I was perusing the Blogs over at GayAuthors.org when I happened to read a new Blog called Marty's Musing. I don't know Marty but the title caught my attention and I urge everyone to go there and read it as it is definitely the "muse" that started me down this long rambling entry of my mine.
To briefly give everyone an overview, Marty once upon a time use to write a fair amount but for the last ten years or so has focused on other things in his probably amazing life. And a few months ago, he started getting the urge to dip his toe back into the writing pond and was having some difficulty finishing a story he began all those years ago. He also had a few new ideas but after writing a page or so he would find himself getting discouraged and abandon the words on the paper. At the end of his post, he posed these three questions.
1. What is the cause of writers block?
2. How does an author overcome writers block?
3. O muse, where art thou?
After reading Marty's post, and it's only about five paragraphs long and I have included the link above so I urge you to read it. As of this writing, there are about five comments and they are perfectly nice, encouraging words that I have come to expect from the members of GA.
Things like don't force it, let it come naturally, just take some time and wait for good ole "muse" to return. Things like, go to the story prompts and see if anything gets your mojo flowing again. And for some reason, these positive answers who's sole intent was offer encouragement to someone that was feeling a bit down got me a bit fired up and I starting to respond to what had been said before me.
And then much like I always do, my reply got to be pretty long with some colorful language, some blunt honesty, and childish musings about a subject I might not know anything about. So after a moment, I decided to post my reply in my Blog to keep from hijacking someone else's entry and to ensure I don't hurt anyone's feelings.
I don't believe in the traditional idea of "muse" and its whoring reputation it carries around the world. You know the one I mean; you first meet "muse" at a coffee shop. You have a double shot of espresso with almond milk and you tell everyone you're sick of everyone raping the cows for their joy juice but secretly wish you could enjoy real milk in your beverage but don't want the judgmental guy behind the counter to give you a disappointed stare when you order. So you sit there, sipping your dairy free beverage and suddenly, "muse" walks in the cafe.
"Muse" skips past the guy with the ironic mustache trying to construct the perfect sentence in his essay about the dangers of drinking milk. Pirouette's around the housewife peering intently at her Hawaii Five-0 fan fiction crossover with Magnum P.I.. Frowns at the out of work screen writer who is steadfast in his belief that he alone has the script that will finally show the amazing talent that is Nicolas Cage before sliding into the seat across from you and give you that dirty little smile as if to say, 'how you doing'.
"Muse" seems to be very impressed that you are drinking a dairy free beverage and starts to gently rub your instrument under the table, discreetly at first. Suddenly your fingers are flying over the keys, your writing so fast you can't help but look around to make sure everyone can see that you are writing so fast and that the elusive "muse" has settled on you to employ its magic.
Ironic mustache guy leaves in huff, his hopes of stopping the consumption of milk dashed forever as "muse" continues to do dirty things to your instrument. Housewife leaves, her face a little flushed but completely stumped how to finish the scene where Chin Ho Kelly and Magnum finally consummate thirty-seven chapters of longing on the hood of the iconic red Ferrari. While the out of work screen writer continues to struggle with the perfect script for Nicolas Cage. And sadly, this screen writer never stops at this attempt, never.
Because now "muse" is no longer content to discreetly stroke your instrument. Now "muse" has progressed to doing something so dirty I can't even describe it with human words. But that doesn't matter, because your fingers are flying over the keys. You have a look of ecstasy on your face and everything is right in the world and you owe it all to "muse".
This behavior continues for hours, days, maybe weeks that turn into months, and sometimes it could even last for years. You and "muse" seem to have an understanding, you'll keep writing in public spaces and "muse" will continue to rub your instrument.
Once upon a time, I use to produce a fuck-ton of content. I have nine complete novels posted on Nifty and seventeen short stories that I uploaded over a span of about four years. I'm talking a hundred thousand words plus novels. I also wrote dozens of poems that some might have read once upon a time.
And trust me, I'm not claiming that these stories and poems were great or even good, I'm just saying that I use to produce a lot of content when I was younger.
I will also say that I am rather proud that save for one sequel, every story I ever posted online is complete.
When I was younger, I wrote a story that attracted some reader attention and garnered me hundreds of encouraging emails that stroked my fragile ego. And when that story finally came to an end after 32 chapters, the encouraging emails stopped arriving in my inbox. And I missed those glorious words.
