When the Muse Messes With Your Head: A Case Study

Sunday morning: I’ve been slacking long enough. Time to finish the story I began with such enthusiasm ten just a few brief months ago. I need inspiration, so I turn to where all the muses have fled: The Internet. I resolve to begin each day with an*!Inspirational! * quote from a famous writer. (Starting tomorrow.)

Monday: I decide Dedication is lacking. My Google search provides the example of someone whose wild words apparently sprang from the chaos of his personal life: I will follow one of Henry Miller’s “commandments”: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

The problem is, I want people to like me. But the muse has spoken. I sit down to the computer, coffee on the left, a bottle of Heineken at my right. Never mind that it’s 9 in the morning. I take a large, nauseating slug of beer and stare at my latest draft. Who wrote this garbage? Don’t be nervous. Work calmly and recklessly! Calm and reckless? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I pull the blind in case the mail carrier should spy the Demon Alcohol.

 I start on the coffee and start banging out words. Are they any good? How the hell would I know? I force the story for an hour, at which point I succumb to the relief of calling the dentist to schedule a long-overdue root canal.

Tuesday afternoon: I’ve been too hard on myself. Maybe. Apparently I’m not a Henry Miller type. I have an artist’s guilty need for reassurance. Voila! EB White pops up in today’s search. A wholesome family man. Recalling how I fell asleep as a kid, Charlotte’s Web clutched to my chest, I am already heartened.

My house, he told the Paris Review, has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on…There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

 Yes! I flip open the laptop, still in my footie pajamas. Surely the carnival of daily life harbors the safer sort of Muse. The problem is, I currently live alone, and the place is as quiet as King Tut’s tomb. I call my cat, JP, who trots in, hoping for a handout. “C’mon,” I tell him. “Make all the noise and fuss you want to.” He jumps up on the desk and settles down to stare at me. I grit my teeth and revise yesterday’s work, trying to gain momentum to move forward.

My phone is turned off, but I see an incoming text. It’s my recently-fledged daughter. Can we talk? NOW? it says. Oh, dear. It occurs to me that had EB White access to text messages, he would have kept right on going at the typewriter. Any cries for help from children would have gone straight to the Mrs.

I make the call. It turns out the quarter-life crisis I fear amounts to nothing more than a thick trail of ants assaulting her trashcan. After making several dozen suggestions, I am so relieved I have to nap for an hour.

Wednesday: I am disgusted with my lack of progress. I am a complete failure as a human being. I bag my plan and go to the mall.

Thursday: Guilt. Anger. Ben & Jerry’s. Why should take my writing advice from men? Back to the Magic 8 Ball. Ah, Jodi Picoult. She’s a mom. She has pets!

She says, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

 All true, all true. I feel so bad about myself that I spend two hours at the computer, doing God knows what to the current story. Every word feels forced. I go to bed with a pounding headache.

Friday morning: I decide that the writing advice spattered across cyberspace is covertly chosen to make “unsuccessful” writers feel like morons. I’m done with writing. Screw it! The last three stories I got published elicited exactly zero comments from anyone. Not that I resent this. I get it. There are just too many damn words out there. I probably wouldn’t read me, either.

I go for a long walk, contemplating my feet. When I come back, my computer screen is feebly blinking off and on. Panic. My story! I reboot. Laptop pulses back to life. No work is lost. I fall to my knees in praise of the muse: “Tech worketh in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.”

I’m so grateful I actually write for a while. By afternoon the story seems to be finished. So I tell myself, knowing that only continued meditation on my own demise will keep me from endless revision.

I close the computer. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks, I chant. I don’t want to anger the muse with hubris.

Saturday: I print out my story, ordering myself only to revise for grammar and typos. I am rewriting the 91st draft when my writer friend Ginny calls. “How’s your latest story going?” she asks.

“What story?” I ask.

“Come on,” she says. “Would you like me to read it?”

“Really?” Ginny is a very busy woman. Her writing is much better than mine.

“I’m happy to do it. It’s not a big deal.”

“Oh, my God!” I stop crying and email her the story.

Sunday: I catch up on all the things I didn’t get done during the week, such as feeding the cat.

Monday morning: Ginny sends an email. She loves the story, but suggests that a talking pterodactyl who is an icon of New York street fashion isn’t (perhaps) the most convincing protagonist in a work of realistic fiction. Why not make Lola a person who feels like a pterodactyl—awkward and wild and socially inept? “And you might consider changing the ending,” she adds. “Having a piano fall randomly out of the sky to crush Lola’s ex-boyfriend is too deus ex machina. You need an ending that results from the actual conflict in the story.”

Ooh, I knew that. Or should have. Never mind. Ginny thought the piece was worth criticizing! Ginny cared! I dive in to the revisions. Never has writing felt so effortless. By the time my fingers fall off, I have turned my pterodactyl into a human being and written a new ending: Lola realizes that her ex-boyfriend actually is keeping dead animals in his walk-in freezer. Fearing she might be next, she quits her boring job and moves to New Orleans to sing in bars.

I write Ginny a long, ardent note of thanks. Then I send the story out to 879 magazines, knowing I may only receive actual rejections from one or two. The rest will be lost in some cyber version of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s all good. After all, I only need one magazine to say Yes.



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