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The Writing Life
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Nine Anti-Muses and How to Placate Them
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
April 18, 2013
In this column I will not write about what inspires me, but rather about my nine anti-muses (a term I have invented). These are the things that prevent me from writing, or from writing well. I also list my ways of placating or getting around these minor deities.
CHRONODEPLETIA -- the anti-muse representing a lack of time.
Sometimes a schedule is simply impossible. I once received an email from a young lady with a demanding schedule and a new baby, who felt guilty because she was not writing. I wrote back and told her that it did not sound as if she could. I once had a conversation with a friend of mine -- another new mother -- not an aspiring writer, but still frustrated at her inability to somehow manage to have it all. We concluded that you can have it all -- but you can't have it all at once.
If you are at a point in your life where you really have no time, then my recommendation is that you read whenever you can, jot down notes for your great ideas and occasionally work on small projects.
For many of us, however, the solution is carving out more time for writing. Every now and then I review my personal habits and determine my worst time-wasters. For example, last year I hooked up with an old friend and we exchanged some really meaningful e-mails. But gradually the e-mails became more banal, on the level of "what are you having for dinner?" and "here's a cute ad about a cat." The correspondence was taking up about an hour of each day -- we agreed to stop, no hard feelings. Of course, I find many other ways to waste time, so this is a constant battle.
Sometimes it is not a time-waster that must go but something with real value. I may not meet with friends because I have a chapter to finish. I may choose a less demanding day job in order to have more time to write. If you really want to write, you have to make it a priority.
UNENERGETICA -- the anti-muse of no physical energy.
Some physical problems make writing almost impossible. Many are clearly temporary -- your fatigue may be cured by a nap or you have to wait to recover from your cold -- while others are chronically debilitating. I suffer from sinus headaches and it took me some time to find a routine that gets rid of them (very warm water with lemon juice helps a lot). Sometimes the cure can be as simple as more sleep, exercise, vitamins, sunlight or drinking more water. Dehydration is bad for the brain, and a huge percentage of the population is vitamin D-deficient.
You know your own situation better than anyone else. If your writing and the rest of your life are suffering because you are exhausted, figure out what you need and take steps to resolve it.
IDEAPENURIA -- the anti-muse of no ideas.
There are several levels of no ideas. If you really have none -- not even a story you are aching to tell -- perhaps you do not really want to be a writer. That happens. Perhaps you are more naturally a reader. Perhaps you have the urge to write because you enjoy reading so much.
Perhaps your lack of ideas is on a more granular level. You may have an overall idea, but be stuck on a scene. You may not be sure of where to go next in a story.
Idea generation -- from the level of the novel to the level of the plot twist -- is something that many can learn and master. The subject is too large for a tiny section of this column, but the first step is to ask yourself questions. Your questions can be on any level, such as, "What genre of fiction interests me most?" to the very specific, such as, "Where does Oedipus go after being banished from Thebes?" And then ask, "Why?" After you figure out the questions, start generating answers. I recommend you begin with the brainstorming technique of writing down lots of different answers and not judging them until later.
INEPTIA -- the anti-muse of wretched writing.
Perhaps you have a story you want to tell, but you don't have the skill. Perhaps you know you lack the ability -- or perhaps you don't -- and will suffer rejection and dejection when someone gives you feedback.
I believe there are a few gifted souls who are born storytellers, but most of us are lousy writers when we begin. We need to learn. Even when we have reached a certain level of competence, we can usually become better.
Fortunately, improvement is possible. There are many books and articles on writing. There are courses and critique groups. You can find out about many of them at https://www.writing-world.com by exploring the website. Be honest about your weak points and take pains to strengthen them. As with other fields, you need to practice.
CRITIPHOBIA -- the anti-muse representing the fear of being criticized.
After you recognize Ineptia , Critiphobia frequently moves in. She can undermine you at several levels. You may fear criticism from friends, from the public, and even from yourself.
Critiphobia has a good side. She can spur you to keep polishing until you really have ironed out all the kinks -- or at least made it a great deal better. Unfortunately, she can also paralyze you so that you keep crossing out words when you're trying to get down the first draft. I usually have to coax Critiphobia to stay quiet when I'm starting a new project.
Even when you have finished a project, when you have done your best, when you have even pleased yourself, you probably will not please everyone. There will still be criticism. Some complaints may be justified. Some are really a matter of opinion. Some criticism is just plain wrong (or even a mistake). Alas, that is simply part of life. In these situations -- when I feel that the criticism or even the praise is beyond what I deserve -- I recall a couplet from Rudyard Kipling's "If":
And treat those two impostors just the same
Focus on thickening your skin and striving to produce your best.
IMPEDIMENTIA -- the anti-muse of real-life blocks.
This anti-muse puts real blocks into the writing process. There are all sorts of problems that prevent you occasionally from writing. Perhaps there is a fire in your apartment building. Perhaps your computer needs repair. I began this article while my left hand was in a cast.
Impedimentia can impede you for a while, but if you let this anti-muse get the upper hand too often, you may not be making enough of an effort. Of course there are more permanent situations in which you may have to take more drastic steps in order to continue writing. You may need to learn how to dictate.
AGONIA -- the anti-muse caused by emotional issues.
Emotional issues can run from simply not being in the mood, to being distracted, to serious depression.
If you are rarely in the mood to write, perhaps you do not really want to be a writer. If you are distracted by life, perhaps you need to deal with the real world rather than your fantasy. Perhaps you need to talk to a therapist.
Still, for mild emotional issues, I find that meditation helps. I also believe that in many cases a little writing can help with depression or mental fatigue. It may be harder to get started, but once I do -- once I persist for a while -- often the clouds lift and the words flow.
IMPERSEVERIA -- the anti-muse of giving up when something isn't working instead of trying to find a way to solve it.
Some projects really should be abandoned; others need more elbow grease. In other projects you will find that there are pages and scenes that do not work, and need to be rewritten or tossed. There are few projects in which you will find everything comes easily all the time.
If you have trouble finishing a writing project, do some self-examination to determine why. Do you generally have trouble finishing things? If this is a general character trait, then you have larger issues. However, if that is not the case, then take a look at the other anti-muses and see if you need to work your way around one of them.
NARCISSA -- the anti-muse who wants the credit for writing a book; the anti-muse who encourages you to be an author -- an author, mind you, not a writer.
Narcissa tempts people into focusing on how their names will look on the cover, and into dreaming about the fame and wealth that they imagine comes with the book (alas, the end result is more likely obscure poverty). Although a little fantasy is to be expected -- after all, writers have rich imaginations -- at some point you need to stop daydreaming and write.
There is an exception to your having to do the actual writing. If you are rich, a celebrity or someone with a fascinating tale, a ghost writer may be a viable solution.
Returning to the Muses
When I have placated my anti-muses -- listened to them and treated them well enough so that they turn into grumpy, but less intimidating, "Aunty Muses" -- then my own muse usually shows up and the words pour into the page. Cultivating the muse is a subject for another column.
As promised, here is a list of the traditional muses and their specialties: Calliope - epic poetry; Clio - history; Euterpe - flutes and lyric poetry; Thalia -- comedy and pastoral poetry; Melpomene - tragedy; Terpsichore - dance; Erato - love poetry; Polyhymnia -- sacred poetry; Urania - astronomy.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.