Earlier today I had a conversation with a writer friend.
Her: What do I do, during my first draft’s resting period? You know, when I have finished typing THE END and then walk away from the manuscript for a week (or three)?
Me: Ideally, you should also take rest. Authors need rest too!
Her: But shouldn’t I make use of this rest time productively– like, working on my next novel – outlining, perhaps?
Me: I don’t see why. I personally think, after working for months, you’d deserve a little break. Not just for health’s sake, of course, but also so that your mind is completely fresh; when you go back to your rested draft, you can do full justice to the editing process…
Her: But sometimes I get really good ideas only when I am working on one project…
This brought me to a scene I read in some long forgotten novel. The child wanted to keep playing into dinner time, and when his mom protested that it’s too late, he erupts into a howling… and this woman (the adult, with real, justifiable power), terrified of being shouted at or “hated” by her own child, pleads with the child to see reason but ultimately allows him to do whatever the tantrum-throwing munchkin wanted to do…
Let’s forget the fact that there is a whole room of background story behind this plot, and just concentrate on the scene. And substitute ‘child’ with ‘muse’.
How many of us really try to discipline our muse?
Not many. Otherwise my friend would not have felt like she ought to have listen to her muse – which is what we call the talent or inclination that makes on write (or sculpt or paint), without analyzing the pros and cons. Since I myself have been in the same position many times – proof is the N number of unfinished projects in my computer – I now saw what I ought to have seen a long time back.
My muse is not my friend.
My muse is not God.
My muse is… a child.
A brilliant child. A child with astonishing possibilities and magical capacities. But… a child nevertheless, who needs to be taught certain concepts like routine and discipline.
Chiming in here for a good word about Julia Cameron, who calls the muse as the “inner artist child” who must be indulged every week.
Now, indulgence is a very tricky word.
Investing in a Lindt bar, one of the best chocolates in the world, and eating it after a hard week’s work, on a Saturday night, listening to some jazz and reading your favorite author – that’s indulgence. A bloody good one.
Stuffing your face with three bars of commercial grade Snickers, after a heavy meal, feeling guiltier by the minute – also indulgence, but well, sad, too.
You should definitely not let your inner muse grow a hollow stomach. But the problem is when we do not know what the line is, between starving it and over indulging it.
Your inner muse may say, “Wow! You have finished a draft! Submit it asap so that everyone can see what an awesome writer you are and treat you like royalty!”
Your inner muse may say, “Who needs feedback or language classes? You can write a clear sentence that is simple enough for the common man in India to read, that’s more than enough. You can always pay someone to clean up your writing.”
Your inner muse may say, “This project that is half done now is boring! I want to do something else NOW! I WANT I WANT I WANT!”
Doesn’t mean it’s right. Doesn’t mean you should do it.
There is a reason why the artist and her talent/muse/whatever name you give it are fused together in the same body. Each needs one another. The muse infuses the human with the magic of creativity and fills the hole in her artist (the reason why artists are only happy when creating and sour like a lemon when they are not). In return – this is a very vital point, often underestimated – the artist also feeds the muse, by giving the muse the ambience, exposure and nourishing she needs (this includes but not limited to education, travel, creative play, everyday sadhana etc)
Not many practice this symbiotic relationship with the right balance.
Nobody’s to blame here, really. If anything, I blame this society of ours which raises our kids with almost zero respect or practice of their true artistic abilities. There are no special tuition classes or regular workshops in the syllabus for arts, are they? (And no, I do not consider colouring books or clay making to be practice of a true artistic ability.) We are full adults before we discover that our artistic ability needs attention. If by luck, if our profession and passion align in the same field, then great! That’s the ideal scenario, though. Most often than not, especially as writers, we are able to work on our pet projects only sporadically. “Whenever I get time” seems to be the mantra.
No wonder we do not know that our muse needs a regular time table. No wonder we don’t know how exactly we should treat this special talent.
As an aspiring artist, we do not dare to control this muse of ours. We don’t dare to question it, make it sweat, challenge it. We are so grateful to it, we feel so blessed to be gifted this talent, that we walk around egg shells when it comes to demanding our muse to perform regularly. It’s why, when it comes to writing every day or writing several books a year (like many, many professional writers do), we wait like a humble servant for the Emperor to make his appearance, rather than behave like a scowling newspaper editor who wanted the article YESTERDAY.
This is also the same reason why feelings of disgruntlement, anguish, frustration, general dissatisfaction in life and nervous breakdowns are rampant amidst artists and writers (I don’t see this from, say, bank or government employees), because it really is a tough to job to reign in a truant muse or make her perform when you want her too. It’s almost like a cartoon, where you fight with yourself.
But that’s the good news about adulthood. You can learn. Starting now.
Learn good practices of your art. Read. Read crafts books, and articles on the art and practice of regular art, be it writing or painting. Read Eric Maisel’s books. Read Julia Cameron’s books. They are among the few books in the world that actually teach you how to live as a creative artist. Experiment with various genres, techniques and stick to the one that gives you the most joy. Accept that this is hard work, don’t get sucked in the marketing/sales quicksand, and move on to the next phase of creation: using your good sense logic and preference find out the right working methods that work for you.
And be very clear that what the muse needs, is a firm hand.
A Mom who says, gently but firmly, “Enough! You listen to ME now. I make the rules, and I expect you to obey me.”
A Dad who says, “Why thank you, Muse, for that fantastic idea! I am going to make a note of it right here, but I am not going to start working on it until I finish my current project.” Or, “Yeah I know I can write, but I don’t want to be just one among the rest, I want to be GREAT, so I am going to wait for some time before I rush into self publishing.”
Like all spoilt children, your muse may rebel first. She might throw tantrums – just when you want to work, you might get this itchy nudges of “Should I not clean the house before sitting to write?” or “I am feeling so bored, restless… Perhaps I should start another project.” You may even get physical rebellion like headaches or stomach upset. Your mind/muse (sometimes these two are in the same sphere) has incredible power over your actions – it’s perfectly capable of giving you actual pain during this disciplinary process.
If you give in now, then you are back to square one.
All parents know that boundaries work only as long as you are there on the periphery, guarding it. So guard yours.
Remember that you cannot be a one book wonder. Or a one art piece exhibitor. Or someone who can only write (transcribe) about their own life experiences. You are an artist only as long as you keep creating, variedly and getting better. And yes, you need to train your muse to show up regularly and to adhere to the techniques that work for you.
A child disciplined in the right way grows up to be a good human – not a perfect one, but a good one, and sometimes, true goodness is much better than perfection, right? Give your muse the same care, and watch it repay you for your hard work in unbelievable future dividends!