feel like writing, sometimes you won’t.”

    So? Do you want to be a writer or don’t you?

    “…you’ll go a month and not put pen to paper..”

    Writing whether you feel like it or not is known as self-discipline and has nothing to do with a muse.

    If someone wants to play the piano at Carnegie Hall do they only practice once a month because that’s when they feel with it. Why the HELL do people think being a published author is any less work or requires any less practice?

    If you want to be an author, you write. Don’t feel like it? Write anyway.

  12. Iain (Author)

    @ Jeanne Tomlin Hi Jeanne. First, thank you for visiting and leaving a comment – I’m all for healthy discussion and I’ll try and respond to some of your points below.

    You are doing no one any favors with there comments and they’re not what writers need to hear[...]

    I think that’s a bit strong. This is a blog and part of its remit is to pose questions and promote discussion. I haven’t started this site on a whim – I have several years of professional writing experience. That said, I would never expect anyone to take what’s written here as gospel. As I mention in an earlier comment, everyone works differently and I believe that writers should take or leave whatever they want from this or any other website.

    Don’t bother to write and you’ll still be good at it. Nonsense.

    I’m not sure that’s quite what I was saying. I’d encourage people to look at writing as a process and admit that sometimes, for whatever reason, it can be extremely difficult. And that’s okay. Just don’t blame it on a ‘muse’, as there’s likely a logical reason behind the problem, and the answer may just be to step back for a while and take the pressure off.

    Writing whether you feel like it or not is known as self-discipline and has nothing to do with a muse.

    If you’re working to a deadline, then definitely. But I would also argue that writing whether you feel like it or not can sometimes lead to poor, unmotivated writing. There are times when you need to plough on, yes, but there are also times when a little distance does you and your writing the world of good. I do agree about the muse bit though, obviously.

    Why the HELL do people think being a published author is any less work or requires any less practice?

    This really isn’t what I was suggesting in this post. From experience, I know that you get nowhere in writing unless you work hard and strive to improve. By abandoning the concept of a muse, I believe that you can relieve some creative tension and focus on the process of writing.

    Thank you again for the comment – I really do think it’s important to have these debates and I think that actually, we’re kind of agreeing on some of these points.

    It would be great to know a bit more about your own writing background.

  13. @ Iain

    > Just don’t blame it on a ‘muse’

    You made your point perfectly clear and made it well, and for a young blog you are certainly stimulating debate! A successful blog is reflected in the amount of comments its posts receive. QED.

    Anyone serious about their writing will always post under their name with a link to their website where people can read examples of their work. The net is there to help promote your own work and also to help others by sharing your experience via useful blogs like yours, Iain, and by sharing useful links on Twitter.

    The key to the net as we enter 2009 is co-operation and positivity.

    The unpalatable truth for those who do so is that posting anonymous negative comments on other peoples’ blogs and/or on forums merely marks one out as an amateur, a time-waster and a non-starter in what is a very exciting venture in global co-operation and social networking.

    To read a chiaroscuro tale about the early days of social networking, be sure to order my novel MY ADVENTURES IN CYBERSPACE on Amazon, due for publication February 27th.

    See, anonymous nay-sayers? It’s easy when you get the hang of it and do it with love in your heart.

  14. Jeanne comments-
    You are doing no one any favours with these comments and they’re not what writer’s want to hear…

    I appreciate the poster of the the above comment was hot under the collar about posts on the Muse. However that’s the beauty of the blog, it is an opening for writers to exchange views and often learn from others. Writers often work in a solitary environment and understandably struggle at times.
    What we have here is an excellent opportunity to support and discuss matters in what is an inexact profession.

    http://www.kathrynwhite.net

  15. “To me, the muse is a nonsense-notion spouted by writers, artists and other creative types who want to give their procrastinating a fancy name.”

    That might be the case for some. But I like the idea of one muse whispering in my ear, giving me good ideas. Of course there is no muse. But does it do any harm if we think there is one? Everyone has to know what works for himself…

  16. I personally thought this was a great post (I came here because you remarked on Twitter that it was annoying some people, so I wanted to show some support).

    I think what people think of as “the muse” is an explanation for the way that very often, you’re not consciously in control of what you write. When you’re in the flow, as it were, very often the words come in a great surge. After all, I’ve been writing all my life because I’ve felt driven to express myself that way. Although I often like to make my world into its own personality (I imagine it as a sort of dragon), I don’t think there’s some magical entity out there inspiring me. I can see all the places where all the things I’ve read, all the masses of research I’ve done, has brought out the story.

    I go through times when I don’t want to write Amnar. But actually, now I think about it, I’ve never gone through a time when I wasn’t writing *something*.

    As far as your commenter goes, she is perfectly entitled to her view but that doesn’t mean you need to worry about it. Giving writers permission to stop is actually helpful – it felt good to think that after writing so many books, when I don’t feel like writing I can put my feet up. So thank you for that!

  17. Iain, I think you made your point perfectly clear and have highlighted a major flaw in many unsuccessful writers. It is not that they don’t have the ability but more that they use their “muse” as an excuse to be lazy.