So to keep those emails pouring in, for the first time I started writing and posting chapters immediately after finishing them. I skimmed over them barely but really didn't have an idea on where I was going. But I was confident that I knew these characters and didn't think I needed to worry about the end. I knew I would get there.
The first chapter was posted, and again, dozens of emails. The next chapter, I only received half the amount as before. And with each chapter after, the emails all but dried up. So by the time I got to chapter five, I was completely lost and the story fizzled away and I abandon it to the internet.
The fans who loved the first story lost interest in the sequel because truthfully I didn't really have an idea I was just winging it and it showed in the writing.
I didn't know then but I was scared. I wrote about some characters people liked and hoped to capitalize on my earlier success by offering up a shitty premise. Not even my sub-conscious mind could work out a plot that was so paper thin before I even put words to screen.
I think a lot of people believe "muse" to be a fragile creature, one that is meant to roam free, to traverse where it will without any guidance or structure. As if any attempt will stifle the creativity it brings you. Many writers treat "muse" in this manner, with kid gloves, hoping not to anger the delicate flower that could leave you at a moments notice to rub some other instrument.
Like one day you'll be at a party, you and "muse", and you turn your back to get a tuna poke on a piece of kale appetizer and when you turn back around, "muse" is off in the corner giving someone else a hand-job. And the frustrating thing, you've seen this other person's instrument, and its not as impressive as yours, but "muse" is going to town and suddenly you feel taken advantage of and then your instrument shrivels up until its barely a tip and no amount of writing in a public space can bring "muse" back to stroking your instrument.
You continue to go to that same coffee shop, order the same boring milk free beverage, you sit in the same spot, hoping to attract "muse" again to your instrument. But "muse", that fickle so and so, rubs everyone else's instrument but yours. You get depressed, eventually you start ordering espresso with real milk cause you just don't give a fuck anymore and one day you wake up and you aren't even writing, you just surf FaceBook and comment on cat photos.
I think writers tend to create blocks as they try and appease this thing called "muse". Whether its sitting in the same spot every day, listening to the same piece of music, having the room at the correct temperature, complete silence or even chaos. All these rules and structures they somehow believe will get "muse" back to where it belongs, under the table stroking your instrument. And in the end, writers allow these things to rule their creative life.
Merriam-Webster defines muse: to become absorbed in thought, especially to think about something carefully and thoroughly.
You don't get to the more popular definition of muse until definition number three, a person or source of inspiration. And that definition is the second one if the word is used as a noun.
So why do most people believe that "muse" is more the third definition over the first. The definition where it clearly defines what "muse" is, to think about something carefully and thoroughly.
So to answer Marty's first question, what is the cause of writers block. Maybe you didn't carefully think through the story in the first place.
I'll add a question of my own, how can you hope to finish something if you have no idea where you want to go?
I know there are writers out there who post chapters online as soon as they are written with little or no thought of where they are heading. And those same authors will argue they allow the characters to take them on the journey and they as well as the reader will find out together how the story ends.
But how many of those stories are ever finished? Maybe 2%, if we the audience are lucky.
Or the other side of the same coin, the never ending saga. You know the one where the author keeps rambling on for dozens of chapters chronicling in great boring detail events that never seem to progress the plot forward. Seriously, every story has to have an ending; its the nature of what we do. Overly long stories are nothing but a glaring sign screaming 'I don't have a clue where I am going but please take this journey with me and hopefully there will be a resolution sometime if "muse" allows it'.
And let's be brutally honest here, most of these type of stories are complete shit. And the ones that aren't complete shit would never have a chance at professional publishing.
Much like Marty, I too left writing some ten years ago to focus on a career that I ended up hating. I am currently trying to change my life path and have gotten back into writing almost every day.
And like Marty, I went back to an old unfinished story and struggled for about three months to complete it. I already had seventeen chapters finished with a dozen more that had half-baked ideas but I could never get it moving in the right direction.
The frustration was there mixed with a lot of fear that maybe because I stopped writing all those years ago, I somehow lost the ability to put words on the screen. And for a moment, I faltered.
I went over my past writings, hoping that "muse" would again grant me the inspiration to start writing again. I found an old outline I wrote on June 25th, 2002 on a yellow legal pad during a slow day at work.
As I read the twelve page outline, a few things stood out among the shit. Some really cool characters, a few great scenes, a ton of out dated technology and some really stilted dialogue. Even without a strong idea, I was convinced this was my next project, my grand return to online writing.
