Everyone has their own way of recharging. Some join friends at the bar for karaoke. They stumble out of the bathroom with their pants at their ankles to sing along with off-key.
“Sweet Caroline. Bah-bah-bah!”
Some set out wine and cheese platters and go around in circles discussing highbrow literature. Some park themselves in an ass grove and multi-slack, gaming on one screen and crushing half a season of science fiction on the other.
Others sling yoga mats over their shoulders and stretch that tension out, others sprint around the neighborhood at 4AM, and others lift ingredients into pans.
Whatever it is that you do to revitalize your vitality may good vibes be upon you.
I write. I love the activities listed above, but writing gives me a sense of agency I don’t get from other outlets. Blogging gives my passing observations a sense of permanence. Poetry gives my abstract emotions a tangible form, and narrative writing turns my daydreams into something worth sharing.
When the writing is flowing it’s a big jolt to my self-esteem. When it’s not it taxes the energy it’s supposed to be replenishing. After a day of dealing with draining customers and a night of staring at a blank page I find myself completely tapped. I don’t even have the energy to make a Netflix selection let alone migrate to the bed from my couch cushions.
Creative endeavors are both risky and rewarding. Measuring the costs and the benefits is an undertaking. A lot of patience goes into fine-tuning that work/life balance.
As artists age we can’t help but compare our status to our career minded friends. How are we supposed to afford children in this economy when our Amazon royalties are but pennies? As our lives fill with commitments our creative careers go on the back burner.
I’m going to be using the word “muse” a lot in this post. When I do I’m referring to people with the power to influence your material, not the arpeggio-laden rock band, or the nine daughters of Zeus and any of the sexist connotations that go with them (that conversation is being held in the lecture hall across campus, if you hurry you can still make it).
Call me a cosmonaut but I believe the arts are a form of telepathy, a way to express thoughts and feelings that simply talking (or texting) fail to do. I believe a subtle story of heartbreak has more power to resonate than a loud I feelstatement. By showing instead of telling the story draws out the reader’s empathy. It compels them to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. The abstraction makes the expression all the more genuine. It forces the reader to participate, to draw their own conclusions, and unearth their own theme.
So if art is telepathy and artists are psychics it stands to reason many of us have ideal minds we long to inhabit. Let’s call them muses. These muses could be family members, romantic partners, or associates with mutual interests.
Good muses enhance our writing. When we write with a close confident in mind we put our guard down, get intimate, and create work that resonates, but when we write with the wrong muse our work gets guarded, diplomatic, and disingenuous.
So how the hell are we to know the difference?
Lessons on Screening Muses from Saint Anthony
Saint Anthony the Great is considered to be the father of all monks (and more importantly one of the first Obi-Wan Kenobi figures). Anthony started life with every advantage. His parents were wealthy landowners. He had a stable full of camels and a pocket full of bling, but when he heard Jesus’s message of trading material treasures for treasures in heaven he gave away everything.
Anthony cast off his inheritance, ventured into the desert, and wandered the land. He abandoned human companionship in favor of the divine. He fasted, exposed himself to the harsh Egyptian sun and eventually he started to see things. Anthony had visitations from ethereal figures whose divine leanings weren’t always clear to him.
Angels appeared as scrubs. Demons came on as ballers. It was hard to tell the difference between an angel in humble attire and a devil that had cleaned up well.
Antony’s visions were impaired. Not every angel wore a halo made of tinsel and not every demon wore a vinyl smock with a picture of who they were supposed to be on the chest. Anthony had to rely on his feelings to know which of the creatures he’d encountered.
He realized angels left him feeling rejuvenated, hopeful, and optimistic, while Demons left him feeling drained, exposed, and humiliated.
When screening for muses consider your feelings for the people in question. Really consider. Just because someone is important to you, just because you admire them, doesn’t mean they’re the right person to have in mind when you put pen to paper. That person you’ve been crushing on could be throwing you off your game.
The Person You Most Admire Might Be the Wrong Muse for You
I’m drawn to emotionally unavailable people, people who say, “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. Not anything serious.”
I want something substantial yet I’m drawn to those people. Of course I don’t consciously admit I have a thing for vagabonds. I’m not the one driving when my subconscious decides whom I get to have a crush on. Yet when I do take the wheel I find myself fighting to stay on a winding road that in all likelihood lead straight into a ravine.
These relationships are built on a rocky foundation of abstraction, emotional dithering, and the tension that comes from knowing that at any moment the whole thing come crashing down.
What I’ve learned from my pursuit of these impossible people is they slow my narrative writing right down. People who make you nervous in your heart don’t make for great muses in your art. They do if you’re writing about the individual in question, but not if you’re trying to cover the broad spectrum of human experience. Especially not if you’re delving into a topic that’s outside of the scope of their interest.