    Congratulations on a great, debate stimulating post and long may it continue.

  18. Jane_Howitt

    Like Joely Black, I came here to see what people were fussing about. And I, too, think your post was *excellent*, Iain. Not only good points made, but in great style.

    Now — colours to the mast: I’m not a ‘Creative Writer’ like you lot; I’m a copywriter, writing everything from websites and e-newsletters to training manuals and direct mail shots. There’s not even the chink of a space in all that to fit a Muse — Mythical or mythical (if you see what I mean).

    BUT — the *process* is so much the same. (Back to that important word again!) Whatever I’m writing, there has to be something that sets me off: an inspirational spark / a hook to hang the message on / a seed to build on and wrap layers around. But I don’t get that from no Muse!

    It comes from me — from research — from hard work. And, sometimes, from letting things just furtle around in my brain whilst I’m doing something else. Like feeding the cats or going for a walk. Just plodding on regardless, in desperation to write anything, is NOT a good recipe for good writing.

    You’d be amazed at how invigorating a break can be. (@ Kathryn Whjite — I just love the idea of a writing retreat!)

    Iain, if people want to get the wrong end of the stick and think you’re saying what you’re not saying — ignore them. You’ll always get people who willfully won’t understand.

    I love what you’re saying! And I’ll be back for more:-)

    PS: @Jude Calvert-Toulmin
    Only reason I haven’t added my website is that it needs a great deal of TLC and a complete revamp. The minute it’s up and going, bells will ring and trumpets will sound!

  19. @ Jane_Howitt

    A great post, Jane.

    > It comes from me — from research — from hard work. And, sometimes, from letting things just furtle around in my brain whilst I’m doing something else. Like feeding the cats or going for a walk. Just plodding on regardless, in desperation to write anything, is NOT a good recipe for good writing.

    I absolutely agree. I must admit that during my writing periods there are days when I know I shouldn’t be writing but should be re-energising or whatever by doing something else.

    And my statement about any serious writer linking back to a site was a bit sweeping too, some people haven’t had the time/know-how/money to get sites set up – in a nutshell what I object to is people posting negative critical comments on blogs and forums under their safe little umbrella of anonymity, so that no-one can see *their* work and criticise *them* in return. That really gets my goat.

    If you’re going to shoot, you should be prepared to be in the line of fire yourself.

  20. Iain (Author)

    Thank you all for the ongoing discussion, I genuinely appreciate your comments and hope that at the very least, we’re managing to massage each others mind-muscles!

  21. Phew! So glad your directive is for WRITERS….abandon my muses? What would I do with all the colorful costumes they wear?

    Congrats on a provocative start to your new blog. Found you through Men With Pens but I see some friendly faces here. Hi Joanna and Ulla…

    I work in spite of my muses, and sometimes spurred on by some things that seem randomly pulled out of the ethers. But work I do. I fall into that camp probably of using the name as a catch all for some of the mysteries of the creative mind. And that wonderful force that happens in the zone…we all know that spot, don’t we?

  22. Hi Janice,
    nice to meet you here! I would be interested to hear more about the colorful costumes of your muses!:-)

  23. Ulla,

    Well one of them is very Grace Kelly Cary Grant To Catch a Thief South of France wardrobed…another mimics Nabokov…and another sounds like a cross between Keb’ Mo and B.B king and Winton Marsalis….no not crazy here.. just imaginative.;-) It can get kind of fun if they all show up at once, confusing in the studio, but fun till I send them home.

    And sometimes, hm, it’s just a whisper, naked that one I guess. :-)

    Writers get those too , right?

  24. I really like the look of this new blog. Really cool and welcoming.

    Writing is often hard work. So, yeah, I agree… we do sometimes come up with fancy words to replace procrastination.

  25. Jane_Howitt

    @Bamboo Forest

    ‘we do sometimes come up with fancy words to replace procrastination.’

    We do, oh we do! But I can see why, because that word ‘procrastination’ is a nasty judgmental word often used at the wrong time. Let me tell you a story…

    Long ago, in the Land of the Lumberjacks, there was an annual competition to find out who was the greatest log-splitter of them all.

    The favourite was a huge, iron-muscled brute called Colossal Joe. He was at least 6 foot 12 in his stockinged feet, his arms were as thick as other men’s thighs, and in action he was a power-driver’s dream to behold. Axe-and-wood: like knife-and-butter.

    Then one year he was challenged (gasp!) by a Stranger. Nice enough bloke. But he was half Colossal’s size, didn’t make the same log-splitting noises the Big C made, and was, generally, a bit ‘ordinary’.

    Well, the challenge was accepted, and all the clever money went on Colossal Joe. Naturally! There he was, gleaming in the sun, with the sweat running down, cleaving logs one after the other, never stopping.

    And the crowd couldn’t help but notice that the Stranger stopped every 10 minutes or so for a short rest. Ho! they thought. Our money is safe!

    But the odd thing was, when the Great Bell sounded to end the competition, and all the logs were counted — it was the Stranger who had split the most logs.

