Writers’ Muses Are Like Unicorns: They Don’t Exist
“I finished my new novel,” I tell a friend.
“I guess your muse spoke to you,” she might tell me, if she hasn’t yet heard my rant on the subject. In the popular conception, writers are blessed, or chosen, and have these fabled inspirational creatures speak in their ear. Non-writers, of course, don’t claim to believe in literal winged angels whispering into writers’ ears, but they believe in something very close, in brilliant inspiration that comes out of nowhere. We writers hear these voices of inspiration, supposedly, while the great non-writing masses don’t, supposedly.
Here’s a summary of my rant: there’s no muse. And I am pretty sure that the idea of a “muse” is a way established writers mystify the writing process and try to set themselves apart as the real chosen—an elite fraternity (sure, it’s always been men dominating literature) that no one else can break into. Especially not you. Because you don’t have a muse sitting on your shoulder.
If a doctor completes a heart transplant, or a builder finishes building a house, or a firefighter puts out a fire, do you tell her that her muse must’ve been speaking to her? You’d get a laugh, or a slap. But there’s still a myth that writing comes from muses, and the myth is a damaging one.
I’ve written more than a couple of novels. In another life, I wrote academic research papers and figured out solutions to very hard problems. The process is, contrary to the myth of “muses,” exactly the same, whether writing a romance or trying to get a handle on a nonlinear optimization problem: you start small, with the things you know and see, and you think and think and think, with sweat on your brow, for hours or days or weeks, making sometimes only minuscule progress. Sisyphean. And you keep pushing, sweat pouring from your brow, because you believe in your own work ethic enough to believe that you’ll be able to finish this task—but there’s no guarantee that you will. There’s no muse dropping hints in your ear, whether in math or in writing.
Does that make the process sound less fun? The main character of my novel High School Reunion is a writer, and he imagines how people must imagine writing to be: look at a beautiful scene, snifter of brandy in hand, wait for the muse to text you, then go scribble it down for ten minutes, then go play with your cats or whatever eccentric writerly hobby you’ve chosen for yourself. Not a bad life. I’d love to live like that. The only problem is, I’d be a “writer” who doesn’t actually write anything. That kind of life follows the myths of writing, but doesn’t lead to actually writing anything. Big hat, no cattle.
The actual writing process is more like this: start with a few competing small ideas. And these aren’t any sort of brilliant secret inspiration, and they’re certainly not muses. These ideas are things every person thinks and encounters every day. A spilled cup of coffee. A canceled flight. A warm evening. Then start creating ideas, characters, and events going out from that central grain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it will go nowhere, and you’ll throw the thing aside. (Which is also about the proportion of useless ideas I get when trying to solve other sorts of problems, writing-related or not.)
A precious one percent of the time, something interesting will come of it. And if you throw enough hours and sweat into it, it might, just might, come into a story or a book. But there’s no guarantee, and there’s no fairy on your shoulder coaxing the thing out of you. Everything I’ve ever written has required hours upon hours of problem-solving thought. My friends know that if I’m blankly staring off into space, I’m probably solving some problem for a novel in progress. Because there’s no muse that’s going to hand-deliver me the answer.
In my newest novel, Crema, Zeke, a financial mathematician, frequents a coffeeshop owned by Clark, a lawyer turned coffee blogger turned barista, because the coffeeshop helps him think and work. That’s the closest anyone can get to having a muse: figuring out what environment and what thinking method works best for them to be able to work on hard problems, specifically the hard problems involved in writing fiction. We writers are a bit fortunate in this regard, as writing is amenable to many settings. It would be an unfortunate air traffic controller who could only work well while sitting on a beach, or an unfortunate surgeon who could only work well while skydiving. No such limits for us writers. Many of us, including me, love to work in coffeeshops, while others prefer to work in quiet places, loud places, buses, trains, streets, or bathrooms. Choose whichever one helps you think problems through. But don’t wait for any muse, because there isn’t one.
What if you find it difficult to put words on paper? People sometimes call that writer’s block. But I also don’t believe in writer’s block. I think writer’s block is also an established conspiracy writers use to mystify the writing process and make it look inaccessible. If the plumber you called to your house is having trouble fixing your sink, does she call it “plumber’s block” and say she’ll come back another day, or does she just work harder at the problem, pull a little harder at a wrench, try some other paths, and solve it like anything else? You know the answer. And that’s how writing is too. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, or at least there’s no such thing as writer’s block that’s any different from the difficulty of accomplishing any other task. Except writers have somehow magically anointed themselves with this thing called writer’s block, the opposite of a muse—to make people believe that the normal difficulty of writing fiction is some kind of insurmountable force of the universe that they can’t overcome.
