November 25, 2016
When does the muse arrive?
The Paris Review once asked William Faulkner about waiting for the muse to show up so he could write, and he responded, “She shows up every morning at eight.” The fiction writer Pete Fromm says, “There are no secrets. You just have to do it.” For some of us this means setting a writing schedule and sticking to it, like Faulkner. (If you make a writing schedule, be sure and post it in your home so those you live with respect the time. They might not at first, but eventually they should catch on.) Tessa Hadley says she writes in her pajamas, meaning before she turns on the Internet or looks at her phone. I’ve tried this, and it works for me. Unplugging is important. The poet Marvin Bell’s creative mind comes into play at midnight. Some of us must write before the kids get up in the morning. Time of day is significant, and everyone’s needs in relation to timing are different. Still, I recommend not thinking too long about when is the best time for you. Instead, sit down and write.
“Our doubt is our passion.”
I have often found myself putting off doing what I want to do, which is to write. What am I waiting for? That elusive muse? Inspiration? The moment when I have absolutely nothing else to attend to and no worries? How about you? What prevents you from engaging in the writing life as actively as you might like? Clearly, you want to write, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You may feel some apprehension, and you should. Debra Gwartney assures us that we always “go into the space with uncertainty.” Other writers, such as Dorianne Laux, speak of the “terror of the blank page.” Or the white screen. (It’s only blank until you get some words down.) That fear is necessary. It’s one of the impulses that drives us to write something worthwhile. We may feel fearful of delving deeply into memories, into our shadows, or perhaps we fear we will bore even ourselves. When I sit down to write I don’t expect whatever comes out initially to be of much interest, even to me, but eventually I might get to the good stuff. In the early stages I often have no idea what I am writing. Henry James said, “We work in the dark—we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”
You have to be stubborn
I urge you not to wait until the house is silent, and everything is in order. Natalie Goldberg has written several books on the need for developing a writing practice, just as a Buddhist monk must have his meditation practice. Life is never orderly, so we have to make time, and we have to be stubborn. Maybe you have a clean desk set in front of a window with an inspiring view, your paper or computer welcomes you, and you expect no interruptions. Or maybe you are on a long-awaited vacation, you have spent a fortune to rent a house near the beach, your noisy kids are coming for the weekend, and you have a Monday deadline. This happened for me once, and I found my writing was energized by the chaos around me. If you make yourself do it, just sit down and write, you will, as Goldberg teaches us, enter an altered state of mind. The mind is a wilderness. It is “raw, full of energy, alive, and hungry.” I want to go there!
Go into the wilderness
You may have something you need to write about now, some itch that must be scratched. You may feel as if your head is empty, and you have nothing to say to yourself or anyone else. Try going back to the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen or your elementary school cafeteria, or the time you watched a movie that changed the way you saw your world. Think about what it is you really do not want to write about at this moment. Write about that. Go into the wilderness, beyond what is familiar. Remember, feeling afraid is part of the experience of writing. There is a strong possibility you will start to feel good, even joyful, after you write for a few minutes, at the same time you are experiencing fear. This is a great paradox of life. Give yourself the gift of living your life more intently and intensely as you write.
Make your life more than it is
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with my mentor and teacher, the poet Ellen Bass. I told her about an odd thought I had, about how she saved my life when she encouraged me to embrace a writing life, when she urged me to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific University, my life that didn’t actually need saving. (Another paradox.) Ellen just nodded and said, “Your life is more than it is.” This is what writing can do for us.
Grab a notebook or sit in front of a computer right now. Breathe. Breathe in again, deeper. Don’t think about anything. Take three more deep breaths. Pay attention to your breath. Put down one word on the page or screen. Then another. And another. And another. Begin the next stage of your life. Write now.