I’m looking for a muse

…or just an excuse?

Writers, usually beginners, often refer to the muse, the participant in the writing process who is essential to get anything done. This is complete hogwash. The muse is simply an excuse not to do any writing and to go and do something else instead. It is a sign of a lack of confidence, it is a sign that the writer has not prepared sufficiently or thought through what it is they are planning to do, it is a crutch and an excuse. The right way to do writing is to treat it like a job and to do it regularly and persistently, because, as we know and as has been rightly said only recently, persistence is victory.

The creative process is mysterious, it is true, and it is different from doing many other kinds of work that are simply rote repetition of tasks that require no real thought. But all of those jobs are before too long going to be taken over by AI powered robots anyway, and what will be left will be occupations and activities where the alleged presence of the Muse or the absence thereof is a factor in efficiency. But while, there is no Muse, there is definitely a Zone, a mental state that you can discover or cultivate, where the creative process becomes smoother, more easy. This is really just another way of saying “focus” and forcing oneself not to be distracted.

When a writer looks back at words written, or when somebody else looks at your words, there will be phrases that spring out as being interesting or brilliant or amazing, and you wonder where did that come from? How did I think of that? There are examples and stories of people dreaming of words or phrases or plots, and then waking up and writing them down and using them. But most of the really great phrases and passages in writing come from the simple process of sitting down to work, and doing it and being in the zone, letting the words flow, and then the so-called brilliance appear in the midst of an ordinary writing experience. If you wait for the Muse, the Muse will not come. If you ignore the Muse and just start writing, you can, if you like, imagine the Muse standing just behind you.

There are times in the creative process of writing where you hit an obstacle, you can’t think of what to write next, you can’t think of a way to solve the plot problem, whatever it is. The losers way is to blame the Muse’s absence and stand up and walk away to do something else. The smart way may be also to stand up, but you go for a walk or go for a drive, you do something which allows your brain some space. You do NOT fill your brain with another activity that goes beyond something automatic. Don’t focus on something new, and in the process of walking, or driving or having a shower, the brain will still working, turning over the problem, and it is amazing how often a solution then presents itself, sneaking up from the side. You then return to the computer or your embossed notebook, and continue the word production.

One of the most prolific and professional writers that I have ever come across is the Taoist monk, Yun Rou, aka Arthur Rosenfeld, author of A Cure for Gravity, published in New York, and Mistress Miao published by Earnshaw Books. Authors can sometimes write a lot but their work requires a lot of editing afterwards, and that’s fine. The editing can be done by the author or by me or someone else, but the most thing important is always that first draft no matter how flawed it is. An example is Douglas Clark’s groundbreaking work Gunboat Justice, on the legal systems of China during the colonial era, the full story of extraterritoriality, where he bulldozed through the first draft and then went back and filled it with quotes, details and embellishments. The result is a history tour de force that I am very proud we published. Personal memoirs are often done by people who have never written a book before and their process is usually not important because this is going to be the only book they ever write. In most cases, they spent years and years creating that one document. A recent example is Paul Hoffman’s Witness to History.

But for committed writers, regularity of creation is very important. If it becomes a habit, something you do on a regular basis, almost always daily, over a very short time you can achieve an enormous amount. My advice to authors is to set a daily target number of usable words produced, say 1,500, but it could be 1,000 or 2,000. There are writers who can do many more than 2,000 a day, but they’re very rare. The number relates largely not to how much time you have but to how clear you are on what you’re writing, whether you’ve planned it out properly and how fixed you are in the Zone. For instance, if you know your storyline and your characters and what they will say in certain circumstances, then you can just write and write and write, and it just flows out. My view also is that during the Zonal stream of consciousness writing put anything that is going to stop the flow to one side. So if you are writing non-fiction, for instance, and you get to a place where a statistic is required or a piece of information from Wikipedia, just put in XXX and continue the word flow. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted.

That brings us to the environment in which you are being creative, and everyone is different. Some absolutely require being alone in a room, white walls, no distractions. For much of the past 20 years, I personally have liked noisy Japanese restaurants, sitting at the sushi bar with the energy of the surrounding scene to which I am not attached mentally, driving me on as I work on whatever it is that I am doing so intensely on the screen. I personally don’t write too many books, but I edit a lot of them, and when I am in the zone and it is the right time to do it, I tend to process six or seven books at the same time and do a fixed percentage of each manuscript per day. And I’m not allowed to not do finish that percentage of each book each day. I’m just now in the process of finishing off the editing of seven books, and with each of them, regardless of how long they are, I have required myself to do 2.5% of each manuscript per day. I work out the percentage on the basis of pages in the Word documents. And persistence being victory, it’s very effective. I churn through these things and by the end of the process, I have seven manuscripts done, and it has taken me only around an hour per day over a period of two months.

Of course, creative production is an extremely personal topic and there are no absolute rules and many exceptions. You may be able to write a book by starting at the first page without any idea at all of the story or the characters. James Clavell, author of such novels as Taipan and Shogun, claimed that that is how he wrote, and I guess it’s possibly maybe even a little bit true. But it’s unlikely. If you sit down at the computer with a blank mind and write the word “The” on the blank screen, you’ll probably stare at the word for a while, then add “hell with it” and walk away.

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