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 advice from Hemingway

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A while back, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part of any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

Study the best literary models.
Master your subject through experience and reading.
Work in disciplined isolation.
Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
Write slowly and deliberately.
Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
Work continuously on a project once you start it.
Keep a record of your daily progress.
Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. I never read a manuscript I’m working on, however, until I’m done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you’re going along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I don’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?

Writers and doubt

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Every writer struggles with doubt. It’s a terrible moment to read something you’ve put down on paper only to realize there’s a total wreck on the page. Of course, it’s not always that bad—hopefully. The next time you’re fretting over the quality of your work, consider this letter penned by a first-time author to a friend:

I had the idea that one could write a thriller with half one’s mind, and I simply wrote 2,000 words a day to show myself that I could. I didn’t read it through as I wrote it, and when I returned to England and did so I really was appalled.

The dialogue, a lot of the descriptions and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.

After riffling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance. For God’s sake don’t mention this dreadful oafish opus to anyone else, and for heaven’s sake believe, as I am sure you will after you have read a few pages, that this is not mock humility.

The author goes on for another couple of paragraphs and rips his work to shreds. Long story short, the manuscript wound up in the hands of UK publisher Jonathan Cape, who thought highly of the story and the writing. So it was, on April 13, 1953, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, made its debut.