Susan is currently in residency for her Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa. This is a recycled and updated post she originally published in 2009 about finding the muse. Enjoy!
Sometimes, if I get lucky when I’m writing, something happens and I am in The Zone. It is hard to explain what this means; I just know that my pen flies across the paper as though possessed. My hand can’t keep up with the images in my mind. Sometimes, when I read my words later, I have no concrete memory of writing them.
On other occasions, I might wake in the middle of the night with a dream on the tips of my fingers and get up and write without a thought to what it may mean. I curl into my biggest chair and scribble away. Or driving alone, I may be overtaken by an idea—a bud of a flower that demands instant water, food and sunlight. Sometimes it’s a fleeting thought, sometimes a complete sentence. Regardless, I am compelled to stop and take notice.
Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) refers to the Greeks and their daemons, to the Romans and their genius. Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) called it The Spooky Art. Stephen King, the master of modern creative fiction, writes, “Your job isn’t to find these ideas. It’s to recognize them when they show up.”
So what is this thing, that when captured, can pour out of writers like magic? And what is it, that when absent, literally drives some writers to drink?
Therein lies the problem: it’s another story altogether when you summon the muse and she refuses to speak. Your fingers become clumsy, as though this is the first time you have ever attempted such a thing. I’ve sat for nights on end, waiting for something to appear on the page. I think back to my creative writing classes from twenty-five years ago, trying to remember a nugget of instruction to help me summon inspiration.
I buy books on writing (I have a full shelf of writers telling me how to write). Yet reading about writing, I have found, is not writing. Reading about not writing is never the cure for not writing. Just like the only cure for obesity is eating less and moving more, the cure for writers block is whining less and writing more. Just write.
Here are some exercises and suggestions that have helped me. (See? I am now a writer talking about writing to writers who are having a difficult time writing). Keep in mind that the key to all of this is just doing the work. You can write longhand or type, sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words out.
1) Begin a paragraph with the following sentence: “In my mind I see…” and take it from there. If you are working on a specific piece, put this in your character’s point of view. Write at least 200 words, more if you catch inspiration by the tail. One of my favorite pieces I ever wrote started with this exercise.
2) Go stand outside and describe what’s out there. How’s the weather? (Hemingway said, "Remember to get the weather in your god damned book- weather is very important.") How does the air feel: heavy and sticky, or brittle and cool? How will the weather affect your scene? If you are writing about a hurricane, don’t tell me it’s raining. I want to smell it, hear it and feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck with the electricity of the storm. Don’t shortchange your readers by leaving something this crucial out of your work.
3) Working Papers- The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron recommends journaling three pages each morning before you start the work of the day. Three pages of purging, I call it, shaking the leaves from your trees, shedding the dead skin cells before getting to the flesh of things. “I need to go to the store today,” Or, “I am worried about my mother.” Get these things out of your system before really working on your project. De-clutter your brain matter of all the things that are on your mind. Then you can find your story.
These three simple exercises may help, or they may not be for you. Remember that your writer’s block is your own—not mine, not Hemingway’s or Virginia Woolf’s. Remember that your muse, too, belongs to you. Welcome her and don’t let her pass you by. At the same time, don’t curse her when she is elsewhere. Show up for the job whether your inspiration is there or not. And the words will appear, sometimes in painful jumps and starts, sometimes flowing like a Carolina stream. But show up. There is no easier way to fail at your novel than simply not writing it.