Do An Inventor of Your Muses
You can’t always decide who you’re drawn to, but you can decide whom your ideal reader is. Maybe that person shouldn’t be the one you’re trying so damn hard to impress in life. A bad muse will make you feel too embarrassed to write something heartfelt. They will make you censor your life experiences and hide your humiliation. They will have you filing down your jagged edges when you ought to be making them sharper.
If your muse hates horror you’ll find yourself taking all the teeth out of your terror. If they’re prudish you’ll find yourself softening your sex scenes. If they have conservative leanings you’ll find yourself hiding your rebellious streak.
Conversely, if your muse thinks romance is an antiquated notion for sexist baby boomers guess what your stories are going to be lacking? If they harbor a deep hatred of yuppie squares you might get freakier than you really are. If they gag on sentimentality you’ll find yourself getting more sarcastic than you care to be.
A bad muse can stunt your growth or take your writing somewhere insincere. A bad muse slows your flow, they compel you to edit as you go, and ultimately give you writers block.
Just because you want to impress someone doesn’t mean they’re the right person to let into your headspace when you start writing. Use Saint Anthony’s metric for screening demons. Ask yourself: How does this person make me feel the moment they leave the room. Rejuvenated or drained? If they’re someone who consistently pokes holes in your ego odds are they aren’t going to read your writing anyway. So who cares what they think?
Write for the people who hear what you’re working on and ask a slew of follow up questions, for the people who remember story details from one conversation to the next, for the people who make you feel good even after they’ve left.
Like most writers, I have a fantasy prone personality. This proves useful when I’m visualizing the layout of a haunted hotel, filling the art deco décor with pipe organ chandeliers, gargoyles, and mirrored elevators. It proves troublesome when I feel an urge to sit in total silence for several hours imagining what it would’ve been like had I become the rock star my high school self was certain I would, contemplating how I would’ve downplayed public breakups, circumvented beefs with other artists in the press, and teased out topical new material.
Robert A. Heinlein’s second rule of is writing: You must finish what you start.
Neil Gaiman would add: Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
This article is about doing whatever you have to do, even when the spark from your first light bulb moment has gone dim.
What I do When My Inspiration is Incomplete
Ding. A light bulb appears over my head. It’s faint and it’s flickering, but I get the sense it’s one of many lamps leading down a larger path.
Most of my stories come to me like this.
“What if depression acted like a movie producer invading the set of a man’s life and it gave him all these ‘notes’ that ruined his day?”
“What if the corporation that runs reality starts putting features, like gravity, behind a paywall?”
“What if a guy has a different personality disorder for every day of the week?”
These blinking bulbs line the entrance of a conceivable composition. These lamps rarely cast enough light to show a story’s structure. I can’t see the exit from the entrance, but I have a vague sense where the front door is leading. I see movement in the windows, but only catch silhouettes of the characters.
A lot of writers need to see the floor plan before venturing into the building. I’ve found if I keep pacing the block looking for the brightest concept I never go inside. I’m the kind that goes in blind and screws the bulbs in along the way in.
Those first few dings of inspiration might lead me to believe I’m walking into a plot driven mystery, but with a little more light I realize it’s an intimate character study. My skill for lighting depends on my ability to adjust my expectations of the building I’m working on. Continue reading How to Swap the Light Bulbs of Inspiration→
Before a runner can take on a marathon they have to increase their millage over time, running a little more every day, building their muscles, and getting their bodies ready to go the distance. Before a writer can take on a novel they have to increase their word count, writing a little every day, building mental strategies, and getting into the habit of putting words on paper.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve run a marathon before if you’re taking on another you have to put in that leg work again. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already written a novel, if you’ve been out of practice, your brain will need a workout before its up to the task.
Life has a way of teaching you the same lesson over and over. It doesn’t care if you think it’s redundant. It will not apologize for repeating itself. Life goes on and on and on. It never shuts up. When life keeps giving you the same education in suffering it’s up to you to find new meanings in it.
Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
I never had writer’s block when I was in college. Assignments had a way of getting my imagination going. The more constraints professors put on my papers the more coherent they became. I found inspiration in limitations.
It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to support a writer’s ego. Flattery fades, while words of discouragement echo. It’s not that we don’t know how to take a compliment, it’s just that we lie for a living and we’re skeptical of everyone.
Praise for our writing feels like a put-on, something that dissolves upon cross examination. “What was your favorite part of my novel? What did you like most about the characters? Did you even finish it?”
Harsh criticism feels genuine, because it confirms our suspicions. “I knew that story came too easily. I should’ve outlined more. I should’ve shown it to more beta readers.”
