Phillip B. Conrad

April 22, 2010

Ditch Your Muse

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 2:01 am

There’s a certain collection of memes about writing floating around that are generally accepted as conventional wisdom, to the point where they aren’t really questioned.  If you read enough writing books, you’ll see the same truisms pop up, over and over again.  One of the most popular of these old chestnuts is that you have an internal editor who will actively sabotage your efforts to write, causing you to be paralyzed with fear, instead of steaming forward toward a library of completed projects.  I’m sure you heard about this.  You lock up your internal editor by promising him he will have his day when it’s time to edit.  It sounds great.  It makes sense.  I got psyched.  I gave it a try.  So, who is this other guy who keeps slowing me down, and keeps the words from flowing?

Duality is a great concept, but it’s sometimes too simple.  Add a principal player and you move up to the trinity, a far more powerful metaphor.  Three acts, three strikes, three stooges; the power of threes is known the world over.  So, if you can have an internal editor, it makes sense that you could also have another distracting, yet necessary, persona who’s out to torment the hard working writer.  I know I do, by process elimination.  The identity of that persona is the none other than your humble muse, the most commonly personified aspect of creativity.

You probably thought that your muse was a power for good only.  It’s true, if you’re hard up for ideas, courting the muse seems like an imperative.  Typically the muse is portrayed as illusive, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes your muse is positively hyperactive, and in gets right in your face with ideas that demand your immediate attention.  There’s a time and a place for everything.  If the fountain of new ideas is gushing into your time reserved for actually realizing your other ideas, you have a problem.  The worst scenario is the temptation to pursue “better ideas” with your limited time.  This is a road I’ve traveled extensively, and it only goes one place:  The Land of Never Finishing Anything.

I call my muse “The Visionary,” at least when she’s bothering me, mainly because of the office personality she most resembles.  Understanding this metaphor depends on how much of your life you’ve spent in a bureaucracy. In any bureaucracy there’s this guy with enough political pull to tell you what to do, or get somebody else to tell you what to do.  He’s a positive, dynamic guy who always manages to pull amazing ideas from both inside and outside of the box.  The problem is all in his timing.  You might be 90% done with some project when he comes by, takes a quick look and then rattles off an idea that changes everything.  It really is an idea better than the one you are currently working on and inevitably requires you scrap at least 80% of the work you have already completed, if not start entirely from scratch.  The idea you had before, which was not only good enough, but probably also came from the very same visionary is instantly rendered null and void.  This is super-frustrating, even if you are paid hourly.

Over the years, you develop all sorts of bad work and personal habits to try and counter this ‘whole new paradigm,’ but it’s no good.  You just die a little bit every time it happens to you.  After you get used to doing this at work day after day, year after year, it starts to become normal.  In many ways, you lose the ability to be truly productive.  After a while, you aren’t even trying anymore because it never seems to matter.  The whole company is engaged in this dance of ideas that just circles around and around.  Sometimes the projects never launch.  Other times the launch to poor support.  No matter how well they do, they get replaced soon with other projects that seem completely different, but essentially perform the exact same function of what they replace.  It’s easy to let this mentality seep into your personal endeavors, but you must resist.  Until I was actively conscious of it, I let my muse take on this role of annoying visionary.  She slipped into it so easily, I didn’t even notice she wasn’t a guy, that guy.  If you ever want to achieve anything, you need to finish what you start.  In order to do that, you have to ignore the call to drop everything for the next big thing, even if it makes you feel like you’re currently putting the finishing touches on an artistic disaster.

The dirty little secret of all things artistic is this: They are always a disappointment to any artist of integrity.  Ideas are only perfect before you have them, and they just get worse as you bring them into actual existance.  You need amazing amounts of faith in your original premise to bring your ideas to reality.  It’s a long process filled with every kind of discomfort you’ve ever experienced.  You’ll cry, wince in pain, reel with nausea, and recoil in disgust before it’s over.  The last thing you need when going through this necessary and painful process is a seductive voice in your ear telling you there’s a better idea, one so great it’s worth dropping everything for.  It’s not true.  The new idea will also have walk an ugly path to reality.  It only seems better because it’s newer.  Your muse is tricking you into comparing apples to ambrosia.  Even if it was true that every subsequent idea you will ever have is measurably better than your previous one, so what?  Do you really want to leave behind nothing but a few hard disks full of half-baked projects for your heirs to bulk erase after you die? Wouldn’t you rather leave a completed, but imperfect, something … anything?

That’s the problem; now what’s the solution?  You need to remove the muse’s influence from the hands-on portion of your writing.  But unlike the internal editor, the muse doesn’t seek to censor your output, or criticize something that doesn’t even exist yet.  The appearance, and indeed the intent, is far more benign.  It wants to help you, but has shockingly bad timing.  You need special strategies for dealing with unsolicited ideas, because you really do want to keep them, unlike the purely venomous sabotage of the internal editor, which is of no use at all.  I recommend you keep a file, separate from all of your actual work.  I have a text file I call the idea pile, but I’ve heard of all sorts of other containers being used, some physical, some purely metaphorical.  It doesn’t matter that much what your container is.  You just need to have a place to formally put these ideas aside.

Typically, I try and write these ideas down as concisely as possible.  Twitter might have the right idea, with the 140 character limit, because that’s the high side of what you want to write, to avoid serious distractions.  Forcing yourself to be concise actually becomes very satifying, quite quickly.  It’s kind of like a little puzzle.  The important part is that you must declare to yourself, and your muse, that you have completed the idea.  You will obtain some small amount of closure by doing so.  Of course you haven’t completed the project, but you have produced a completed idea.  You can set this idea aside with confidence that it is ready to be evaluated and developed accordingly at some point in the future.  Indeed, you may actually have some great ideas in your pile for future use.  But even if you never draw from the idea pile, you got past the idea and back to work.  Of course, it’s best to adopt the mindset that these ideas are gold, a buried nest egg of creativity for those days your muse won’t work with you.  You have to be careful not to fight your muse.  Always be respectful and kind!

You shouldn’t have to process and save too many ideas that come to you while working before your muse catches on.  Do remind her that she’s welcome to inject flair and style into your current writing every time you move an idea into the pile.  Tell her that you’re nothing without her love and guidance.  It’s true and she needs to hear that now and again.  Ignore the sneers of the internal editor as you an enjoy a tender moment with your muse.  Be firm, but gentle, as you insist that you must go back to work.  She’s welcome to come along too, as long as she sticks to the project.  She might not want to, but that’s O.K.  We all have our roles in this process, and when it comes to getting the actual work done, it’s only the most conscious and determined part of you that going to do it.  It’s just like back at the office, except here, you have the final say.  Your visionary muse has no authority to direct the project.  Don’t give her that power over you, and you might be able to have something to deliver to your internal editor after all.

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