    ‘But we saw you stop every 10 minutes’, they cried. ‘How can you have split more logs than our Champion?’

    ‘Well’, came the quiet reply, ‘What you didn’t notice was that every time I took a rest I took the opportunity to sharpen my axe.’

    So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Whenever that call comes to put down what you’re doing and take a rest, remember: you’re REALLY sharpening your axe!

    I thank you!
    :-)

  26. Hi Jane_Howitt,
    Now that is a great story. I plan to take a month out and return like a Wilkinson Sword.
    Kathryn

  27. I like the post – it makes me relise that I am not alone when I have days where I simply cannot write anything decent. I have decided, rather than beat myself up about it I will allow myself the time away, and write something better the next time.
    I have days where I will write 10,000 words and I have other days where I struggle to form a single sentence. I had never even considered the concept of a muse, I just put it down to mood, health, stress levels or motivation.
    Contrary to what some of the other commenters have said I think that it is actually reassuring for a newbie writer like me to hear that everyone has their off days. And contrary to what jeanne said, I would argue that a pianist with any real skills or talents would be able to practice less often than someone who is forcing their art – granted they may not play as well as they are truly able but talent is talent. So I would imagine that a writer could take a months break and still return to write something good.
    I would also add that for me, writing is for pleasure – if I am ever published that is just a wonderful bonus.

    http://www.whatwouldnikkido.com

  28. My background as a writer? It involves writing–non-fiction mostly as a staff writer. I have two novels coming out from small publishers in the next couple of months which are among my first ventures as a fiction writer.

    Most of the professionals I know write day in and day out and most will tell you that a few months down the road they won’t be able to tell the difference in the words they had to drag out with pliers from the ones that flowed. And if they can — so what? That’s what editing is for.

    Sure, if you want to be a hobbyist (and there’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist) then you can write once a month. But don’t kid yourself that it won’t impact your growth as a writer.

    Personally, I live by Heinlein’s Rules the first of which is YOU MUST WRITE.

    Hell, if you call yourself a writer why wouldn’t you write?

  29. Jane_Howitt

    @Jeanne Tomlin

    You said:
    ‘…they won’t be able to tell the difference in the words they had to drag out with pliers from the ones that flowed. And if they can — so what? That’s what editing is for.’

    And I say: how very true! There’s no such thing as ‘Good Writing’ only ‘Good RE-WRITING’

    Good reading (which is what we’re all aiming for, surely) is definitely in the editing!!

    PS: That’s a quote from someone, isn’t it? Can’t remember who…

  30. Iain (Author)

    @Jeanne Thanks so much for coming back and telling us more. Exciting news about the two novels!

    Working as a full-time copywriter, I’m afraid I have no choice but to write every day and thankfully, we have a wonderful quality team who help avoid any ‘bad’ days.

    I definitely think we’re agreeing on some of these points. I think we should look at writing as a process and take responsibility for our work, which is backed up by some of the things you refer to.

    Where we perhaps disagree, is in the idea of giving yourself a break, or more specifically, acknowledging that other things in your life may sometimes affect your writing and be more important at that time.

    For me, if that happens, not writing is fine and doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

  31. Chocolate lover

    I wandered into your webite while doing research on muses for a short story and was impressed by the topics, the responses and the humour. I’m not one for chatting a lot on the internet because I find it distracts me from doing the actual writing, but I have suscribed to this one!

    My own experience with muses is that you don’t wait for them to arrive before commencing work – the very act of sitting down to write and cranking up the brain cells causes them to appear. I have found that I have written some of my best work on days that I started out feeling sluggish and unmotivated.

  32. @ jeanne

    “Hell, if you call yourself a writer why wouldn’t you write?”

    well, because sometimes life gets in the way, for instance when a relative suddenly dies. I am sure I am not the only person to find writing hard under those kind of circumstances?

    Also there is a difference between only writing once a month, and taking a months break in your writing. They are 2 very different things.

  33. Heck yeah. The Muse — not a real thing — works for you. You don’t work for her.

    *applause*

    Great blog, by the way. Just discovering it.

    – Chuck

  34. I think there are people who believe they need a muse and there are people who don’t.

    Me, I’m the latter but if it works for those who believe, why not? (I just haven’t run into believers who actually are productive though. But that’s just me.)

  35. What an interesting post! I for one like the idea of a muse and I think inspiration comes from somewhere…but you can’t always wait for inspiration before you start writing. As you said, you’re not always going to feel like writing and sometimes that means you should take a break, but sometimes it means you should sit down and write anyway. If you sit around waiting for inspiration, chances are you’re going to be doing a lot of waiting when you could be writing.

  36. Poppy

    My Muse is not fictional, nor is she some ‘ethereal being’ an ‘excuse’ or ‘celestial literary overlord’. She is as real as anyone and makes interesting company, even when we’re not talking about books. She has a personality and a name, Megan, and won’t answer stupid questions. I think your Muse is just…passive. More passive than most, anyway. More likely, she’s hurt and has abandoned you because you’ve denied her existence.

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