How to Write (Better): How To Get Past Writer's Block and Release Your Inner Muse
Ah, your muse. She gently sings brilliant story ideas into your ear while playing heavenly music. She knows how to forward the plot, create suspense, and explain the impenetrable. Fully developed characters pour from her like water from a pitcher.
Except when she can't be found. Except on those days when your mind is as blank as the page or screen in front of your eyes. Except on those days when your creative process is on strike. Days when words stick like super glue to the ends of your fingers — they won't flow from your hand to the page.
Back in 1986, I discovered Natalie Goldberg. Her earliest books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind explained writing practice. Writing practice helps the blocked and the stuck work through their fears and find a way back to the place where the muse whispers once again. I've been using writing practice ever since, and it has never let me down.
Writing practice works off the idea of taking a writing prompt—no matter what it is—and writing for a certain period of time without judgment or editing.
In a 2003 interview with Natalie Goldberg about writing practice in The Sun, Goldberg said,
A writing practice is simply picking up a pen — a fast-writing pen, preferably, since the mind is faster than the hand — and doing timed writing exercises.
The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don’t cross anything out, because that makes space for your inner editor to come in. You are free to write the worst junk in America. After all, when we get on the tennis courts, we don’t expect to be a champion the first day. But somehow with writing, if we don’t write the opening paragraph of War and Peace the first time we sit down with our notebook, we feel we’ve failed.
You can use a computer, but I always say you should be able to write with a pen, because someday your computer might break, or you might not have access to electricity. It’s sort of like driving: you still have to know how to walk.
I consider writing an athletic activity: the more you practice, the better you get at it. The reason you keep your hand moving is because there’s often a conflict between the editor and the creator. The editor is always on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t write that. It’s no good.” But when you have to keep the hand moving, it’s an opportunity for the creator to have a say. All the other rules of writing practice support that primary rule of keeping your hand moving. The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in.
What Goldberg teaches is a way to connect with your wild mind, that place where fresh and original thoughts come from. It isn't about finding a muse; it's about finding your own words and truth.
To engage in writing practice you start with a prompt. Some Goldberg has suggested in her books are funny, scratch, bicycle, ice cream, mistake, poor, and two. It doesn't matter what the prompt is; it matters that you write without stopping and without judging for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes.
A six-week course with Sharon Wachsler contains a lesson called Finding Your Muse. She shares some secrets to finding your muse in this great lesson.
The first divine revelation is that it is superb to write crap. I do it all the time. Actually it's not such a secret because two wildly popular writing teachers -- Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg -- have promoted this philosophy. Goldberg says, "You are free to write the worst junk in the universe." Goldberg is a professional writer, internationally recognized, a multiple best seller, and she has given you and me permission to write abysmal junk.
With writing practice using some silly sounding prompt like scratch, you suddenly have freedom. Freedom to writing the worst crap in America. And it doesn't matter, because, after all, you're writing about scratch.
Something happens when you keep at writing practice. When you show up and write, time after time. You get down to the real thing, it bubbles up when you aren't looking. Even when you write about a prompt such as bicycle, letting the words come without internal editing releases you.
In 7 Ways to Find Your Blogging Muse, engtech said,
I never have trouble finding something to write about. A bigger problem for me is finding something inspiring enough that I’ll make the time to write about it. When my muse is hiding she’s often found:
- In my morning shower
- In my first cup of coffee
- in my morning commute
- Or running through my head before I go to sleep at night
My interpretation of this method is that there is a writing prompt in there somewhere. engtech picks it up and puts it to use.
I submit that the muse can be found in a writing prompt, and in a few minutes of writing practice every day. I believe that so much that I have a blog where I post a daily writing prompt: First 50 Words. I have over 1000 writing prompts ready for the taking at First 50 Words. Take some and write. Please.
Mark David Gerson, author of The Voice of the Muse, said in The Myth of Writer's Block: How to Get Writing and Keep Writing,
Writer's block is a myth -- not because you won't ever feel stuck but because there's no reason for you ever to stay stuck.
Do you wonder where your next breath is coming from? Unless you suffer from some sort of lung disease, you rarely think about your breath. You assume it will come and it does. One breath and then another...and then another.
It comes because you let it, because you don't get in its way, because you're not thinking about it or worrying about it.
. . .
So how do you get to that place where the story's words flow as effortlessly as your breath?
By writing. By writing without stopping...without stopping for any reason that could give your critical, judgmental, doubtful, cynical or analytical selves any opportunity for input during these initial, creative stages.
Gerson calls that "writing on the Muse stream." Goldberg calls it writing practice. In both cases, the advice is simply to get out of your own way. Shut away your internal editor until later in the process, and for now, just write.
Jim Wawro at The Creative Penn suggests a different way to Ask Your Inner Voice: How to Call on Your Muse Just When You Need Her. He suggests,
Why not follow the same four steps you used to solve the problem at your day job: study the writing problem, learn all you can about it, and research possible solutions to the problem. Then forget about the problem for awhile and wait for an idea for a solution to pop into your mind. When it does, act on the idea and make the solution exist in the world. You are in tune with your inner inspiration.
This method is like giving yourself a writing prompt in advance, then letting it sit for a while. When you start writing, it all spills out. I often do this, especially when I get an assignment to "write about such and such by a certain date."
Holly Lisle, in her article Losing (and Regaining) Writer's Hunger says to make a date with your writing. To put that into a writing practice context, show up and practice every day. Write about something. Anything. Keep the words moving. You'll find the good stuff.