My Muse is a Jealous Taskmaster.

15 responses.

Listen to enough writers talk about their Muse and sooner or later it’ll dawn on you that while the act of writing is thought of lots of different ways, few of them are pleasant.

Ernest Hemingway’s MuseErnest Hemingway found looking for his Muse torturous. According to legend, Papa described it like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

And W. Somerset Maugham believed that, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

What you’ll discover about writing is that while every writer describes it in a different way, almost all of them consider their Muse a difficult, albeit necessary taskmaster.

Having spent the last eight years hammering out this blog week after week while also writing two new books, countless speeches, articles, and TV commentary, and keeping up with my client assignments, I’ve learned a little bit about just how hard maintaining consistently good writing can be.

But of all the things I’ve learned, regular writing reminds me about two universal truths which assert themselves time and time again:

  1. The key to good writing is not just writing, it’s rewriting. And,

  2. The Muse is a jealous taskmaster.

I’m not the first one to discover these two points, by the way. When I was researching quotes for this article, I’d already determined my two rules but wasn’t aware that others had written them already.

Vladimir Nabokov said that, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” And Hemingway was plainly clear on this point when he wrote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Because I sincerely believe that the most important part of good writing is rewriting, I try to write my posts with enough lead-time to read them over and over and over, crafting them a bit tighter on each pass.

As far as the jealousy of my Muse goes, this point is unassailable. If you want to write – books, ads, songs, blogs, whatever – then besides putting in lots and lots of hard work the other thing to always do is stop and write whenever an idea strikes you. Because if you wait until later when it’s more convenient your good ideas will vaporize, as hard to recall as a good night’s dream in the light of day.

Shoe Sharpie MuseTo benefit from the thinking time I get when I run I keep a miniature Sharpie tangled in my sneaker laces so I can write my inspirations down on the palm of my hand as they pop into my head. When I sleep I keep a pad and pen on my bed stand to capture those 3:15 a.m. brainstorms before they disappear into the ether. And during the day I always try to have my laptop, iPad or notebook within quick reach so I don’t risk missing good ideas whenever and wherever the Muse shows herself.

Turns out Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, already knew about the Muse’s demands. Pressfield explained it this way:

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

Saul Bellow said it like this, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

But just because the words and ideas might appear when you pay attention and work at it doesn’t make it easy. Why? Because we writers are always our own worst critics. After all, as Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Amen to that.

  15 Responses

  1. Erika
    on May 20, 2015

    Great read. Needed this today, as I struggle at my desk! Thank you.

  2. on May 20, 2015

    If this post was helpful then maybe my struggles have not been in vain. Thank you for letting me know, Erica.

  3. on May 20, 2015

    This piece was quite timely.

    I’ve been asking myself, for quite a while, why my writing is such a challenge – thinking it’s so much easier for others.

    Good to know it’s not just me.

    Still doesn’t make it any easier.

  4. Seth B
    on May 20, 2015

    Bravo, Bruce! One of your all time best. Loved reading about how difficult writing is/was for some of the all-time greatest practitioners. The Thomas Mann quote is eye opening and inspiring. It’s moved me to bring up a topic I’ve been shy to mention to colleagues… the effect of aging on writing. It’s gotten harder for me. And I’m not sure if it’s just the age. I have always made my living either writing or from some act related to writing and at some point, money became my muse, making it harder for me to serve the other muse… the pure joy of creation. Would love to hear what others in similar situations have to say about this.

  5. on May 20, 2015

    Bruce,
    You hit the nail on the head! The harder we work , the luckier we get! Practice , Practice, Practice! Your blog is a shining example of dedication and hard work.

    Thank you for sharing!

  6. on May 20, 2015

    Bruce, your post is what George Carlin used to call an “oo-yeah,” as in, “Oo-yeah, that’s what happens for me.”

    I write a twice monthly leadership blog as well as a political blog and just published my book “ENGAGEMENT: How Great Leaders Ignite A-Game Performance” and all of my writing matches your description, especially the rewriting part. Because it’s such hard work and often repetitive rewrites are needed, I suspect that it is nearly impossible for anyone who doesn’t love to do the work to sustain the activity.

    My wife, for example, cannot fathom how a reasonably sensible person (no, really, I am reasonably sensible) could stare at a computer monitor for what seems like ages just to change one word or strip an unnecessary phrase in order to honor Hemmingway’s imperative for the economy of words. Oddly, it’s what writers do and enjoy.

    Thanks for your writing.

  7. on May 20, 2015

    I loved this blog!!! The quotes are brilliant! Really a blog so interesting and so much fun that I am going to keep rereading it!
    Thank you, Bruce!

  8. Ron Ahearn
    on May 20, 2015

    Bruce,
    Bravo!
    Have pencil will get busy!
    Thanks

  9. on May 21, 2015

    Suddenly, I feel so much better about myself! Truly appreciate you for putting it down and putting it out there for those of us who beat up on ourselves trying to get the right words down the first time. Turns out we don’t have to and we have a LOT of company.

    Thanks Bruce!

  10. on May 22, 2015

    Another fantastic post, Bruce. Personally, the process of writing is simply something I do not enjoy.

    I’ve often said, “I don’t like writing books. I love having *written* books.” 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom as well as that of other writing luminaries.

  11. Fran Allegra
    on May 23, 2015

    Love reading your blog Bruce. This was a great post. It reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius

  12. Lisa Moses
    on May 23, 2015

    Brilliant.

  13. on May 25, 2015

    Timely for me, too! If even such authors as Nabokov had admitted having to re-write every word, it’s only makes sense that I do, too! But, like many others commentators above, I now feel better about myself! Greatly appreciate your advice to write anytime one has time; will try to make it a habit! Again, thank you for writing this insightful post! And, just out of curiosity…how much time did it take you to put it together? 🙂 Thank you!

  14. on May 26, 2015

    Thanks, Tsisana. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it valuable. And I’m even more glad that you took a moment to tell me.
    I’m actually not sure how long the posts take to prepare because of the way I write them. First I think about them a lot, usually when I’m running in the morning or driving or doing something else. That way when I sit down to actually write the blog I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to write about. That way the actual workup only takes about 30 minutes. But then I rewrite the post over and over and over, usually across a few days, until it’s reads right to me. Posting it on WordPress and also loading it into ClickBack to distribute takes another 30-60 minutes or so depending on the number of links, image uploads and other maintenance a particular post requires and how well I remember the software. Linking to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter also takes another few minutes. All-in-all I estimate about two hours per blog.

  15. Chere
    on May 29, 2015

    Balancing inspiration with those less than amazing times as I take on this long overdue journey of writing this book that has been rattling around in my brain for quite a while, your words today were a delightful boost! Thanks

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