Sneaking up on the muse

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Last week, when we were talking about setting tiny goals to get started, reader Mary Anne Benedetto posted a comment about a student of hers who said, “I can only write when I’m inspired. What if I’m not inspired at the appointed time?”

This is part of what was driving my friend crazy last week when he asked how one gets started. It’s all well and good for me to tell him “Sit down and write a sentence,” but that leads to the next concern, “I don’t know what to say.” People often think they have to be inspired to come up with anything readable. It would be lovely if being a writer was like being a character in an Edwardian romance. Travel to Italy for the entire summer, lease a villa and write with a enameled fountain pen on creamy ivory paper while staring out at the view of a Tuscan vineyard or the blue waters of the Mediterranean, waiting patiently for inspiration to strike. Trouble is that inspiration is like a wild animal, and is way smarter than the hunter.

Inspiration is not the kind of beast that follows schedules. You can’t depend on it to show up at all. Every time I’m home for a teacher workday, I wake up terribly excited about having the whole day to write…and then I find myself staring at the screen, without any idea what I should write. I have all this time, so where’s that inspiration? It heard me coming, and now it’s hiding in the brush, snickering quietly as it watches me hunt for it.

Stop worrying about getting your hands on inspiration. Chase it and it’s going to run. Instead, sit down. Open the word processor (or pull out the legal pad.) At first, there’s nothing. Your thoughts are scattered, still wandering back to the day, but if you relax and let the words spill out, soon you’ll producing a sentence, then a paragraph and then a page. Don’t wait on the inspiration – lure it out into the open by pretending you don’t care. Before you know it, it’s curling up at your feet. On the next day, do it all over again. Inspiration may never come when you call it, but it’ll show up more quickly the next time you sit down to write.

And you’ll have a story.

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16 comments to Sneaking up on the muse

  • >>Don’t wait on the inspiration – lure it out into the open by pretending you don’t care. Before you know it, it’s curling up at your feet. On the next day, do it all over again. Inspiration may never come when you call it, but it’ll show up more quickly the next time you sit down to write.

    Misty, I used to be able to write only 2 pages a day. Then it went 5. Now it’s, well, more. Yu are right that inspriation can be taught to work for you. (Hears the cracking of the muse’s whip.)

  • Great advice, Misty! I really think that people get too caught up in the “I need my Muse/Inspiration/Whatever” and forget that writing is a process. It’s so hard to edit a blank page!

    I had one chapter that I just couldn’t get through, and ended up writing “This chapter sucks.” as every other sentence. I had to go and clean it up later, but it got me through. There are all sorts of ways to coax Inspiration out.

  • Val said I had one chapter that I just couldn’t get through, and ended up writing “This chapter sucks.” as every other sentence.

    *laughs* That’s great! I’ve been known to hit the caps lock key and type THEY TALK ABOUT THE TREASURE, and go on with what I had in mind, only returning to the problem area when I’m calmer.

    Faith said (Hears the cracking of the muse’s whip.)

    Your muse scares me!

  • I was told once to just write. Write about anything that crosses your mind, no matter what it is. Write about why you can’t write if nothing else comes to mind. Eventually that’ll lead to why you can’t write your idea, which will tend to lead to writing about the problems you’re having, which will lead to working out those problems, which will lead to solving them. I’ve done it a few times when I’m not being inspired. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least I’ve written something. Is it of value? Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve actually written at that point. One thing tends to lead to another.

    I was in a writing group once long ago and there was a guest speaker, can’t remember who now. She was an established author though. And she had us do an exercise where we just wrote, wrote about the first thing that popped into our heads, anything at all, or even about nothing, just wrote. I think mine started out writing about the fact that I couldn’t think of anything to write about, then it went to talking about potatoes and why I liked them and then to my memories of how my parents fixed potatoes and how a great aunt made them like wallpaper paste and my favorite ways to eat them. It ended up being this entire page of writing that I didn’t intend to write when I started, but it got me writing about something.

    Now I tend to use that to suss out problems I’m having with a story or a plot or one of the characters. I just start writing about the problem and it kind of works itself out on the page.

