Until the Muse Returns | Daily News

Until the Muse Returns

Blocked, yelled newspaper headlines last week with regard to Ex-President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Blocked, cried my muse as I tried for the hundredth time to fill this page with Words on Words that would chase your Monday blues and shower rays of golden sunlight on the rest of your week.

Finally, at the stroke of midnight having stared and blinked, stared and blinked at the computer screen until the screen seemed to blink back at me, I turned to the legends of my trade in search of solace and if possible, an answer to the current tragic state of my life, far worse, I speculated than that of the defeated American President’s. Thankfully, every writer I have ever admired offered me advice, from steps I could actually take to those way beyond my reach, for that dreaded, much-mythologized affliction known as writer’s block.

It appears, every Hemingway, Twain, Angelou and Morrison has something to say about this ‘virus’ of sorts —how does one fight it, how does one submit to it, how does one think about it, and above all, how does one ignore it? There were some (like yours truly, no doubt) who ended up writing about not-writing, while some gave up altogether until the muse returned. But, alas, there were also those who declined to join the club altogether and staunchly refused to believe an ailment called “writer’s block” exists. Like the true followers of Judas they believe writer’s block is just an excuse to procrastinate, to stay away from our work for as long as possible.

If I wasn’t in love with White Fang, I would never forgive Jack London for writing in his 1905 essay, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” London believed writing daily was the best way to rouse the sleeping Muse. He advised, “Set yourself a ‘stint,’ and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.”

Like London, Angelou too believed inspiration will come only if you push yourself to keep putting pen to paper, or more likely, fingertips to keyboard. Angelou explained in the book, “Writers Dreaming,’ “I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes but I don’t like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

Anthony Trollope might not have stuck to the cat- sat-on-the-mat formula, but like Angelou he too believed practice makes perfect. An extremely busy man, for he held a day job as a post office inspector, Trollope’s job required him to travel often and keep a busy schedule. This meant that when he sat down to write, he needed to make sure he met his daily word count goal. In his autobiography, he described the strategy that he used: “It had at this time become my custom, — and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself, — to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour.

I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went…”

This is easier said, than done. For most of us this kind of advice would not be very helpful. We would rather claim kinship with Kafka who once lamented in his journal, “How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.”

Do not despair if you feel, at any given time in your life, more like Kafka than London, Angelou or Trollope. If you type a few lines, but after several minutes delete everything, if You can’t seem to find the right words to continue, if you feel your ‘inspiration inkwell’ has suddenly dried up, you are in good company. Neil Gaiman feels the same. Here is how he gets over it.

“Put it [your writing] aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it. Then sit down and read it (printouts are best I find, but that’s just me) as if you’ve never seen it before. Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

To get the maximum out of Gaiman’s Hibernation Theory you might follow Toni Morrison and create a ritual before you get back to your writing. Like the rituals we follow in April, like Morrison and many other writers, we can create a sequence of actions before we sit down to write. It could be as simple as making a cup of tea or as complicated as a rain dance ceremony in Kenya. Either way, the ritual will help you mentally prepare yourself to start writing, says Morrison.

“Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was — there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard — but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write.

“I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark — it must be dark — and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…”

Instead of talking about the thing itself, Earnest Hemingway describes how you can prevent the horrible monster from raising its head altogether. Hemingway says we must not exhaust our resources!

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

Essentially, this strategy attempts to outmaneuver writer’s block. End your writing sessions mid-paragraph while you still have a clear idea of what you want to write next. That way you will maintain your momentum and avoid showing up to a blank page the next day with no idea how to move forward.

John Steinbeck’s advice is different from those given by the others. In a 1962 letter to his friend Robert Wallsten, Steinbeck advised, “It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.”

Sadly, none of these eminent writers says anything about those of us who have to meet killer deadlines within the next eight hours; when there is no time to perform elaborate rituals, or sleep on the problem or pretend we are writing to our best friend. Thankfully, Ray Bradbury gives a practical option: “I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your (tea). And when all else fails, run…”

Off I go to find my running shoes. Catch you next Monday!

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