What writers aspire to do is hard. We’re a generation trying to launch careers on Amazon while our competition gives everything away on Goodreads. It used to be that no one was buying what we were selling, now no one is taking what we’re giving.
One bad reaction invalidates a thousand compliments from family and friends, who we suspected were only feigning an interest to spare our feelings. A stranger’s insults resonate, because they have no stake in our wellbeing.
I can still quote the first negative comments I got online. They came from a message board where I’d previewed a few poems from what I’d thought was a collection worth publishing.
The first response read, “If you have a book coming out, then I’ll eat my hat.”
Enter the Anti-Muse. At the time, I had no idea how gentle he was being, that this was him on his best behavior. As I continued to share my work in public forums, the two of us became very familiar.
The Anti-Muse believes his tastes are universal. If something isn’t his cup of tea then the person who made it ought to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s not enough for him to dismiss the author’s spark of inspiration, he needs to suck it right out of them.
Rather than leave others to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Anti-Muse burns the field down, planting seeds of doubt to spare the world from another crop of poets, bloggers, and self-publishers. When a budding author asks for advice, he tells them to quit. The Anti-Muse prides himself on his ability to quell artistic ambition.
I remember those first harsh reviews more than what I’d shared. That’s the problem with the Anti-Muse. He likes to linger.
Living with an Anti-Muse on Your Back
Once the Anti-Muse gets under your skin, he sets up shop, stirring up intrusive thoughts, flooding the imagination with bad memories. He needs your self doubt on hand so he can reference it at a moment’s notice.
The Anti-Muse has you writing slow, editing as you go, making you so self conscious about what you’re working on, you’re forgetting crucial details about the story to come. He has you overworking for simple statements, second guessing every line of description.
At first you worry your descriptions are too poetic, then you worry your verbs aren’t evocative enough. You use exaggerations to add emotional weight, catch yourself doing it, then resort to procedural accounts like you’re writing a police report. Your purple prose turn beige.
The Anti-Muse has you over researching your subject, then wondering if your dialogue is too technical, as if you dropped all this knowledge just to prove your knowhow. Then he has you gut every plot line that required any level of expertise.
When your imagination suggests a bold new direction, the Anti-Muse keeps you pressing on a familiar one. You play it safe, making sure everything you write feels familiar. Your characters speak in tired clichés, not because you lack an ear for dialogue, but because you lack the confidence to write your own.
Rereading your result, the Anti-Muse has you wondering if you should even bother editing. That’s his function. He’s a demon, sabotaging creative endeavors until the artist is ready to throw the towel in.
Dismissing the Anti-Muse
The good thing about encountering the Anti-Muse online is that he makes himself easy to identify. Like a desperate lawyer who knows the law isn’t on his side, the Anti-Muse makes appeals to emotion. He hates your art without offering a clear reason he thinks it’s wrong.
In some cases the Anti-Muse doesn’t know enough about the medium to offer constructive criticism, literary theory eludes him, he tears you down, because he doesn’t know how to tell you what to fix. He may not know art, but he knows what he hates.
In other cases, the Anti-Muse knows too much, but refuses to share his wisdom. He’s failed to make it on his own, now he resents anyone with similar aspirations. If he can’t be successful, why should anyone?
Either way, the Anti-Muse’s hostility is easy to dismiss, because you know there’s no sense in reasoning with it.
When I’m online, I tune the Anti-Muse out at the first signs of name calling, profanity, or the words “Sheesh” and “Bro.” I don’t put a spotlight on him when he’s heckling, because I know he only speaks in zingers.
Exploring forums on writing, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see an angry know-it-all, who is only there to put newbies in their place, trash talking like the conversation is a match of Call of Duty. Examining their comment history, I find they’re terminally toxic, self-congratulating, flame war veterans.
Some people come across as the Anti-Muse by accident. They know their stuff, but refuse to cushion their candor. They’ll grade your writing, without a professor’s kindly classroom manor. They don’t have the patience to pay you compliments. They spot problems and dive right in.
Before you go dismissing critics based on their tone, see if they’ve gone to the trouble of citing examples. Did they use terms that seem like foreign jargon? Look up their lingo to see if they touched on tropes you use too often. Did they give suggestions for taking your story in another direction? If they hadn’t come off as smug, would you listen to the advice they’ve given?
Every screenwriter that came to speak at my school said the same thing about getting notes from producers: if a suggestion was based on an abstract feeling, the screenwriter ignored it. If a producer touched on something specific, their advice was always considered.
When it comes to taking criticism, developing a thick skin isn’t a writer’s only responsibility. Developing an ear for good feedback is more important.
A critic’s ability to articulate is what separates assessments from reactions.
“No one cares about you, so why the hell would they want to read your memoir?” Isn’t feedback worth paying attention to.