It was a constant daily struggle to accomplish anything. For every good scene I wrote, I would delete entire pages of shit that just didn't make any sense. It was the most difficult time I've ever faced attempting to do something that gave me so much pleasure in my younger days.
After one particularly rough day, I took a break and went outside to empty the trash and then it hit me. The reason it wasn't going well was because it was shit. If its only a collection of cool ideas with some half-drawn characters but no plot to speak of, was it any wonder I wasn't moving.
I was trapped at a certain point and no matter what little trick I did, I couldn't gather the "muse" long enough to do anything except stare at that dreaded blinking cursor. I hadn't thought about it carefully and thoroughly.
Which leads to Marty's second question, how does an author overcome writers block?
Merriam-Webster defines writers block: a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.
Makes perfect sense to me, most of the things we encounter in our life begins in the mind anyway. Why would a block be any different?
What are some of the reasons one might get writers block besides the things I already covered above.
Fear is one that comes to mind first. Fear of letting other people read what we wrote, to voice our opinions, our viewpoint, or whatever it is we are trying to convey.
Perfection is another. I can't write until its perfect. We fall into this trap of not even attempting until we think its perfect.
I hate to bust your bubble, but perfection takes time, and re-writes, and editing, followed by more re-writes. Perfection will come, but it will take time.
Timing is another block. You start writing something like I did, but you really didn't have more than the seeds of an idea and quickly you lose focus and the story dies on the page. Ideas need time to be nurture, water the seedling and then shape it until you have a usable idea that will be turned into a realized story.
So back to Marty's question, how do you overcome this dreaded affliction? Before I give you the definite and only answer, and I do have the answer. I'll give a few ideas on how to get some movement on your thought process.
Lets pretend we are back in our favorite coffee shop with our diary free beverage and "muse" isn't stroking our instrument. Get up and go for a walk. Change your environment and ruminate on the idea at hand. Maybe change your music selection, read a few pages of your favorite book, play video games. Sometimes getting your conscious mind off the problem will allow for your subconscious to tackle the issue without you banging your head on the table in front of everyone.
There a thousands of ways to alter your frame of mind, and all of them have one thing in common.
There is a famous saying, 'the only way out is through'. Sometimes you have progressed so far that it is easier to continue the path ahead then to turn around and go back.
Whether you change your environment, or your music selection, or the task you are accomplishing, all of these are paths of movement. You have to move from the place you are currently to somewhere else. Sometimes that movement might be forward, sometimes that movement might be sideways, or sometimes that movement is backward. And like in my case, sometime that movement is starting over from scratch. Standing still will never defeat the block in your life.
J Michael Straczynski is a well respected writer of television, movies, comic books, books and any other medium that involves creating. He created Babylon 5, Sense 8, reimagined Thor, transformed how people write Wonder Woman and is hired often to re-write screen plays and polish them.
He is also famous for writing every single day. No breaks, no vacations, no holidays, no time off. Just like Steven King, who once stated that he wrote at lease five thousand words every day, JMS continues to write on a daily basis.
That is the answer to Marty's question. You can only overcome writers block by writing. Writers get blocks, authors do not. Somehow authors have learned that writing is not a gift from the "muse" of legends. It's a skill that is honed by doing your ten thousand hours. It's getting up every day and writing before work, or after work, or on the train commute, or however you do it but all authors do the very same thing, they write every day.
After I gave up on my old work, I saw a prompt as I was going through some Blog posts on GA.
The patient has been in the hospital for longer than you have been alive. They barely look eighteen and doctors keep running all sorts of tests. You were hired to exercise the patients muscles, keep them groomed, and clean. While bathing them today, the patient woke up, what happens?
I didn't happen overnight. I thought about this prompt for the rest of the day. When I cooked breakfast the next morning I thought about this prompt. A few days later when I was doing laundry, I thought about this prompt. The next week while playing video games I thought about this prompt. This idea consumed me for a few weeks before I sat down and wrote this paragraph...
"Nuresh Rajendran whistled happily as he pushed the cart down the brightly lit hallway. He had just celebrated his 65th birthday the week prior and had been awarded a small gold watch. That watch signified thirty years of service, and though he moved a bit slower than he once, he still hadn't lost his love of the job."
So to answer Marty's third question, oh muse, where art thou? It's where it's always been. In the idea that is carefully and thoroughly thought out before attempting to write it down.