Friday, July 23, 2010

How Your Muse Can Kill Your Book

I've never been much of a believer in muses or inspiration. I'd like it if lightning flickered down from the heavens and zapped me with genius, but the books don't get written if I wait around for creative magic to whack me upside the head. It tends to come on slowly, after I've knuckled down to work on a manuscript.

In fact, sometimes the notion of having a muse can be downright destructive for me.

After all, if I have a muse, I need to nurture her, right? Something as delicate as a muse must be pretty high maintenance.

It seems like a muse would need a comfortable home, spacious and airy, where she could fly free. She would require elaborate little rituals that would lure her out to play. She might be easily frightened, and easily sidetracked; if she doesn't run away altogether, chances are she might dash off to do something else--watch TV, maybe, or play with the dog.

In her book The Creative Urge, choreographer Twyla Tharp covers all those issues. "When you have selected the environment that works for you, developed the start-up ritual that impels you forward every day, faced down your fears, and put your distractions in their proper place, you have cleared the first hurdle," she said. "You have begun to prepare to begin."

The trouble is, it's tough to get past that point. The biggest obstacle may be that first one -- setting up a place that makes you comfortable with creating. Nesting is an ingrained instinct, especially for women, and creating nurturing places is a uniquely satisfying undertaking. How many of us have spent months creating the perfect writing space in preference to actually writing?

If you're stuck on this step, think about whether you're focusing on the right projects. I used to think my creative impulse was geared toward drawing and painting. But I found it impossible to put brush to canvas unless my house was completely clean and tidy. I somehow convinced myself of the odd notion that disorder made creativity impossible. And of course, my house was never clean enough and I never got anything done.

But the fact was, I didn't really like painting. The end result never quite lived up to the image in my mind. I found it frustrating and only rarely rewarding.

But when I write, I surprise myself with connections and complexities in my stories I wasn't aware of at the start. The end product is almost always better than I expected. Writing is a delight and a pleasure.

So the dishes can stack up, the dust bunnies can multiply, and the mail can pile up on the doormat. I'd rather be writing.

Still, there aren't difficult days when I find myself turning to start-up rituals. Clear the desk. Dust the monitor. Clear away everything except my magic stuffed chicken and my Virginia Woolf action figure.

Finally, after all this fidgeting, I usually realize I'm spinning my wheels and settle down to getting things done.

There are also days -- not many of them, fortunately -- when setting my hands on the keyboard scares me a little. Like a kid at her first piano recital, I stare down at the keys and my mind goes blank. What if the words don't come? What if they're not good words? What if I really did have a muse, and I killed it?

I've read that fear of the blank page is a product of perfectionism, and that makes sense to me. Perfectionism is the personality flaw that made me write an incredibly ambitious hundred-page opus that never got finished for high school lit class instead of the required ten-page paper. It's the force that makes me dissatisfied with being an ordinary human being and not a superhero. And I'm convinced it's the reason a lot of people never start their novel.

Maybe you know you have a story to tell. But how do you undertake such an ambitious project? It might not be any good. It might get rejected by dozens of agents and editors. You might not be the next Stephen King.

So you keep dreaming, and never do it.

This is why you have to give yourself permission to write crap - at least at first, and on the bad days. You have to learn somehow, and you don't have to show it to anyone. If someone's standing over you with a whip, demanding you present them with brilliance one hour after you start typing, you've got bigger problems than perfectionism. You're hanging out with a psycho.

And once you start, don't let yourself be sidetracked. Getting up and doing something else is a choice. Which is more important: whether Jake picks Vienna on The Bachelor, or whether you get your book written? (Please tell me it's the book. If the fate of the universe depends on Jake and Vienna, we're in deep trouble.) Which matters more, going shopping or writing? Only you can decide. (Unless the shopping trip involves shoes or chocolate. You might need help on that one.)

But Jake and Vienna broke up already, and shopping - even for shoes - can wait.
I vote you write the novel.

