On Writing: Muses, Mountain Climbing, and the Inspired Writer


Mount Everest


I can’t work without music. I’ve always written with a soundtrack and I can’t even imagine writing without one. Music is an inexorable part of my process. I also need something to drink close by, usually water, coffee, or diet soda. Oh, and I can’t write when there’s anyone else in the room, I try to alternate between more serious and more humorous projects to keep my creative muscles “in shock”, I can’t hand write anything more substantial than vague notes, and I can never, ever, just skip ahead if a chapter or piece isn’t working right; if chapter 4 isn’t working, chapter 5 is going to wait for me to fix it. I can forgo any one or all of these things (and I have) but I rarely feel confident in the output that this creates. Like most writers I know, I’m attached to these trappings and habits. They work for me like lucky socks or knocking on wood. I don’t just expect them, I rely on my trappings to keep me moving when I’m stuck and to spark ideas.

There are a lot of quotes about creating things that all boil down to the same thing; creation is a little bit about the idea and a lot about execution and perseverance to see that idea through. I don’t just believe in this, I live by it, but what this supposes is that creation is a straight line; it isn’t that at all. Creation is a great big twisty maze of lines, circles, bends, and dead ends. Inspiration doesn’t stop and hand off the job to perspiration like a baton in a relay race. Inspiration is a compass that guides you to true north every single step of the way. You always need it and you always need more of it because you can lose it far too easily. The worst thing a writer can experience is to get 80% through a project and find that the muse that whispered brilliant ideas into your ear is now whispering only doubt and uncertainty or worse, nothing at all.

Imagine that instead of writing I’m talking about mountain climbing and the mountain is your story. The mountain needs to be there for you to climb it. This is obvious and seems silly to state plainly like that but just like the mountain has to be there to climb it, the idea has to be there to write it. A mountain climber straps on boots and hook piton harness rope things and sets out for the mountain with unshakeable confidence that when he’s most of the way to the summit, the mountain isn’t just going to vanish out from under him. All the mountain climber has to do is keep going up but sometimes for a writer, a story turns on its ear and instead of going up you need to go upside down to the left because just like mountains can just vanish for a writer, they can also change shape, size, direction or general laws of physics. If these reality changing mountains really existed mountain climbers would need to learn how to predict and navigate these changing landscapes. All the preparation and endurance training is moot if you can’t find Everest to climb it.

So let’s revisit that notion about inspiration and perspiration. Even if the hours you spend on executing an idea will outnumber the hours spent generating that idea by tremendous margins, you still need the mountain to stay put.  If success is 99 parts labor and 1 part epiphany that means that success is both a lot of work and that it’s impossible with that 1 ephemeral, essential part. It’s folly to discount the intangible exciting tug of a cool idea or to take it for granted. I wish it was easy to predict when and how a great idea will come and to hold onto not just the fact of that idea but the feeling and inertia of it but it’s not easy. Mediocre ideas can become amazing and amazing ideas can degenerate. Many of the ideas I’ve had that I turned into something I was really proud of started as ideas that sounded bad to everyone else but I felt the worth in the idea, I nurtured and gave the idea room to develop, not by laboring through it but by letting inspiration continue from start to finish. I’ve also had killer ideas that I felt weren’t right and they remain unfinished. I can’t explain it and I’m not sure I’ve always been right but instinct and feeling is the best I’ve got.

I’ve written before that I don’t give a lot of credence to writer’s block but that’s because I believe so strongly in the importance of inspiration and enthusiasm through the entire creative process. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hit peaks and valleys in my projects and I don’t deal with doubts and lose momentum. It means that I put faith in my muse and I know that most often, when I’m stuck in my labors, when I’m mired in what could be called a writer’s block, that I need to stop climbing and work on finding the mountain. I need to reconnect with what excited me about the idea in the first place and if I can’t find that, if the excitement is entirely gone, I need to be honest with myself and decide if maybe this isn’t the story I should be telling right now.

The music, the water bottle, the solitude, and the habits I’ve adopted are short cuts I’ve discovered or depended on to remind me and keep me faithful to my capricious anthropomorphized muse. I will give a million hours to an idea if that’s what it takes but if I lose that muse 999,900 hours in, I know I’m just a mountaineer without a mountain and I will never make it to the summit. Whether it takes lucky socks, knocking on wood or your favorite rock band, whatever it takes to inspire and stay inspired, you must do it and you can never take it for granted.

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