The Slave Driver and the Muse

Quill PenIn my last post, I discussed how the unconscious nature of much of what a writer does can induce fear and insecurity: doubt that one will ever be able to do it again. Now obviously writers are able to do it again and again. That’s why authors’ names are quite often printed larger than the titles of their books. We expect the lightning of inspiration to strike the same spot repeatedly. And the fact that it does is testimony to the reality that writing is not entirely an inspiration-driven enterprise. There are, without a doubt, some tried-and-true methods for producing appealing prose (and poetry, I assume).

The first tried-and-true method for producing good writing is…to write. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you would be amazed at how many people who want to be writers follow every method but this. And that, of course, is because talking about writing, and reading about writing, and planning to write, are all much easier than actually writing. And a lot less terrifying. (See my previous post.) Everyone’s book is much better in their head than when they actually try to put it down on paper. But if you want to write, you have to string together actual words. And if you want to be good at writing, you have to be bad at it first–not something that comes naturally to the artistic temperament.

The truth is, every writer needs not only a muse but a slave driver. It’s not enough to have grand artistic vision if there’s no execution. You must write, and write, and write some more. You must write when you feel like it and write when you don’t. It’s a persistence game, baby. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, you’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours. You’ve got to sit down at the desk and produce the pages. If they’re bad, that just means you’re a few bad pages closer to something good.

BUT. Yes, there’s a but. I do think it’s possible to work too hard. I think the slave driver can, at times, become a hindrance. Everyone’s heard of the necessity of taking a step back from one’s work: putting a manuscript in a drawer and coming back months later with fresh eyes. Staying away from a favorite project for which we have high and immediate hopes can be excruciating. But it is often in the best interest of the work. And I think that the same can be said for one’s writing in general.

I know there are periods when I’ve been so excited about the prospects of my writing career that I have been writing, on paper or in my head, without pause for days. I lie in bed at night, and I’m either outlining a new essay or revising an old one. This febrility can be fun and often useful. But there comes a point of diminishing returns. I find that, when my mind is too rational and goal-focused (the hallmarks of the slave driver), my creativity begins to suffer. I can churn out some decent pages, but brilliance eludes me. I don’t write anything surprising. And the longer I’m a writer, the more that’s what I want from the words I put down on the page: to be surprised. Taken aback by an insight that seems to arise from nowhere.

Those insights arrive most commonly for me when I am at one of two stages in working on a piece. Either I am just starting out and writing in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, not evaluating or shaping but just putting the bones of some ideas down, or I have finished the bulk of my revisions and I’m just indulging my vanity by rereading what I’ve written. It’s amazing how often a brilliant idea will hit me on the head when I’m in this open, relaxed state of consciousness. I think it’s the same phenomenon that makes it the case that I always get my very best ideas on my days off–for instance, when I’m lazing about on a Sunday afternoon, reading on a blanket in the backyard. I rarely get in a solid hour’s worth of reading before I’m scribbling in my notebook. “I thought you were taking the day off,” my husband will say, as he smiles knowingly from the kitchen window.

The truth is, we writers need both our rational, systematic, workaholic side and our creative, devil-may-care, lay-about side. We need fresh, exciting dreams to which we can then give careful, meticulously honed form. We need both the slave driver and the muse.

7 responses to “The Slave Driver and the Muse”

  1. This post totally resonated with me. I LOVE the muse periods, those days when all you can think about is your story and everything seems hopeful. But I also know that I need the slavedriver, which I don’t have so much fun with. This is an excellent post!

    • I find it so difficult to balance the two. Maybe I have a little OCD, but when the slave driver is in the saddle, I just can’t seem to stop obsessing about my work, even when I know it’s not doing any good. And then, when I’ve finally gotten out of that phase, I feel so happy and relaxed that I’m reluctant to go back to the computer for fear of its starting all over again!

  2. Yes, yes, yes! Everything is a balance. A balance between our rational left-brain and our creative right-brain. Let one or the other take too much control and chaos seems to ensue. Or, at least it does for me 😉 I have been struggling with this balance as of late and I sincerely thank you for this insightful and timely post 🙂 I have tended to relax the stranglehold by my left-brain and let life flow for awhile. When I did so, it was amazing how effortlessly the faucet began to flow once again and order (relatively speaking) followed. Thank you very much for your very inspiring words!

      • My feelings exactly 😉 I experienced the same calming notion after I read your previous two posts. And I wouldn’t doubt that it helped getting the balance back in order. I don’t think we are ultimately able to feel what real balance is until we give ourselves the ability to experience the imbalance. Always looking for the silver lining 🙂 Have an inspired day!

  3. Well said, Sharon! Several good points – I definitely have experienced all of them. As you say, the process of writing and the possibility of writing are two completely different things. It’s in the middle of writing that we are faced with the problems and forced to solve them – thus creating new ones, which also need solving and on and on… but lucky for me I love fixing things ;o)

    • That really is most of what we do, isn’t it? Fix things we’ve already written. And I’m with you, that’s my favorite part of the process, because then at least I know I have something to work with.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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