Training Your Muse
A lot of people think the muse strikes randomly, and you just have to wait for her (aka inspiration) to appear.
While ideas can pop out of the ether to inspire you at odd times, if you’re serious about writing, you can’t just wait for that to happen.
I talked last week about Dorothea Brande and her method of training the muse. I outline my version of this process here on my website. But I often return to the book.
Why We (I) Need to Do It.
Dorothea talks about the two sides of any writer. The first is the adult, who’s discriminating, temperate and just, the artisan, the workman, and the critic (rather than the artist.) This part of any writer must work with or through the emotional and childlike second side. These two sides need to work in balance, and if any side gets too far out of hand, there will be bad work, or no work at all. (Brande page38-39)
Her process helps writers get these two sides into balance, and in her book she talks about splitting those two aspects apart “for consideration and training.” (Here and on my website I outline the shortened version, but I highly recommend her book.)
The process I’ll talk here about involves two short writing periods of 15 minutes each. Of course if you’re working on a manuscript, you will want to write more than that, but this is the training part of writing — getting your muse to turn up on command. Really, it’s about forming a writing habit.
1) Morning Writing
First, you write for 15 minutes soon after you wake up — preferably while you’re still in a semi-dream state. Go to the loo by all means, maybe even grab a cuppa if you must, but don’t have your shower, read email or the newspaper, don’t even talk to anyone — try not to interact with the world until after you’ve written. Then aim is to try to hang on to that semi-dream state, and write from that. This is the time to play, to explore, to write without caring, to write and not look back.
What to write about?
Anything. Write down your dreams if you recall them, write about your thoughts, a stream-of-consciousness exercise, try to evoke a moment from the day before, using as many of the five senses as you can. It doesn’t matter what you write — it matters that you write, and don’t limit yourself. If you’re on a roll, of course you can write more, but you need to write in this free-spirited way for the first 15 minutes. You’re training your muse, remember.
2) Appointment to write
Once you’ve finished your morning writing, think about your plans for the day and make a time for the second part of your writing. This needs to fit in around your daily activities — think ahead and decide when you’ll make a 15 minute slot for writing. This appointment-to-write is a crucial part of the training-the-muse process. It doesn’t have to be the same time every day — fit it in around what you’re doing. But make the appointment in advance. It doesn’t work if you suddenly think, “Oh, I have 15 minutes free, I’ll do it now.”
You must keep this appointment — every single time. This is the part where you’re teaching your muse to show up. No excuses, no argument — and no delays. No “I’ll wait until after dinner,” no “I can’t write in public places,” no “I’m not in the mood for writing just now,” and no “I don’t know what to write,” no, “I’ll do it later.”
You’ve made your appointment — KEEP IT!
All those usual excuses you come up with about why you can’t write just now — nope, you’ve made a commitment to write at this time, and hey, it’s only 15 minutes. You can do this. It’s hard, I know — but the eventual payoff is worth it.
I’ve been known to pull over on the freeway when my appointment hit, and write for 15 minutes in my car. Another time I’d planned to meet friends for lunch and intended to do my 15 minutes before we were due to meet. I was sitting in my car scribbling madly when one of my friends arrived early. She knocked on the window. “Coming in? she asked.
“I’m writing,” I said. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.” She’s a writer — she understood.
What to write about?
Again, it doesn’t really matter — work on your current wip (work-in-progress). Write a shred of a scene, a piece of dialogue, something you want to try out, thoughts in your character’s head — that’s up to you. Start a short story, continue the free-form writing you did that morning.
What’s so important about keeping this appointment to write?
Keeping the appointment to write will really help you defeat a procrastination habit as well. I don’t know about you, but my subconscious can act like a worm confronted with a hook, wriggling madly and always coming up with reasons why I can’t write now, why it would be so much better later. It’s a process of endless putting-off-the-writing. When I catch myself doing that, I always go back to Dorothea — the morning pages and the appointment to write, and after a couple of weeks I’m not only back on track and writing steadily, but often, the magic will happen (see last week’s post)and scenes will start to come to me in a dream-like state. And those scenes are always good ones.
When you first start to do this, your writing will probably be a bit clunky — that’s all right. It’s your muse dragging her feet a bit. She — and you— will get used to it, and after a week or two of your daily morning writing and your daily appointment to write, the words will start to flow — on demand — and isn’t that what we need to do?
“Doing Dorothea” helps get your writer’s brain in balance—the child and the adult. The morning child remembers how to play and be spontaneous and emotional and lively, and the adult keeps the appointment to write. And when the two work together, magic happens.
Thanks Anne. After a horrid, physically challenging 2016 +, and little to no writing (the first in 20 years!) I’m struggling a bit to get back into saddle. nnI’ve been setting specific times and battling on, wondering how I used to do it all before. Your post struck a chord with my present state and made me evaluate my progress. What I’ve found is that some days I’m good and I finish a session satisfied and excited. And I think ‘I’m back!’ Yet, despite the good session, where one might expect the next to go as well, sometimes it doesn’t.… Read more »
Kaz, sorry to hear about 2016 being such a tough one — let’s hope you’re out of the woods now. 14,800 words thus month is fantastic, especially since you’re coming back to writing. I always think writing is like a muscle and it takes a while to get going again. And you’re so right about celebrating what’s been done, instead of operating on an imagined deficit. Happy swimming! All the best. xx
Doing Dorothea! Love it. This is wonderful advice Anne – I’ve bought the book. I also need to set up a Doing Dewey time – devoting another sacred time slot to actually reading the books on writing I’ve bought. ud83dudd70
Glad you find it useful, Jay. I think you’ll find Dorothea’s book valuable, too. I pulled my copy out to check a quote and found myself reading on. Every time I dip into it, I find something new to notice. Love the idea of “Doing Dewey” — I find different craft books call to me at different times, and it’s almost always just one section or even a page or two that strikes the chord I need. Another time it’s something completely different.