  • I had a similar discussion with a friend of mine who is starting to write fiction for the first time and the thing I tried to impress upon him was this: Even if what you write at first sucks, that’s okay. We have to give ourselves permission to suck. It’s not permanent until it’s published. Until then everything is a work in progress. Thinking of it that way can make it easier to put down those first words.

  • Lol, my muse doesn’t curl up at my feet. He sits in my favourite recliner and drinks my Whisky. When is isn’t out starting fights, needing patching up upon return.

    I should not have picked a Scot as Muse. 😉

    But when he cooperates, he’s fun.

    Oh, and no soft Tuscany landscape for me. Give me a windswept Scottish island with rugged mountains and sea waves thundering at its shores.

  • Ooh, Gabriele, you dream of being in a gothic romance, eh? 😀 Actually, anything on the coast would work for me, whether Scotland or Italy. I just need the water nearby. I was telling Faith yesterday about how much more myself I feel by the ocean. Now to write a bestseller (or win the Powerball!) so I can move.

    Gotta tell you, though…your muse is scary, too. *grin*

  • Gothic Romance? Well, I better train that fainting at the appropriate moment then. 😀

    I miss the sea. I’m Hamburg born and it’s in the blood. I try to at least spend the holidays on some shore. The Scotland trip I did the last weeks was perfect in that respect – castles and coasts. You can peek at my blog for pics.

    Only the midges are so not romantic. 😉

  • Jenna

    Pretty good post. I just came by your site and wanted to say
    that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

  • I find that if I “wait for inspiration” to strike before writing, I never get any writing done. The act of writing inspires more writing in me. So I try to write something – anything during my writing times. However, I find that wrting “screen notes” like Misty suggested doesn’t work for me. I have to make at least some attempt at actually writing (even if I know it sucks) before the inspiration builds. Then I go back and re-write my sucky stuff after I have warmed up.

    I guess I can call it the Model-T Method, I have to turn my crank before getting the ol’creative motor started. *laugh*

  • I’m afraid I have no sympathy at all for the “I must wait for inspiration” storytellers. As we have said here approximately four million times, this is a job. One does not wait for inspiration to go to one’s job as a grocery clerk or a secretary or a web designer or a surgeon. One just gets up and goes to work.

    Misty, it rains a lot in Scotland. Just warning you. :)

  • It didn’t when I was there. 😛 In fact, the weather was better than in Germany.

  • I find that when I’m done writing for the day, the best thing for my next day’s productivity us to ask my muse questions. I work in the yard or go for a bike ride and wonder what happens next or how to connect the ideas.

    Then, not so magically, the next day when I’m writing, my muse has the report on my desk by 8am. Well, not always, sometimes she’s a little late or sleeps in, but most days my muse is there for me with at least some of the answers.

  • Catie said, Misty, it rains a lot in Scotland. Just warning you.

    Bleys would love it! He prefers dark dreary days full of rain and wind. I’m more of the sunshine, blue skies and gentle ocean breeze type.

  • Great post, Misty.
    I must admit, I’m guilty of uttering those ill-fated words “I can’t write; I’m not inspired!”. It’s shameful, but true. However, I’m learning that it doesn’t matter. I’m a writer and in order to continue calling myself one means I must write. I once read that it doesn’t matter what you write, just that you write.

    I’m in the final stages of editing a trilogy and boy o boy am I tired of these characters and all their drama :). There are days I avoid the ms, knowing it’s sitting there at my feet, glaring from the bag I’ve stuffed it in. I find my muse sneaks up on me at these times, when I’ve committed to editing a “finished” work, and bombards me with ideas! Cursed, fickle muse! Why couldn’t wait until next week when I’m finished editing, or three months ago when I was starting book three? Argh…

    I’m a champion at typing “They do *this* here” and then moving on to further the story. Then I come back and think, “O, crap. Now I have to actually write that scene!” But it usually works out far better than it would have if I’d trudged through it to begin with.

    As for living and writing on the coast, count me in. Only I’d pull up my chair to a cottage window over looking the rugged Irish coast!

    Val: I’ve never gone so far as to type out “this chapter sucks” but I may now! I’ve had plenty that did and I just wanted to forget the whole mess!

    ~Jennifer

  • Now keep in mind that when William Shakespeare penned “Oh for a muse of fire…” he was complaining about having nothing to say. :)