“The muse has to know where to find you.”
Writing may start in your head, but it has to come out of there, onto the page or the screen.
For that to happen, you have to sit down with a pen and notebook or in front of a computer.
Not everyone recognizes that.
Jericho Brown, a poet and head of the creative writing program at Emory University, posed this question to a class the other day: if you show up for other people—for dentist appointments, making sure kids get to school on time, etc.—why can’t you show up for yourself, to write?
Some might say laziness, but that’s a facile explanation. More likely, it’s resistance, the fear that there’s no point. I have no ideas, you think. I don’t know how to keep going. I’m just no good.
They’re understandable worries, but you have to fight them.
Whatever the reasons, you have to turn up. That’s the only way you can come close to achieving your dreams. It takes discipline, as even the most successful writers have learned.
“I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning,” says Anne Tyler, whose discipline has produced 22 novels. “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”
Tyler doesn’t wait for a muse, that mythical source of inspiration for the creative artist. Like other successful and productive writers, she turns up.
“I go to the office everyday and I work,” says musician Nick Cave. “Inspiration itself is not something I have any control over.”
Depending on the needs of your family and your work life — if writing is, as it is for most, a second job — you may not be able to write every day. Sometimes a few days or a week may go by, although the longer between sessions, the greater the chance of losing momentum.
To turn up regularly, you’ll need to find—or steal—writing time when you can. An example from my writing life can show you one way.
When I had a job that demanded 10-12 hours a day and a family with a toddler and twin infants, the only time I could write was first thing in the morning when the house was asleep.
I would brew a cup of strong tea and make my way downstairs, careful to avoid squeaks that might awake my sleeping family, to the basement where, crammed into a corner, I had installed a desk and chair.
I usually had less than an hour before I had to get ready for work. I would make notes, draft passages and revise on my desktop and hit save.
I then took a Metro subway to the National Press Building in Washington DC, where I worked as a newspaper reporter. The ride was just 30 minutes long, but I decided to take advantage of that time as well.
“I wrote 26 to 28 minutes a day,” he told an interviewer after his success. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, maybe, but if I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
At the time, I had been working, without much success, in my pre-dawn basement sessions, on a short story about a sports-challenged mother thrust into the role of coach one Saturday at her daughter’s Little League game.
I don’t have a clue where the idea came from, except for the fact that I am sports-challenged with a boyhood history of humiliating days on the baseball field.
But drawing on those experiences, and armed with a legal pad, I found myself drafting with ease as the subway made its subterranean way to my day job. Perhaps because it seemed less permanent than words flickering on my computer screen.
There were mornings when I had to use my commute to keep up with work, but I managed to finish a complete draft in a few weeks. I then spent a few more weeks revising it, marking up a printout I carried in my briefcase. Turning up to write was paying off.
After I finished the story, I sent it to magazines.
Soon, I had a tidy pile of rejection slips. I assumed I had exhausted all the possibilities.
Long story short: they published “Calling the Shots.”
The experience taught me a vital lesson about my craft that I hope you’ll take to heart. It doesn’t matter whenever, wherever, or for how long you write. At dawn. On your lunch break. Before bed. On a park bench. In a coffee shop or your home office. Or the subway.
You don’t have to write for very long. But you must stick with it. Try not to miss a day, or you’ll lose momentum. Very soon you’ll have a draft you can revise and that book chapter, essay or story will be that much closer to completion.
What’s most important is that you never stop turning up to write. As often as possible. That way “the muse” knows where to find you.
CRAFT QUERY: How do you make sure you turn up to write?
May the writing go well.