How To Feed And Keep A Muse: It isn’t easy. Nobody has ever done it consistently. Those who try hardest, scare it off into the woods. Those who turn their backs and saunter along, whistling softly between their teeth, hear it treading quietly behind them, lured by a carefully acquired disdain.
-Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing-
A writerly contradiction: if you force your writing, it won’t come. But if you sit around and wait for your Muse to inspire you, it’s not gonna happen either.
It’s a delicate balance of these two modes: not waiting around for divine inspiration, but not beating a dead horse, either. And in the middle of these two negative processes is the most valuable step of all first drafts, of any art. It’s a powerful choice, done in the midst and at the end of any first draft. I call it:
The Fuck It Moment
How many writing instructors have you had that tell you to do timed writing, or Morning Pages, or write every day until you’re plaid in the face? Well, there’s a reason for that, particularly when you’re beginning, or labouring through to gestate, a first draft.
What these generative exercises do is tease the Muse into following you. The more you write down — “This is stupid, I remember nothing, I can’t see straight, how much longer, my knees are falling asleep, I have carpal tunnel syndrome…” — the more chance that suddenly in the middle of the dross will emerge a sparkle. Something weird, unusual for you, something you would never plan on writing, something truly worth cutting and polishing and setting in white gold and selling on the dark internet. But the little gem wouldn’t have come without sifting through all that dirt first. Ask any miner. Or jeweller.
My own foul-language version of Bradbury’s cute little tripping-through-the-forest Muse concept came first for me through a theatrical experience, not a writing one at all.
Scene: acting school, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1993 or 4 or thereabouts. I’m, like,
twenty years old, and a total hotshot. I was doing a scene with a good friend. We laboured on it until we were both exhausted and it remained nothing but mediocre at best. Over and over our instructor said, “I don’t understand why this isn’t working for you.”
The scene (as we did it) was shallow, melodramatic and boring, and we were at our wits’ end how to improve. No amount of homework-rehearsal made it better. In fact, it just made our scene worse—we began to hate it as we burned out on it. Time came for the final showing in class, pretty much one of the last bits of graded acting we were to do for our BFA degree. Not only did we know perfectly well our scene still sucked, but the instructor knew, too. We were about to bite it in front of everyone. What to do?
That’s right: I said “Fuck it! Let’s just do this,” to my scene partner, and we did. Neither of us
could possibly work on this anymore, and all the work we had done already wasn’t helping, so Fuck It.
I laughed through most of my lines, moving around the studio in ways I’d never rehearsed, letting my voice go everywhere in my wide range, finally succumbing to exhausted tears. Then laughing about them. My partner reacted wholly honestly to my weirdness, not sure what to do about any of it other than go on.
When we finished, breathing heavily, mussed and sweaty, there was a deep silence in the acting studio. Then, astonished applause.
I had, as Bradbury says, scared the Muse away by whipping the scene to death with what I thought were “good acting techniques.”
When I said Fuck It, I let go all those set ideas, all those expectations, all my inhibitions and went with whatever, not worrying about whether it was any good or not because clearly it wasn’t going to be. The result of which is some of the best acting I’ve done to date, and certainly one of the best scenes in that class.
I’m sure you’ve understood by now that this relates completely and absolutely to the process of writing – and most arts, I would aver.
The catch with this kind of thinking, though, is that the letting go cannot and does not work unless first you have a solid base of technique. This is something that Bradbury, in my opinion, doesn’t stress enough in his chapter adorably titled “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.”
If you have been writing every day, if you read constantly, if you take classes, then you will have a good intake and output balance that will mean when you reach your own Fuck It Moment, you will know how to write to keep up with it. If I hadn’t had nearly four years acting training before the above example, you better believe the scene would have fallen apart in a big mess.
Noted YA author Philip Pullman described the writing process at a book signing I attended a few years back. He began by describing the intensive research process necessary before you begin your first draft: including copies of research articles, lots of yellow Post-It notes arranged all over them, etc. Then he advised how the first draft actually begins: you throw the research and the outlines and the post it notes out the window, and write completely afresh on something that has nothing to do with all the process he described in the pre-writing phase.
We all laughed, but he then insisted the research and the post it notes were quite necessary to complete the whole first draft. Even though it’s also necessary to throw them out.
Pullman’s Post-It note phase (whatever that is for you – for young-acting-school-me, it was
training and rehearsal. For you it could be endless planning and reading) is essential to the first draft process.
Without that solid base, your wild ride with the Muse will leave you with nothing more than bleeding wounds and a soggy mess. But with the structure and solid base of technique, experience, and/or training, you’ll get off the roller coaster bruised and shaking, but with a good first draft clutched in your fist.
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