Monday, March 21, 2011

The Muse and the Wall

I've been trying to do more than write in the last year and a half since I moved away from NYC, away from board meetings, away from Pret A Manger. I've been trying to build for myself a sustainable writing life. I don't want this to be a flash in the pan. I don't want you or my mother or my neighbor to check in here a year from now to find that I've taken up pig farming or pottery. I'm not starting a hobby, I tell myself, I'm building a life.

There are countless pros and cons to the writing life and you see mention of them everywhere, especially the cons. They range from lack of funds to working so hard at building an author platform that writing time dwindles.

But for me there's only one pro and one con to actual writing. The Muse and the Wall.

The Muse
In 1996 Nick Cave sent a letter to MTV Europe, thanking them for nominating him for an award, but basically telling them to withdraw his nomination. Why? He thought that participating in competative awards could offend his muse ("She might spook!")

I don't think he's being funny, though he's a strange lad, it's always hard to tell. I think he sincerely believes in his muse and is not taking any chances. I don't believe in muses per se, the grecian goddesses who bestow inspiration onto artists of all kinds. But I guess that's as good a term as any for what I sometimes experience. I call it being poleaxed because I stiffen up, I feel frozen for a second or two. An idea suddenly appears and starts to unroll in my head. It feels like it comes from somewhere else because it arrives so entirely where nothing was there before. Not all creative ideas are like this, but the ones that are make time seem to slow. It's a physical sensation too, a numbness that travels down my arms to my finger tips.

You can explain this as creative intuition, the subconscious breaking through to the conscious, but it feels a hell of a lot like divine intervention. When this happens to me, I feel amazing, excited and transported. This feeling is the best thing about being creative, about writing, regardless of what I make of that first seed of an idea. I keep writing because of that feeling.

The Wall
Okay, I'm cheating a little. There are two, different walls. The first is the wall you stumble into while you're writing, the one that wasn't there a minute ago and suddenly is there. It's too tall to scale and it goes on, left and right, forever. It's writer's block. Usually I can feel somewhat positive about the wall because I can look at it as a challenge. But sometimes it truly feels insurmountable and I'm cast into deep doldrums. I hate that feeling because even though recent history shows that I can get through it, it always threatens to derail me. I'm afraid, one day, the derailment will be permanent.

The other wall is really a curtain. See, I'm backstage with the pulleys, the wires, the trap doors and the grease paint. And everyone else is in the audience. Whether the audience likes my words or not doesn't matter, they get to experience them in a way I never can. Francine Prose talks about this in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer. I'm always at a distance from my writing, I'll never discover it like a reader will. That makes me a little sad and a little crazy. Lots of writers say they want to write the kind of books they want to read - but our own books are never really for us.

So, what one pro and one con of writing for you - what are they?


  1. Wait, so pig farming is not a plan B? Must be just me.

    Pro- when I don't want to write, but do anyway, and solve a problem or find the right direction.

    Con-when that doesn't happen.


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