“My whole anxiety is for myself as a performer. Am I any good? That’s
what I’d like to know and all I need to know.”
Fear. There are about a zillion different fears in the world, and many are given names. Did you know there’s a name for the fear of belly buttons (omphalophobia)? And a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth—arachibutyrophobia. Try working that into your next casual conversation. There are writing related fears, too: The fear of books is Bibliophobia; fear of making changes is tropophobia. There’s a fear of working on computers- cyberphobia. And worst of all, the fear of making decisions: decidophobia.
So with all that trepidation around us, controlling our every anxious breath as we try to create stories, what can we do?
The list of recommendations is long: breathe mindfully, meditate, take long walks, drink soothing tea, brainstorm, draw pictures and design story boards, pick up your writing in the middle of a sentence. But we all know that these can be crumple zones of weakness when it comes time to wrestle with the muse. The muse can be amazing, but she’s fickle and she’s mean.
My solution: stop believing in the muse.
It’s a hard notion to let go of, because that muse is So. Darn. Real. You know the feeling when you are in the groove, singing along with language and emotion. The work is just falling out of you, like you’re the sky and lovely, fat snowflakes are coming out of nowhere, spreading beauty in all directions. You can almost feel her leaning in, guiding your hands over the keys imperceptibly, breathing her powerful breath into your inhalations.
But she’s not there.
You don’t like that? Okay. Let’s not fight over it. Let’s pretend she doesn’t exist, just for a moment. Let’s pretend that everything you’ve ever written or thought to write or dreamed of writing someday actually came from within you. Let’s pretend that nothing else made it happen, save a combination of grit, determination, timing, good fortune and the kindness of family members or good friends that helped pave the way. Maybe your favorite aunt gave you your first (dented) typewriter. Okay, that’s a kind of blessing, but it’s not the muse. Maybe the beauty of your newborn son’s face inspired you to write a gorgeous poem or song. That’s love, not the muse. Maybe you dreamed your plot, and it all spilled out of you before you even got a cup of coffee, you were so busy listening to the—
Don’t say it. She’s not there.
Everything you do is you and the magic of your life.
Everything you dream is yours, and you can make it true.
We are our stories, our fantasy plots, our beloved and dastardly characters. This is US. Humans were made to tell stories: We teach our young with story, we spread news, we warn of danger. Stories are the grist of our survival. Without them we would have died out before the mastodon.
I believe that the muse is really the gentle puffs of magic I make myself when I am working. It’s a mystical by-product of imagination. When I get in the zone I lose time, sound and my surroundings. I make that dream world by simply showing up to do my work.
I am not saying that every time I work I make great stuff. Some of it is junk—okay A LOT of it is junk. But I have to make the junk in order to make the good stuff. It’s all a matter of creating the most raw material possible. Isaac Asimov, back in 1981, wrote an editorial about writing and rejection for his Science Fiction Magazine, December 21, 1981. He talked about knowing that work can be unworthy, despite the effort:
That is the possibility all of us live with. We sit there alone, pounding out the words, with our heart pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it a sickening sensation of not being right. Each page keeps us wondering if we are moving in the wrong direction.
Even if, for some reason, we feel we are getting it right and that the whole thing is singing with operatic clarity, we are going to come back to it the next day and re-read it and hear only a duck’s quacking.
Despite fearing the duck, Asimov wrote and wrote and wrote.
We all should. If there is a muse, she’ll only visit when you are so hard at work you don’t notice her slipping in.
In 1939, during World War II, Great Britain’s Ministry of Information made a series of three motivational posters to stiffen resolve in the event of Nazi occupation. Though thousands of copies were printed, they were never used and eventually were lost. In 2000, a copy of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was rediscovered in Barter Books, a second-hand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland. Since Crown Copyright expires on artistic works created by the UK government after 50 years, the image is now in the public domain. I use it as a daily reminder of where the “muse” lives.
Let’s get back to work.