Listen to enough writers talk about their Muse and sooner or later it’ll dawn on you that while the act of writing is thought of lots of different ways, few of them are pleasant.
Ernest Hemingway found looking for his Muse torturous. According to legend, Papa described it like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
And W. Somerset Maugham believed that, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
What you’ll discover about writing is that while every writer describes it in a different way, almost all of them consider their Muse a difficult, albeit necessary taskmaster.
Having spent the last eight years hammering out this blog week after week while also writing two new books, countless speeches, articles, and TV commentary, and keeping up with my client assignments, I’ve learned a little bit about just how hard maintaining consistently good writing can be.
But of all the things I’ve learned, regular writing reminds me about two universal truths which assert themselves time and time again:
The key to good writing is not just writing, it’s rewriting. And,
The Muse is a jealous taskmaster.
I’m not the first one to discover these two points, by the way. When I was researching quotes for this article, I’d already determined my two rules but wasn’t aware that others had written them already.
Vladimir Nabokov said that, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” And Hemingway was plainly clear on this point when he wrote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Because I sincerely believe that the most important part of good writing is rewriting, I try to write my posts with enough lead-time to read them over and over and over, crafting them a bit tighter on each pass.
As far as the jealousy of my Muse goes, this point is unassailable. If you want to write – books, ads, songs, blogs, whatever – then besides putting in lots and lots of hard work the other thing to always do is stop and write whenever an idea strikes you. Because if you wait until later when it’s more convenient your good ideas will vaporize, as hard to recall as a good night’s dream in the light of day.
To benefit from the thinking time I get when I run I keep a miniature Sharpie tangled in my sneaker laces so I can write my inspirations down on the palm of my hand as they pop into my head. When I sleep I keep a pad and pen on my bed stand to capture those 3:15 a.m. brainstorms before they disappear into the ether. And during the day I always try to have my laptop, iPad or notebook within quick reach so I don’t risk missing good ideas whenever and wherever the Muse shows herself.
Turns out Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, already knew about the Muse’s demands. Pressfield explained it this way:
“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
Saul Bellow said it like this, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
But just because the words and ideas might appear when you pay attention and work at it doesn’t make it easy. Why? Because we writers are always our own worst critics. After all, as Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Amen to that.