There Is No Muse: Writers, Inspiration and Process

I'll never be confused with Hugh Macleod, but in case you're wondering, his much better cartoons-on-the-backs-of-business-cards are over here.

Some writers say success has something to do with inspiration. I say, screw inspiration — success is about process.

What follows is me ass-kicking myself to do a better job of remembering that.

The flaw

People often think that writing is about inspiration, about the muse. "I write when the moment takes me," is the overall thinking.

This is a great way to get nothing done.

About the only effect talking about "the muse" has is trying to get laid based on how sensitive and in touch with your creativity you are. (Though taking that approach will probably lead to equal non-success in writing and in bed.)

The truth

Writing is about process.

Yes, you can have inspiration and muses and when the moment takes you. But that's only part of being a writer, much less a successful writer.

Inspiration and the muse are useful only when you understand that they are part of what you want to get done and how you want to get it done.

Writing, and succeeding at writing, is about deciding what you want to do, and getting it done. The first part of writing is deciding, promising, a goal for yourself. Maybe it's "I will write [for 20 minutes / 2 pages / 500 words / insert goal here] a day, every day." The next part is making sure you set yourself up for success that day, the next day, every day.

Success is every day making the decision to keep doing what you've agreed with yourself that you will do.

Dude, where's my muse?

If the muse doesn't show up, too bad. Fire up your caffeine/ tipple/ poison of choice, belly up to the desk, and write anyway. Got a million things to do? Decide whether or not writing is a million-and-one, and make the time.

Maybe that day's writing output is mediocre — but it's still something to work with. And maybe, just maybe, you get part of the way through a brutal slog of lame words — then suddenly the muse is there, clocked in and ready to go. Suddenly your writing is on fire, and you've cranked out an amazing idea, story or chapter.

You only got that because you sat down to write in the first place.

Muse ain't there? Write anyway.

My process is evolving

I would love to capstone this post with how I smack myself with a typewriter every day, and as a result I am just finishing up my latest millions-selling badass blockbuster. However, I'm not (well, not yet).

I'm writing this post in part for me — because making time is hard, especially in the midst of other work and responsibilities. It's also because writing is hard, and because succeeding as a writer is quadruply feckin hard.

But I know what else I want out of life, out of my writing — and process is how I'll get there. I'll kick my own ass every step of the way if I have to — but day by day, word by word, process by process, I will bloody well get there.

Process is about nitty-gritty details of what works for what you're trying to accomplish. From scribbling to market research, here are some of the things I'm working on for my process as a writer.

  • Outsource my brain (or, why I don't think about my haircut anymore). A few months back my wife turned me on to Remember the Milk, and I am now addicted to it. I use its robust task and task scheduling features for everything from assignment reminders to scheduling my haircut. Why such a range of things? I got tired of remembering to set up my haircut — so I have something tell me. My brain has better things to work on than making sure I don't forget to crop my mop. I also don't forget the important things now — they stare me in the face until I top up my coffee, remind myself that I've grown a pair, and start getting it done.

    Action: Continue setting reminders and using Today/Tomorrow/Overdue lists to get things done, in the timeframes I set to get them done.

  • Dedicated daily writing time. I'm still refining how this works best for me, but I'm improving. I like working with 20-30 minute blocks of writing time, but I know now that I also need self-direction. Sure, I can just sit down for 20 minutes and shite out a bunch of mediocre, barely-strung-together trash, but I'm more effective as a writer if I have a goal in mind of what I want to accomplish with that time. It could be fleshing out an idea, drafting a chapter or story, whatever — clarity makes me more productive. (This post is an example: it's lingered in my assignment folder for a while. Once I had a better idea of what I wanted out of it, I've hammered it out in a short block of time.)

    Action: I've had success with a "Take one photo every day" reminder. I've set up a new daily reminder to "Write for 20 minutes / 2 pages / 500 words / 1 draft every day"

  • Submissions and market research. I set and adhere to weekly goals of evaluating and identifying a minimum number of potential markets. I'm also working on a minimum number of queries and submissions to make per week. This is ramping up, and I'm encouraged at my growing output.

    Action: Continue adhering to weekly task of "Submissions: Review marketing/submissions spreadsheet; 1-5 hours market research per week; 3-10 submission leads/submissions per week". Also, continue ramping up submissions, queries and networking.

  • Inspiration. Yes, the muse has its place (though for me, that generally means the band Muse, and specifically their album The Resistance). My muse, my inspiration, is simple: I am my muse, and my muse is me. Without a pen in my hand or computer keys under my fingers, there is no getting any writing done, inspired or not.

    Action: Write. Whether a slog or effortless, write. While the original source is unclear (ranging from William Faulkner to Peter De Vries), I prefer the old adage: "I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at nine o'clock every morning." Sometimes just slogging through the words leads me to inspiration; sometimes just writing more consistently helps the inspiration come more regularly.

Either way, through strong process I am writing, will be writing more, and will increase my success as a writer.

3 thoughts on “There Is No Muse: Writers, Inspiration and Process”

  1. Great post Anthony. You’re really highlighting the difference between people who consider themselves writers and actual professional writers. My boss might understand missed deadlines now and then, but if I tried to blame them on a chronically tardy muse, I’d be out of a job.

  2. Ah, Hugh Macleod — we have mixed feelings about him, right?
    Writing is 99% practice. When I started my blog, I thought every article I wrote was great. But it can get better, and if it can get better, I guess it wasn’t THAT good, huh?
    So I know you write about foods. Do you write about other things, too?

  3. A great post (linked to me by our mutual friend Taylor). Having long been a writer, I am not a Writer, having quit my job last week to focus fulltime on this. I love your suggestions (including Remember the Milk, an app I should utilize better).


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