The On-Again-Off-Again Muse or How I Keep Writing

On March 9, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, A few years ago, by the time I was into my second book, I got to the point where I was writing at least three hours, every single day (which seems like a LOT to me!). I look back and don’t know how I was doing it! Nowadays I just don’t feel nearly as inspired or motivated. Lately I’ve been writing a few words every couple weeks, if not months. It’s sad, I enjoyed it when I was writing more, but the inspiration just isn’t coming like that any more.

I noted that this wasn’t a question, but I added it to my list anyway, because I think getting down to writing is something lots of us struggle with.

Three hours does seem like a lot to me. Great while it lasted. And maybe it’s returned by now.

Let me start with my most pessimistic response and move upward. Kids who love to write don’t always continue to write stories. Many young people who love to write are artistic overall and wind up swearing their allegiance to another art form, like painting or playing the flute. The writing fades, often painlessly. Some adults and other young people who love to write may become discouraged by rejection or criticism, and their enthusiasm wanes. This probably isn’t painless.

On a subconscious level, I think, some bump up against how fiendishly hard writing is and don’t find it in themselves to keep going. They allow themselves to be distracted by other tasks that seem more pressing. The budding story is visited less and less often.

A friend once pointed something out to me that I’d never considered: There are two kinds of art. One is interpretive, like playing the piano from sheet music, and the other is originating, like writing a story or composing music. When we write a story, we do have tools: our training, experience, every book we’ve ever read. But the page is blank and we have to make it all up. In my opinion, that’s much harder–not that interpretation is easy!

I don’t mean that leaving writing means we won’t ever come back. Life may teach us to cope with criticism and rejection. Or we may reread an old story fragment, love it as we couldn’t when it was newly minted, and be filled with fresh ideas. The capricious muse may pay us a visit and decide to stay.

And, usually, people who stop writing fiction are still skilled writers. They can draft an academic paper, an email, even a text message with more ease and flair than the average person. This stands them in good stead forever.

Some writers write only when they feel inspired. Some of them have careers as writers. Many of them, when inspiration comes, dive in and don’t surface until the magic is spent, often when a work is complete. Eating and sleeping have to wait. If you and Writeforfun fall into this category, I wouldn’t worry about a drought. The rain will come.

I don’t fall into the inspirational group, so I have to work at making myself write. I use several strategies that you on the blog can adapt, if you don’t use them already.

∙ Some writers have a daily page goal, which may work for you. The goal can be one paragraph or one page or five pages, whatever you decide. I don’t do it that way, or I’d face a lot of twenty-four hour stretches at my laptop and still fail. Instead, I have a time goal: two-and-a-quarter hours or more per writing day. (Some days I’m doing other things, like visiting friends.) I keep track of my times, starting at the beginning of the day. Whenever I stop, like to put dishes in the dishwasher or read an irresistible email, I write down the stop time and the restart time. If I reach my goal and the day isn’t over, I keep writing. As I go, I keep a running tally of the total.

∙ On days when, for no good reason, I don’t meet my goal, usually because I allowed myself to be distracted, I forgive myself. Always. Forgiveness guaranteed. Because if I don’t, it’s much harder to start the next day. This is a super important part of the process that keeps me writing–forgiveness. I urge you to adopt it, too.

∙ I ignore my brain when it tells me that what I’m writing stinks. This is also super important. Nothing can paralyze my fingers as effectively as a negative voice in my mind. I have to brush the voice aside or I can’t go on. But I encourage myself to be aware of specific problems in my story. Right now, in my WIP about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, I sometimes get so caught up in events that I forget their impact on my MC, the person my readers will care about. As a result, the tension suffers. At the top of my manuscript, I note this as something to think about in revision  and keep going. I keep reminding myself that what I have so far is only the first draft and that I love to revise.

∙ I imagine an approving reader. If this story is something I think my editor will really go for, it’s her. At other times it may be the writers in my poetry critique group, who are young enough to have grown up on my fiction. Sometimes it’s the child reader I used to be. Anyone or anything–a teddy bear–will do. The approving reader stokes my enthusiasm and generates new ideas to please her.

∙ By now I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I will finish my story, unless some real-life disaster strikes. I’ve made my way through the toughest of books (Stolen Magic) and gotten to The End. If you don’t have a lot of experience, remember that experience is what you’re building. Every story is evidence that you can hang in there. And every story that you don’t finish is just a stop on the way toward finishing.

∙ And there are Notes and Lists, which I’ve talked about in many posts to help me get to the end. Both are where I work out the knots in my story. In Notes and Lists, the stakes are low, really nothing. No one will see them. I can write anything! I can shake out my brain and see what emerges.

Just saying, the stakes are truly low in writing in general. If, for once, I fail to finish a story, no one will die. I can start another. I can congratulate myself on not putting more time into a project that just won’t work.

These are the strategies that keep me writing. And here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is called a Creator. She makes wire figures, touches them with her left pinky, and they become anatomically correct foot-tall people. She types out three qualities that each of her creations will have and places the paper with the qualities on their tongue. As soon as they close their mouths, the paper dissolves and they come to life, incorporating the qualities. Have your MC create three such characters. Put them in a story along with their Creator, who meddles, just as we meddle in the lives of our characters.

∙ For possibly a dark story, imagine that the evil queen in “Snow White” has a child of her own–son or daughter, you decide–put the two in a story with or without Snow White. What kind of parent will she be? What will happen?

∙ “Pinocchio” is about creator, creation, and lying, which is what writers do. Imagine that Pinocchio wants desperately to be a real boy and he realizes that real boyness means having the power to lie. He won’t be real unless he can lie. Retell the story with that element.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Inspired

First off: We put the first chapter of A Tale of Two Castles up on my website. Click here to read it: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/tcas_prev.html. And click here for the cool book trailer that HarperCollins created: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/video/tcas_trailer.mov. If you have trouble opening it, you can also watch it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK05DTpbOn8.

Also new on the website, we added first chapters to three other of my books, Dave at Night, Fairest, and Writing Magic. We hope to have the rest available soon.

And, if you click here, http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html you’ll see the latest photograph of puppy Reggie, who grows more adorable every day, in our opinion. And housebreaking is starting to take. Whoopee!

February 20, 2011 Piper wrote, …where do you get your inspiration?

I don’t think of myself  as an inspired writer so much as one who plugs away, so when I use the word in the post, I’m not certain I’m using it in the way inspiration is commonly used or even that I’m answering the question, but here’s hoping.

That concern aside, my inspiration for being a writer is my childhood reading. Reading ranked just below breathing in importance when I was little. Privacy was in short supply in our cramped apartment. I shared a bedroom with my older sister, who believed I had been created to plague her. Books pulled down the walls that confined me. The ones I read as a child made me a writer for children. I still love to read, but reading isn’t as important to me now as it was then.

The books I attached to were mostly old: Louisa May Alcott’s novels, L. M. Montgomery’s, Heidi, Bambi, Black Beauty, Peter Pan. I relished books about Robin Hood and King Arthur, tall tales, and of course fairy tales. If I liked a book I read it over and over. Through my favorite books and rereading them I absorbed a sense of plot, character, language, even grammar and usage. The old books didn’t limit their vocabulary to what a child would know. What a gift!

When I write, I’m writing for my younger self, which is probably my most fundamental and continuing inspiration.

There are certainly writers for children, however, who weren’t big readers when they were small, some who may be inspired to write because they disliked reading. They want to write books for their younger selves, too, in their case books for today’s children who pick up a book only when they have to for school. These writers may eschew difficult vocabulary words for the reasonable reason that they hated them. I once got a letter from a child who didn’t like Ella Enchanted because of the made-up languages, which he or she (I don’t remember which) didn’t understand. Hard words can frustrate a child and make her feel stupid. I don’t avoid them, but I understand why some writers do.

In 1987 when I started to write for children, I read the books in the Newbery bookcase at the library. I found in many of them the same old-fashioned approach to storytelling that I knew from my childhood, which made me feel right at home and as if I could join in. Another inspiration.

I took writing courses, too, and met fellow writers. My favorite class was a workshop. Every week our teacher would read three or four selections of student work that had been submitted to her the week before. After she read, the class would comment and then she would. Many published writers took this course. The same writing issues (like the ones that come up on the blog) would appear in different guises week after week, so advice would be repeated. The effect was much like rereading books; I absorbed the comments of the more experienced writers, and now their voices are in my mind when I write. I hear them ask me what my characters are thinking and feeling or if I’ve written information that the reader doesn’t need to know and that only I do. My teachers and my classmates are another inspiration.

Today, my writing friends inspire me. Every month two friends come over for lunch. There’s no purpose. We don’t critique each other’s work. Sometimes we shop talk about publishing. Often our own writing comes up. It’s rarely smooth sailing for any of us, which is a comfort and, in an odd way, an inspiration. My critique buddy and I meet monthly too. My book deadline isn’t looming, so having pages for her is a goal.

I still go to fairy tales for ideas and inspiration. The book I’m struggling with now was inspired by a nineteenth century fairy tale called “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, a morality tale about greed. Two rapacious brothers are turned into black stones and their younger, generous brother is rewarded. What I love about the story is the gothic atmosphere. The wind roars into the brothers’ house; the king of the river is a golden mug that melts; the brothers have to climb a forbidding mountain. I wondered what the story’s sequel might be if the stone brothers came back to life. Then my tale changed, and it isn’t about that any more, but the seed probably remains.

What keeps me writing may be the internal-ness of the process, the communion with myself. Like reading, writing is intensely private. We’re fishing in our own minds, and sometimes we pull out magic fish.

There’s also the fact that I earn my living as a writer, which, if not an inspiration, is a goad. What else? Meditating, which I used to do more regularly before Reggie arrived, sometimes causes ideas to bubble up. Exercise also. Plus the drive that artists have to create. I’m at a loss if I’m not working on something.

So here’s something for you to work on, some classic themes that you may have enjoyed as children. Write a story about one or more of these:

•    a dog, horse, or any pet who thinks in language and is separated from her owners.

•    an orphan traveling to an unknown place.

•    a child separated from her family by war.

•    a stowaway on a ship of the royal fleet.

•    a family struggling with poverty.

•    an outlaw set against an unjust society.

Have fun and save what you write!