Muses Aren’t Real, and Now is Always the Best Time to Write

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“Writing a book is an adventure,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1949. The man knew a thing or two about writing. He wrote four bestselling works of nonfiction and a novel before he turned 26. Never one to tackle anything in a half-hearted manner, he completed his first book (85,000 words) in roughly two months. There were some nights he wrote so long and hard, his hand cramped to the point where he could no longer hold a pen.

Why mention this? Because Churchill, in my mind, exemplifies the writer’s discipline at its very best. He wanted to write, and so he did. There was no waiting around for inspiration or searching for the muse. There was simply a desire to produce.

Like my favorite historical figure, I don’t believe a muse is necessary when it comes to writing. Actually, I don’t even believe in the muse, nor do I believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. You can wait for that wonderful moment of clarity, when all your thoughts coalesce into a glorious narrative that’s ready to spill forth on the page, but you might end up waiting a long time.

Search the web, and you’ll find plenty of blogs and articles offering tips on how to summon your muse. The time spent reading such advice could be spent tackling a blank page. Writing is all about discipline. If you want to write something, you have to sit down and do it. Such a pragmatic view might be blasphemous to some. “You can’t force or hurry art,” one might argue. Frankly, I don’t approach my writing as high art; I approach it as a job.

This less-than-romantic attitude is, in part, the result of my background. I’m a journalist by trade, having spent more than a decade working on daily newspapers. I took great pleasure crafting well-honed stories under tight deadlines. Also, the fact I don’t write fulltime might have something to do with my attitude. I have a “day job” to pay the bills. My writing-and-research time is limited to several hours on the weekends and a few precious hours each night after my wife and kids have gone to bed. I don’t have time to sit around waiting to feel inspired.

All the inspiration in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t buckle down and force yourself to put words on a page. Waiting for the muse to send a message, is—in my opinion—a delay tactic, an excuse not to do the hard work. Mind you, this is not to say I’m a writer without influences. As a non-fiction author, I’m influenced by Cornelius Ryan, Antony Beevor, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, William Manchester, and Rick Atkinson—historians who relate history not in dates and facts, but compelling narratives that rival the best novels. In my early years, when I thought I might write fiction, Stephen King’s command of story and pacing had a huge impact.

But the one writer whose influence has remained constant throughout the years is Ian Fleming. This might seem strange for one who writes the sort of books I do, but I’ve always admired Fleming’s straightforward approach. He honed his writing skills as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency, learning to write fast and well. As an author, he tackled his books with a journalist’s discipline—not waiting for inspiration or the whisperings of a muse, but working feverishly to get the words out.

Fleming was a man of habit. Once he established his writing routine, he stuck with it and never deviated, writing for three hours every morning—no excuses. He knew the importance of getting a story out quickly. Here’s what he advised a friend who was contemplating writing a book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Never mind about that brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don’t be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

Nothing about muses or inspiration there. “Stick to your schedule and do your daily stint” is what he says. That, I think, is the best writing advice one can give.

Our time on this planet is a finite thing, so if you want to write—just do it. Time waiting to feel inspired or searching for your muse is time wasted. If inspiration is something you really need to get started, just think how great it will feel to hold that completed manuscript in your hand.

 

Writing on the rocks

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Photo credit: Esquire.com

The Paris Review once interviewed Hunter S. Thompson and asked him, among other things, about writing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the relevant exchange:

Paris Review: Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?

Thompson: They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. It’s like saying, “Almost without exception women we’ve interviewed over the years swear that they never indulge in sodomy”—without saying that you did all your interviews in a nunnery. Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?

Writers love their drinks. I don’t think that’s a stereotype.

“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.

Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:

“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”

Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and toasting a good day’s writing.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”