Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

Yesterday, it snowed again.

I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.

And it’s still snowing.

If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.

As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.

Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.

Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up.  Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.

Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way.  It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.

That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn’t worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we’re really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.

What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That’s an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you’re working on is something you’d rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let’s focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you’re not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you’re realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you’re truly passionate about.

Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.

Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their “creative muse” as the source of whether they can write or not. I’ve been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I’ve ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).

But I’ve long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work  — like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear  — will add up.

I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I’ve made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I’ve learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it’s possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:

Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.

Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.

Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.

Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn “I want to write this book and get it published” into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you’ve spent years on, convincing yourself it’s just “not right yet”, when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn’t advanced the novel. You’re revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend years on a novel. I’m also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn’t add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there’s a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.

For myself, I’ve also found it helpful to have accountability. I pay for an editorial coaching service wherein I must submit 20 pages of manuscript every Monday. Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It’s helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I’m finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.

You don’t have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers’ hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.

And if you’re snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, the outreach manager for my editing company, is also an author. He had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!

Now, with that goal met, he’s given himself momentum to take the next steps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.

Your turn! What is the project you’re passionate about? What does the end goal look like for you and how can you define clear, achievable milestones to reach it?

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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2 Responses to Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

  1. Jamie Brindle says:

    Interesting article! Thank you:-) I especially like the idea of ‘asking questions about what the story wants from us’. I think that is often much more true than what we want from the story – they twist and turn in your hands when they are alive. That’s what makes discovering them so rewarding and magical. Best, Jamie

    • John Robin says:

      Thanks Jamie! Yes, the process of storytelling is about capturing that synergy that happens between you and the story. Finding that middle road is very difficult, but worth it! Happy writing.

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