Never Shun the Muse
Let’s talk about how scary the blank page is for the writer. But first, hello! We are in that time of year where those of us who live on the academic calendar witness a series of interesting traditions. By now, we have seen any number of the following: end of semester projects, awards ceremonies, proms, graduations, commencements, and questions about what’s next. Even if what’s next is a summer off.
For those of us who work in academia, you might feel a mixture of wistful anxiety. I remember when I had those experiences. I watch my students move on with a feeling of pride, but also wonder about my place in it all. If the young people are getting on in years, what does that say about middle-aged me?
Fortunately, I have much to distract myself most summers. That way I can’t spend too much time gazing at my navel or, more appropriately, as a Gen-X person, my shoes. I’ll be traveling and teaching in Maine (Maine Media), Florida (Longleaf), Vermont (Bread Loaf), Virginia (Randolph), plus a trip to Amsterdam (Read My World-Anniversary Edition). I love teaching because I can do for others what my mentors did for me: shine a little light. I figure, if I can’t completely quell my own anxieties, I can help other writers with theirs. Some of the programs are still accepting attendees. Feel free to sign up. I’d love to meet you. Back to business.
I've talked about the blank page before. It's the scariest thing we face. It's more worrisome than our personal demons. It produces even more anxiety than our great fear, being seen by the world.
To live in the head of a writer is to enter a flood of sensation and experience. Yes. Everyone has these sensations and experiences. But not everyone is constantly bombarded by possibility. And the ability to create based on those endless possibilities. Writers live in the multiverse where every person greets fortune and failure in the same breath.
We writers live within this flurry of the imagination from the time we're children. It's the reason we daydream and space out. It's the reason we see things that aren't there. It why we make out of the box comments that make people stare. As we grow, we learn to suppress ourselves in polite company.
The mental whirlwind never stops. If we're fortunate, we can spin this yarn of weirdness, madness, and singularity into gold. But most of us have day jobs. Our bosses freak out if we go off kilter. So we mush and stuff those ideas into the pirate chest of our soul.
Sometimes we forget it's there…
Friends, let me tell you a story. This is a true story. It happened to me, Maurice, who is speaking on this phone while wearing fingerless gloves. Makes me nervous to even think about it. But I don't want to hold the story in because it might spoil.
By this time in 2018, I had sold my first book. We were wrapping up copy editing. We were working out the marketing campaign, cover, collecting blurbs. This was the victory lap for a book that would go on to do well.
I had a meeting with my agent and later with my editor, Victory, who has since retired. We were having tea one day in Manhattan. It was a wonderful discussion because Victory is such a light. I always felt cared for in their presence. I hope I made them feel the same.
They asked me what I was working on. In other words, what would the next novel be? I had a policy to always be thoughtful and always tell the truth with them. Honestly, this is not my policy with everyone. This is why my face got hot.
I admitted that I didn't know what was next. But followed up that I had an idea. I'm competitive. Leaving without offering up something would have felt like a loss. So I was quiet for a moment, searching for anything in my mind. This is what a I blurted out...
There's a girl. I don't know if she's past present future but lemmetellyouVictory I can feel her. She's not free. But she has so much spirit. And she will be free!
Victory took a sip. Peered over their teacup and smiled. It was a smirk. But their smirks are never cruel. They glimmer. My hot face erupted in flame. Frankly, I was very embarrassed. Why?
Because I always said I would not write a 'slave narrative.' There's too much that's been done. And honestly too much that the white gaze demands from such a story. To pull off such a story in a loving way would require skills I didn't have. Likely would never have.
We bid hearty farewell. I went on living life. I published my second book with my new editor, the brilliant Nicole Counts. (That book, a collection of short stories called The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, is out in paperback next month.) I did a residency for a year. Life was good. La dolce vida. But something bothered me for literally years. It's the idea I told Victory in that posh breakfast spot. Where did it come from?
I hadn't been thinking about it. I hadn't written in a journal on it. It was NOT my plot. I didn't have a plot. Let me be clear: that concept came out of nowhere in the moment I spoke it. Do you understand what I'm saying? I had been visited by the muse
The muse is a fundamental spirit. It is as essential a force to the life of the writer as gravity. The muse appears erratically and often when we're not ready. Sometimes we don't even recognize it. We think, "what a bizarre idea. That's not for me." And go about our days.
I'm sitting in a massive gym at the university where I'm employed. If a fire were to break out, a claxon in the ceiling would go off and a tiny but terrifically bright light would flash. With my headphones in, I wouldn't hear the alarm. Looking away, I wouldn't see the light.
But that lights been flashing for four years. And it was only this morning in this gymnasium that I realized the book that I just finished my main work on. The same book I struggled for years to start is the same idea I blurted out in 2018.
…several weeks later…
Where do stories come from? It’s easy for crafty writers like myself to make pithy statements about the muse and act like it all makes perfect sense.
It doesn’t make perfect sense. Because it can’t.
Inspiration comes from the universe that’s all around us. It comes from handy techniques that you can use to get started like writing prompts and setting deadlines. But if I could offer one bit of advice for writers about how to move forward in their writing it would be this: show up.
This applies to both budding writers and veterans.
Newer writers—this is a fraught phrase as there are plenty of people in their 50s that fall into this category—are sometimes afraid of the blank page because they haven’t had the kinds of victories that lead to confidence. You may have won a writing contest in elementary school, but that was during the Reagan Administration.
And I’ve had many published authors tell me about their years in the wilderness. They lived entire lives in their 20s, 30s, 40s, without feeling the satisfaction of a published book. They were embroiled in all the entanglements of being alive: love affairs, children, career heartburn, you name it. Your narrator falls into this category.
But new writers publish books all the time. And veteran writers make the transition from rank amateur to savvy expert constantly. In all cases, the one thing that made a difference was the commitment to whipping out their writing pad or laptop and getting something onto the page.
This is not an argument for writing every day. I’m not an everyday writer. This is not a call for setting tortuous goals (ex. 40 pages by Thursday!).
All I’m saying is that you are bursting with ideas. If someone asks you what you might work on, those ideas can fall out without you even realizing it. But when you write, those ideas fall onto the page. That’s what the muse is. She is the moment when story opportunity meets commitment. A few short minutes at your writing desk can change your life. Ask any writer. They’ll say the same.
(Note to Premier Subscribers: I’m still accepting questions for the mailbag posts called Questions in Silence. I’ve been getting enough questions about everything [writing, craft, joy, worry, etc.] that I may do the mailbag several times a month rather than once per month.)