I was at a writer’s conference recently listening to a panel of authors discuss their writing process. They were asked if they believed in The Muse. One by one each author leaned into their microphones and gave an emphatic, “Yes!” or an equally emphatic, “No!” By the time the last author had answered I counted and saw that the panel was perfectly divided. It’s like they were asked if they believe in God, I thought.
I don’t believe in what we call The Muse; belief is too weak a word. I couldn’t write without her. I’ve certainly tried. When I did it was as if I’d forgotten how to write, yet there I was acting exactly like a writer, feeling more and more fraudulent with every lousy sentence. I was like a gardener who was planting Lego pieces instead of seeds. I was on my hands and knees digging and planting and watering all the while knowing nothing would grow.
Having said that, I know why half the writers on the panel explained that they believed in, “working hard” or, “putting their butt in the chair,” or, “mastering their craft,” rather than The Muse. I can control whether I decide to work hard or put my butt in the chair or master my craft. There’s a lot in a writer’s life that is out of our control. Agents and editors and readers, for instance, are out of my control. No matter how hard I work on something, I have zero say over what anyone will think of it, and what people think of it is often the measure of a story’s success. Best to keep my head down and my attention on what I actually can control. I’ve never seen or held or touched this Muse, after all. On dark days she can seem as unreal as all my fantasies of glory and praise—the adulation of all those other people who seem to hold my writing life in their inscrutable hands.
So I won’t knock a writer who thinks The Muse is a lot of woo-woo hooey. But I’m also a very practical guy. I learn by trial and error, by experience, and it has been my experience that the only idea worth pursuing is an inspired idea. I can scheme and plan with the best of them, I can play at being the architect of my near and distant future, yet the only paths that have ever lead anywhere were not the ones I laid but the ones I followed. The inspired idea always feels like something I found not something I made; I recognized it, I didn’t manufacture it. What’s more, my excitement for my plans always dissolves in disappointment as soon their implementation meets reality; my enthusiasm for inspired ideas only increases as I watch them grow.
Whether you believe in The Muse is actually not important. It is important, however, that you believe that writing, when it’s going very well, is fun, enlivening, curiously effortless, and surprising. I know it’s hard sometimes—maybe many times; I know there are days you face that page and think, “I have no idea,” that you can’t remember what it was like to have an idea. But I also know that when you break through, when the idea comes, when the characters start talking to you, when you find yourself chasing some story down a road around a corner you feel as good as you have ever felt in your life. Right then, in that experience, you don’t care about anything but the story, and you have never felt less alone because that story and where it comes from is the best company you know.
Believe in that. I don’t care what you call it—but you better believe in it. You better not call it luck, but you better not take full credit for it either. You were along for the ride. This may be the trickiest part of all in the relationship between the writer and The Muse. When you publish something you’ll be given full credit for it, but in your mind may linger the memory of how it was written. It was like a dream, wasn’t it? How many times did a character do what they wanted and not what you wanted? How many plot turns surprised you? You probably can’t remember what you labored over and what came easily, but you can remember how much you loved the writing of it, how glad you were for it. That stays with you long after the story has been told, long after the money has been spent, it stays with you and calls you back to the page because there’s another story that needs telling.
Learn more in William Kenower's online course: Fearless Writing — How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence