Have you ever sat down to start a new writing project only to find yourself sitting there, hours later, staring idly at the blank page?
Writing inspiration doesn’t always come easily.
In an ideal world, we always look forward to the blank page, a fresh canvas we can color with ideas and texture with language. When our muse is dancing around, we feel motivated and inspired, so the blank page feels like the start of an exciting adventure.
But if our mind isn’t in the right place, if our muse is on vacation, that same page is nothing but a source of frustration.
When I became a professional copywriter, I had to learn how to write whether the muse was present or not. You know how muses are, fleeting little hooligans. I couldn’t rely on mine all the time. So I learned how to get along without her. That meant coming up with my own writing inspiration.
Outsmarting the Missing Muse
Yes, you can get along without your muse. I won’t lie to you and tell you that writing without your muse is the same. It’s less enjoyable; it takes longer; and it can be frustrating. But you can learn to get along without your muse.
First, figure out why your muse failed to show up. Here are some reasons mine runs off and hides:
- I’m not into this particular project, and neither is she.
- The muse’s secret entrance is blocked by my stress, fatigue, or hunger.
- She’s put in her time for the day and has clocked out (the well’s run dry).
Once I recognize the problem, it’s a little easier to cope with the muse’s absence. I still miss her, but now that I know why she’s a no-show, I’m ready to forge ahead without her.
Forget the Muse, Discover Willpower
You see, the secret to facing the blank page without the muse is sheer willpower. You achieve this by getting into the right frame of mind and convincing your brain that it can, in fact, function without the muse. I do this by telling myself any or all of the following:
- Once I get the first sentence out, the piece will start to flow.
- I don’t have to get it right (this is a rough draft, after all). I just have to get it written.
- If I hurry up and get this done, I can do something else.
- Just write the first sentence. Then go get a glass of water. Come back and write another sentence. Sometimes taking it slow and breaking it up into small chunks is the best way to get a challenging task done.
- Stop thinking about it and just do it.
- Do the work!
Sometimes these simple reminders are all it takes to get the words flowing. By forcing yourself to push ahead or promising yourself a little reward, you can convince your brain to become productive without its mischievous little friend. That would be your muse, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention.
Try a New Approach for Coming up with Writing Inspiration
What? You say these tricks don’t work for you? Don’t worry, I have more magic up my sleeve. After all, I’ve been outsmarting the muse for years.
You can try taking a break, but be careful: You don’t want to stare at that blank page for five minutes, take a twenty minute break, and then repeat that cycle all the livelong day. That won’t do you any good. Also, when you take breaks, avoid activities that can stretch into hours of procrastination, like surfing YouTube for your favorite cat videos. Make sure breaks are limited and timed!
Are you suffering from burnout? Your muse’s little vacation might be attributed to burnout if you’ve gotten a lot of writing done recently, in which case you might need a bonafide break. Pamper yourself by having some fun. Play with the dog or the kids, or turn up the music and dance around in your underwear. In the future, plan breaks into your writing schedule accordingly.
That brings us to getting the old blood pumping. I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV, so I can’t give you the biological, physiological diatribe about how blood flow and oxygen getting to your brain can make you more alert and get those creative juices flowing. But take my word for it. A little workout can do wonders for encouraging the word current. (Yes, dancing around in your underwear to really loud obnoxious music counts as a workout. Plus it’s fun, so you get two for the price of one.)
Do you ever wake up in the morning and your muscles are all stiff? You yawn and stretch (and try to come alive). Sometimes your brain needs to do that too. Try a writing warm-up, like a freewrite or a short journal entry. Or turn to some other project that you find more inspiring. When you switch gears and get your wheels turning on a different project, you can build momentum for when you return to the one that’s giving you a hard time.
Where’s Your Muse?
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Of course, because I’m so predictable. I want you to tell us all about your muse. How often does she take a vacation? How do you cope with her absence? Have you found ways to write without your muse, or are you totally dependent on her for writing inspiration? Is your muse a dude?
Do you have any tips for how to outsmart the muse and come up with your own writing inspiration? Leave a comment, but don’t tell the muses we’re talking about them…we wouldn’t want it to go to their heads.
I don’t think I have a muse. It was one of the reasons (just one among a slew but still there) when I decided that I didn’t belong to the writer’s club 35 years ago.
When I owned up to the fact that I really wanted to write about 6 or 7 years ago I asked some professional writers I knew (a few I knew 35 years ago) about how to write something inspiring when I had no inspiration, and the answer from every one of them came back as discipline; put butt in chair and type everyday and create a deadline.
Sometimes I have had to resort to typing a couple of “pages” of arguing with myself about how I will never get it written and nobody will read it anyway and if they do they won’t get it and I’ll have to go back to filing duplicate forms. And eventually a small voice wafts over my shoulder that she’d read it if I happened to mention this or that; and I start typing about this or that and after a while it’s off to the races. Of course you want to remember to delete the first couple of pages to save face with your editor; nor do you want to validate that your sanity may be questionable at times.
GREAT post. Sometimes I think my muse has been on vacation since 1999 … I just hope she hasn’t quit! (And she does send the occasional postcard.) It’s true, though. You can manage without her if you have to, though, somehow, it’s always better when she’s around!
At the risk of sounding both arrogant and newage-ish, I feel my muse is myself.
If I am in touch with myself writing is easy. Nothing blocks me so much as trying to force myself to write in a way that ignores what I am feeling and thinking.
Often what helps is to take the time out and do a writing practice or a short poem about what I need to write about… which seems to clear the air enough that I can write about other things if I need to.
My muse is a fickle one. I can’t depend on her in July/August. (But then again, I’m not there half the time either!)
She’ll be back in September, when the weather turns cooler. She always does.
PS. Yes, it’s spelled éclair, with an “accent aigu”.
@Deb (gscottage): Turns out some people don’t believe in muses at all. Having read your blog for many months now, I’d be pretty surprised if you didn’t have one. Your writing is very inspired!
@Deb (Punctuality): You too! What are you Debs talking about? Maybe you girls are just trying to take credit for the muses’ hard work, hehehee.
@Lirone: Nothing wrong with sounding New Age. Maybe we’re all interconnected through energy and the muse is a metaphor for how we tap into that collective consciousness. Oh, and welcome 🙂
@Friar: Aren’t all muses fickle? Mine shows up at the most inopportune times then disappears when I need her most. She’s quite a rascal and enjoys the game of hide-and-seek, but in addition to working without her, I’ve found a few ways to lure her out of hiding.
Thanks for clarifying the accent on éclair. I’ll go fix that now 😉
I try to write the most when I’m inspired the most, if at all possible. 😉 That usually happens around midnight! Sometimes it’s earlier in the evening. I’ve been known to turn the computer back on after not being able to go to sleep because inspiration strikes and I’m so desperate I grab on for dear life and run with it ’till the wee hours of the morning. 🙂 Other times inspiration comes in bucketfuls at all different times and I can’t even write fast enough to get all the ideas down on paper.
What do I do when the muse runs off on me? Chase her down, of course, and wrestle with her ’till she spills the beans! hehehehehe
Mine exists, the problem really is that she is lazy, like me. It makes sense that I would get a tailor made muse. On the days when neither one of us feel like it, we play with the kid and read a book. That galvanizes her for the predictable reason. There is so much to tell with a child and good writing? Well, it makes her competitive. She always pretends she can do better than whatever masterpiece she’s just read. As she’s my child, I’m forced to take her down a peg or two every once in a while. In the end, we’re both quite cognizant of how middle of the road we are, the muse and I. That’s OK. We write what little we write for pleasure or when our time permits. Like I said, we’re laid back partners, Petunia and I.
Hey Melissa, great post as always!
Like many writers, I got into this gig because I always wanted to write fiction. Maybe sell a massive fantasy trilogy to do with short people, lords and rings, or an epic post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And I depended on my muse not just to help me out with my writing, but to help me choose when and how often to write. Let’s just say… not very productive.
Then writing became a job. A regular job where I had to write two or three columns, features or tutorials for a different client for each day of the week. Suddenly, my muse and his sense of productivity weren’t working out for me.
Thrown into that situation, I had to adapt quickly and now… well, I just ignore the muse and start writing. I say this to some writers and they ask me, “But how do you just start writing?” I can’t really explain that one other than: sit down, write. It’s a willpower thing and you have to break through “the wall” before it’s apparent, but it does work. And then that damn muse, with its terrible work ethic and flaky ideas, gets the sack. I still write fiction, and more frequently now, too 😉
@Michele: My muse prefers the midnight hours as well. I’ve never been a morning person and she takes after me.
@Milena: Ooh, you know your muse’s name. Petunia. I like that. Sounds like you two have a pretty good partnership.
@Joel: That’s why I got into this gig too — the ultimate dream of becoming a published speculative fiction author. My muse hoards the fiction. It’s true though: you can sit down and write, with or without the muse, and pretty soon he’ll start showing up when you say so.
My muse lives to taunt me. I believe she is on a personal mission to throw me off balance at every possible turn. She wakes me in the middle of the night (no wonder she sleeps in when it is time for real work) bothers me when I am trying to relax or appears two minutes after I have hit the send button. For client work, I have found that they don’t need my muse they need my brain and it works just fine without the muse. The muse is what gives me pleasure and allows words to dance upon the page to a special rhythm created to match the inspiration. So the joke is on the muse because clients assume that the brain had help. Little did they know she was sleeping in and the brain was doing the heavy lifting.
I bribe my muse with dark chocolate and green tea 🙂 I think the flow state or muse state, however you want to call it, is achieved when the left and the right brain start talking to each other. So I try to carry out activities that will stimulate both sides of the brain so that they’re in prime shape when I need to start writing.
Stupid Muse! She’s been pissing me off lately!
WHEN does she show up?
Just before I leave the house to go to work. Or after midnight, when it’s time to go to bed.
She’s a tease. She does this on purpose, at the precise moment she knows I’m unavailable.
I’m going to have to have a long talk with her, and set some boundaries!
@Karen: You’ve mastered the art of getting along without the muse! Heheh. The joke is definitely on her.
@Marelisa: Bribing the muse is always a good way to go. It’s amazing how well a muse will respond to goodies. I’d love to hear more about the activities you practice to get both sides of your brain working.
@Friar: The muse as a tease. Now there’s a good metaphor! You can run with that one.
When I’m faced with writer’s block, I do either of two things: I pack up for the day or I write anyway and somehow, a few moments later, the words all come rushing back. But there are times when I pack up for the day and the next day and the next day and I never seem to get my groove back.
I’m trying to think if I have a muse but if I did have one, I think it’s a she. No man can be that hormonal and sensitive. She was so sensitive when I started with my full-time job, that she left me and didn’t come back for years! tsk tsk tsk
@Jaq: LOL, your muse is hormonal and sensitive? That’s funny. I think all muses are like that. And mine did the same thing when I had a regular full-time office job. Little rascals!
Currently, my muse is acting like a finicky five year old. She gives me, seemingly, what I want, only to rip it right out of my hands as I’m writing it down! Is it possible to fire your muse? I’m getting thisclose to doing so.
Aside from her mocking and childish attitude, she does have a wonderful influence on me, albeit a very gruesome one. If I have an idea (Cough, cough, no thanks to her) she keeps me preoccupied with writing it out. Until, of course, she decides that another story needs tending to. As a result, I am constantly working on, at the very least, six different stories.
I stay up late at night, tending to her every want and desire, and all she gives me is incentive. I don’t mean to sound like an ingrate, but I’m a teenager! I want more than what she’ll give me- it’s practically part of being this age.
So, while my muse is angrily reading what I’ve written here, I’ll go see if I can get some ideas out.
Emmery, the best advice I can give you is to fire your muse and take control of your own creativity. There is no external entity feeding you ideas and luring you from project to project. It is up to you and only you to master your own writing habits.
I too have been distracted by new and seemingly better ideas while in the middle of a project. And I have dropped more projects than I care to admit in order to wander into greener pastures. Eventually, you have to either accept that you will never finish anything or you have to force yourself to finish something.
The best tip I can give you is this: next time you start a project, give yourself some time to contemplate it and make sure it’s a project you want to pursue. Once you commit, stick with it. Start an idea notebook and when other ideas arise, jot them down and let them go so you can return to accomplishing your goals.
I wish you the best of luck. You can do it!
This is an essential post and concept to all writers since we all struggle with absent muse syndrome from time to time. What resonated with me is getting the blood pumping. I learned that any work out even as gentle (and sometimes intense) yoga can help me with my writing. We live in our heads, writers and non-writers alike, that sometimes we can’t focus on stuff unless we reconnect with our bodies and our breath.
Doing yoga has helped me tremendously before writing because it helps clear out the thought patterns that make me resist writing. During yoga, though, that’s when I’m thinking about my work as straight up concepts as opposed to “I don’t want to just yet.” The more stress and fatigue I work out of my body, the more I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to write. Of coure it’s more important, though, to be absolutely present when you work out. That, I think, will increase later productivity because you’ve shown your mind that your body counts, and no body wants to be sacrificing its own health in favour of the mind’s woes.
Thanks, Marlon. I haven’t done yoga lately, but I do love it and hope to get back to it soon. Getting the blood pumping is important for health reasons, too. It also helps with focus and clear thinking. But for me, inspiration always seems to come when I’m in the shower or driving. Just yesterday, I was trying to work out a problem in a client’s manuscript and my mind was just going in circles. I took a break to go get some food and while I was driving–BAM!–the solution popped into my head. It turned out to be the wrong solution, but it did lead me to the right one. The key is to figure out what stimulates your creativity. Sounds like exercise is the key for you.
I’m glad you gave advice to move, even if it’s weird crazy dancing. There is so much scientific evidence to show when a person exercises the brain produces chemicals that helps us focus and feel better about ourselves. It boosts creativity. The mind/body connection is so underappreciated in creative endeavors.
I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to “force the work” but all my favorites say “Do the work” even when the muse is on vacation.
My muse likes Hula Hoops along with crazy dancing.
I agree that sometimes we need to write even when we’re not feeling it. I’ve found that when I review my writing a few days (or weeks) later, there’s no difference in the quality of work that is “forced” versus “inspired.”
Ahhhhh….I buy every book on writing, creative writing, anything writing and i still can’t write. All 58 years of my being want nothing more than to write, but…nothing. Don’t know if that part of my brain is fried OR if I need to have a teacher give me a project with a time frame or what? TOASTMASTERS?? Ahhhhhhh….so frustrating, defeating and iritating. What to do?
I’m not sure what you mean by “can’t write.” Do you stare at the screen and words just won’t come to you? Or are you writing but feel it’s not good enough? Most people who suffer from writer’s block are putting too much pressure on themselves to write something amazing. The trick is to allow yourself to write badly. Others are at a loss for ideas; they don’t know what to write about. Use writing exercises and prompts. Let yourself write garbage. Set out to write something terrible. Finally, some people just struggle with simple self-discipline. Sometimes it comes to do the basic act of forcing yourself to write, no matter what comes out of it.