I’m really looking forward to UPS drivers saying they can’t bring your package because they have UPS driver’s block or barbers saying they can’t cut your hair because they have barber’s block. Those are about as valid as the idea of writer’s block.
If you think you have writer’s block, you’re just facing the normal difficulty of the task, the same difficulty you might have accomplishing some part of your regular day job. Keep working at it, keep thinking about it. There’s no guarantee you’ll accomplish it, but there’s no guarantee you’ll successfully cook breakfast, yet you still attempt it, right? There’s no writer’s block any more than there’s egg-scrambler’s block.
Many, perhaps most, of this blog’s readers are women. Virginia Woolf famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own about the tangible barriers women in her day faced in trying to write a novel. A woman in Woolf’s time and place was unlikely to have her own “room,” neither literally (her own private writing space, along with the physical, tangible tools of writing, such as a typewriter and a dictionary), nor metaphorically (the social position and stability to speak her mind in a book, without fear of castigation or reprisal). Woolf describes William Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith Shakespeare: “Woman may have all the same ideas and ability as a man, but Judith Shakespeare would never have been able to overcome the tangible economic and social barriers between herself and writing.”
Today, at least in the first world, things are a bit better for women. We haven’t eliminated sexism, but we’ve made progress since the 1920s, or since Shakespeare’s time. But beginning writers still tend to mystify the process and believe that there’s some muse that they have to wait for. There isn’t. It’s especially important to remember that the muse doesn’t exist when many people believe that writers—who have throughout history mostly been men—are somehow pre-chosen or innately inspired. They’re not. They simply have the will, the ability, and the personal and social circumstances to sit for hours at a time and try to write things. And there’s no division between the writers and the non-writers. Anybody can do it, as long as you’re willing to put in the sweat.
I look forward to reading what you write. And when you’ve done it, you’ll have only yourself to congratulate, not some imaginary muse.
About the Book
“I’m straight, but Zeke is something else.”
Clark came back to small-town Amelia Island after his wacky aunt Logan left him a building downtown, with the stipulation that he use it to learn to talk to people without needing booze. Clark followed his passion for coffee and opened Crema, the town’s first gourmet pourover coffeeshop. His first customer is Zeke Zimmer, “Zippy the calculator boy” from back in fifth grade. Zippy still likes calculators, but he’s a multimillionaire bodybuilder with a math PhD and his own investment fund. Clark isn’t gay, but he can’t stop staring at Zeke’s pecs, arms, calves, and pornographic white athletic socks. Who wouldn’t appreciate an athletic build? Clark joins a climbing class to get in better shape, and Zeke is his new instructor, always ready to stand behind him and catch him if he falls.
“I came back to Amelia Island to get away from ‘straight’ guys.”
Zeke was hurt badly by his former boss, who turned out to be a married liar. He came back to Amelia Island to rebuild his life and prove himself to his dad-joke-cracking father, the town mayor. Zeke is happy running an investment fund, driving his Ferrari, and taking care of his golden retriever, Superscript. The last thing he needs is another straight guy who will cut and run. But Clark is absolutely gorgeous, with gray eyes, a gentle smile, and nerdy jokes just like back then. But Clark is straight. Or says he is.
“I can’t believe my own feelings.”
Clark used to be sure about a lot of things. He used to think he can’t run a business. And he used to think he wasn’t into guys. Zeke can change everything — unless Clark’s hesitation and Zeke’s past get in the way.
Crema is a gay-for-you/straight-to-gay coffeeshop romance with a wacky aunt, copious dad jokes, a golden retriever, bobbing boats, hot love between two well-muscled guys, and of course a feel-good HEA.
About the Author
Steve Milton writes gay romances with sweet love, good humor, and hot sex. His stories tend toward the sweet and sexy, with not much angst and definitely no downers. Steve crafts feel-good stories with complex characters and interesting settings. He is a South Florida native, and when he’s not writing, he likes cats, cars, music, and coffee.
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