“Every character speaks with the same voice, same dialect, and same pop culture references. You need to make them more distinct so we know which one is talking.” Is feedback you can use.
Just remember, your work will never be universally loved. You will always be a hack to someone. Accept it and keep writing.
There’s a reoccurring phrase characters on Lost always shout when someone tells them that something is impossible:
Something about that stubborn declaration has always resonated with me. I find myself thinking it, every time someone tells me there’s no future in fiction, that I shouldn’t even bother, that I should leave the storytelling to some old Hollywood producers recycling the same franchises year after year.
Writing for the web, I find it difficult to return to long form storytelling. Maintaining an online presence, my short stories always feel more relevant to hot button issues of the day. Working on a novel, I don’t have the instant gratification of ‘Likes’ and comments.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends churning out a draft in three months. He says, if you wait any longer you’ll lose momentum. For writer’s trying to woo an audience on social media, this time frame is tough to maintain. Blog entries and short stories are speed bumps on our novel’s journey.
Returning to my work in progress, I’m often stumped. The characters aren’t as fresh in my mind. I know where the story is supposed to go, but the direction doesn’t seem as interesting. There’s a writer’s blockade around my inspiration. King’s curse comes true.
Usually I’d just give up and move onto the next bright shiny idea, that was before I’d stumbled onto a method to revive my manuscript. Now, rather than stick to my original outline, I give myself something new to look forward to. Not a crowd pleasing triumph, but a problem in need of solving, a plague on my characters’ houses. A big terrible event on par with George R.R. Martin’s infamous red wedding.
This new tragic twist wouldn’t betray the story, but it would be shocking enough to jump start my interest.
Make a Bad Situation Worse
Rereading works in progress, I look for seismic activity. These tremors take the shape of character traits, details I’d put out there to make the character seem more real.
In The Book of Mirrors, I made Austin, the hero, a troubled teen who’d grown up into a successful author. For flavor, I mentioned that she used to have a compulsion to pluck out her hair. I wasn’t planting anything in the grand scheme of things, but when I got stuck something about that character detail became appealing.
In the story, Austin is brought on to ghost write a draft of a forged diary. The diary is supposed to be a cautionary tale to scare teenage girls away from sex, drugs, and the occult. The problem is it’s been stitched together from the real experiences of a dozen other contributors, each one with a background similar to Austin’s. This Frankenstein’s monster journal is so effective at drawing out the reader’s empathy, it gets under the skin of anyone who works on it.
I got stuck trying to figure out the best way to visualize Austin’s descent into madness. She’d spent the story writing in a mirrored room, a place her benefactor said would help Austin reflect on her life. I figured, he’d return to find she’d broken the mirrors and cut herself with the shards, but as I got closer to the scene, I felt like it was a copout, a cheap horror gag I’d seen several times before.
I was about to put the piece on the back-burner when a little voice inside of me said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if the benefactor returned to discover Austin had plucked herself bald?”
My initial reaction was, “That somehow seems more insane than more traditional forms of self mutilation. If she’s that far gone, how will she come back from that?”
The little voice whispered, “Are you really sure you want her to come back from that?”
Those signs of seismic activity, I’d written subconsciously, steered me toward the emotional volcano at the heart of the story. All I had to do, was listen for the tremors and let it flow.
Mamet’s statement breaks down into three concepts: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. If every character is motivated to act on their goals, there should be conflict, especially if their goal isn’t compatible with anyone else’s. This is how scenes reveal characters, advance the plot, and tip the scales of hope and dread
If the scale is tipped too far toward hope for too long, not only will the audience lose interest, so will you. If it’s tipped too far toward dread the story will be emotionally exhausting, to read and to write. The trick is finding the right balance, to create just enough tension to keep you and your audience engaged until the end.
Not everything that can go wrong in your hero’s life should go wrong, but your reader ought to think it’s a possibility. They need to believe you are a cruel God and that yours is a harsh reality.
I don’t use every tragic outcome that comes to mind, but I foreshadow as many of them as I can. This way, a happy ending feels like a well earned surprise. Trick your audience into thinking you’re telling a tragedy, then give them a victory.
God might forgive people in the moment, but writers should wait until the third act to decide their character’s fate.
I can come back to stories that I’ve sat on because I write with a loose plan, leaving space for bad shit to happen. Just as stories are born from “What if?” questions, so are plot developments. I ask myself, “What if this terrible development upset my hero’s plan?” If I decide the idea is too harsh, I dial it back and it becomes, “What if I allude to the possibility of this terrible development? Now, how do I prevent it from happening?” Either way, I add to the tension.
For me, so much of writing is tricking myself to press on. If I can keep myself at the edge of my seat I’ll keep going, if only to find out what happens.