13 comments:

  1. Hi, Joanne! Great post! For my last 3 novels, I actually was inspired by real life events...but of course, that's only just the trigger. After that...I have to knuckle down and write the werewolf version. LOL :) I wanted to paint/draw, but my folks who were painters/artists, told me to take up another pursuit. *sigh* So I created art in the form of teddy bears and embroidery work! :) And I created stories since I was young.

    I'm on my way to my son's wedding and look forward to seeing everyone who will be at Nationals, got your number, Joanne! and for everyone who won't be there, hope to see you next time! :)

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  2. What a great post, Joanne~

    I really hate shopping, and I watch only NCIS, TopGear, and now Covert Affairs. I watch them on demand so I don't have to deal with commercials, and I usually watch first thing in the morning with my coffee and breakfast or during my lunch hour--not writing time.

    It's important for me to not do fun things during my writing time. If I'm not going to write, whatever is keeping me from writing has to be something horrible, like scrubbing the bathroom, taking a kid to the doctor, or grocery shopping. So far, only taking the kid to the doctor has kept me from writing, or if I'm starving, grocery shopping (which happens rarely) I have yet to scrub the bathroom. I so don't see that happening.

    Robin :)

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  3. Terry, have fun at the wedding! Hopefully you will think of a werewolf version of that...
    Can't wait to see you at RWA!

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  4. Robin, I agree: the fun stuff has to wait! I've been trying to have writing time separate from "other" time more, so I'm not always working in between other duties. In other words, I actually take the day off once in a while! But I still try not to scrub the bathroom:)

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  5. In my time off from my 'real' job, pretty much all I do is write. Everything else takes a back seat until it's something I have to do like taking my son to the doctor or making sure the family gets fed--and sometimes they have to fend for themselves. If I've got a muse, she's probably getting really tired!

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  6. For me, setting a tangible goal works. I know once I reach it I can do something fun--like laundry.

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  7. I think I'm in the minority here. I write in utter chaos. No set time. No set location. I only work on novels when the mood strikes me, which luckily, is often and/or pretty much constant. That's the writing "part" of creating a book. The revisions "thing" is new to me and requires much more discipline and banging of head against walls. I don't enjoy revising as much as I enjoy writing the first draft. Revising feels like work, where writing feels like fun. Revising uses my logical mind, writing uses the creative mind. Both are necessary for me to get the book right. If only those two minds would figure out how to work together and get it all exactly right the first time. Maybe with time. I'm not holding my breath.

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  8. Since there are two of us who make up Lydia Dare... the muse is often one of us nagging the other one for pages. Oh, yeah, and those impending deadlines.

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  9. Cheryl - don't wear out that muse! But I know what you mean. If I'm not at work, I'd just as soon be writing as anything.

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  10. Shana - Goals work for me, too. Lately I make it a weekly goal, so I'm flexible day to day. For instance, today the grandkids are here! I have to play trucks and cars instead of writing:)

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  11. Olivia - I just read an excerpt from your book, and whatever you're doing it's working! I love the way you write and can't wait for more.

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  12. Lydia, a nagging muse might be a good thing... Fortunately, Scrape knows how important writing is to me and reminds me not to get sidetracked. Writing as a team must be fun and interesting, though, and it seems to work for you two!

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  13. Great, Joanne!

    And boy do I understand about perfectionism. It is my fanged devil, my werewolf presenting itself in harmless guises, my vampire promising thrills and more satisfaction than I have ever known, while it painlessly drains the life blood of creativity.

    I have never managed to oust it. The best I can do is send it to the corner, where it always waits for that moment when I will lower my guard.

    Oddly enough, it's only writing which is attacked. I never had any problem when I painted. I painted every day, and when I had a painting going, couldn't stop myself from working on it. In fact, I couldn't really understand the question, "Where do you get ideas for your paintings?"

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