The Runaway Muse
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
William Faulkner said that, and it’s one of my favorite quotes about writing. I’ve been writing books for more than thirty years. Besides my own novels, I’ve ghostwritten novels and nonfiction books of all stripes and colors. (Well, okay, I’ve never written a cookbook or a step-by-step guide to performing brain surgery. I know my limitations.) I’ve made a business out of writing, and I’m fortunate to have a job that both pays the bills and gives me so much satisfaction.
Sometimes writing is easy. The words flow out of me and onto the computer screen with effortless grace and precision. They are entertaining, clever, and thoroughly engaging. Every one of them does its job to move the plot forward or define a character or build a strong sense of anticipation in the reader. Life is good.
But not every moment in the writing of a book is euphoric bliss. I know what it feels like to stare at my computer’s screen, fingers fidgeting restlessly at the keyboard, with a brain seemingly as blank as the screen. I may be wondering: Is this the right place for Eddie to learn the truth? Or: Do I want to let the reader know what the killer is thinking? Or: Should I have Bethany say something funny to lighten the mood? Or: Is Tina going to slap/stab/kiss/hug/scold/admonish Keith? Or, in more general terms: What happens next?
That’s always the basic question. What happens next?
Sometimes I just don’t know. Sometimes it seems that my right brain wants to argue with my left brain over every detail of plot movement, character interaction, and turn of phrase. It’s frustrating when a day starts like that. It feels as though my Muse has decided to take the day off without warning me in advance. Writer’s block. It’s dreaded by wordsmiths everywhere.
In my early years, when writer’s block hit I often decided to follow my Muse’s example by taking the day off. What good could it do to torture myself by working on my book when I didn’t even have an answer for that key question: What happens next? Why struggle with the language when every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase that I pried out of my brain was hopelessly dull and awkward? When you’re in a situation like that, doesn’t it make sense to give your recalcitrant brain a rest by taking a long walk or catching up on the latest movies you’ve been wanting to see?
To me, anything sounded better than sitting in front of my typewriter staring at a blank page. (No computer back then, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen. The main thing the computer gives you in this situation is a lot more ways to goof off.) But trying to escape never helped the situation. Even if I abandoned my novel for an hour or a day or a week, the problem that caused me to abandon it was always still there when I returned.
I gradually realized that my Muse had a reason for running away from time to time. It was because she knew – and I knew, on some level beyond my conscious notice – that something about the story or the scene wasn’t working. This could be a character acting in an inconsistent way, a weakness in the plot, or any number of other problems. If I was stuck, if I couldn’t figure out what would happen next in my novel, it was usually because something had gotten screwed up in the scene and I just hadn’t fully realized it yet. This may sound a little mystical, but it isn’t. We all have an active subconscious, and if we truly have a Muse, that’s where she hangs out.
Nowadays, when I encounter the temporary writer’s block that frustrated and intimidated me in my early years, I don’t run away from it. Instead, I take a deep breath and dig in. I review my outline and development notes, and then I back up to read the scenes leading up to the block. Eventually I find the spot where things got off track, and I fix it and move on. I’ve found that confronting and resolving a problem in this way almost always leads to some of my best writing. Go figure.
There’s a moral to this story: If you’re serious about your writing, don’t abandon it just because your Muse has gone AWOL. Apply butt to chair, fingers to keyboard, and eyeballs to screen. Work through the problem that has frightened your Muse. With a little coaxing, she’ll come back.