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The Muse Is A Harsh Mistress


Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower. I probably wrote half my master’s thesis under running water.


Sometimes I’m inspired by preparing food. It’s a different kind of inspiration, triggering memory rather than making connections I can only see when I’m not thinking about them actively. Skinning fish fillets, for instance, once jogged my memory about working in a fish plant in my largely mis-spent youth.


Other times it’s something I see or hear, such as the time watching a honeybee go about her business set off a cascade of memories about the time the bees swarmed down the driveway and how we captured them and brought them home.


It can be the process of writing itself that brings inspiration. When I’m already writing something and can’t stop? That’s the BEST. One time I wrote on a park bench for three solid hours without pausing even to pee.


But the Muse is a harsh mistress (apologies to Robert Heinlein), and there’s no calling her back once she’s left the building.


So what do you do when the Muse turns her back and there’s not an ounce of inspiration in you? When you sit down to write and absolutely nothing happens? When all the prompts in the world don’t light you up? When all you want to do is burn all your notebooks and roast marshmallows in the flames?


Here’s what I’ve learned.


Lean into it.


Not looking for the why (why am I so uninspired? I must not really be cut out for writing). Not beating yourself up (how can I be so uninspired?). Not pushing yourself with gritted teeth and sweated brow and digging your heels in (dammit, I’m writing no matter what, even if my eyeballs are bleeding and I have blisters on my fingers).


You lean in gently. With curiosity, not a sledgehammer. Like poking carefully at a sore tooth with your tongue: what have we here? Resistance? It feels like heaviness, like stickiness. My head feels heavy, arms feel heavy, legs feel like lead, I want a nap. Or maybe a good cry. Or maybe I really just need to get outside. Not sure which.


Like that. Exploring, maybe doing a body scan, writing it all down. Gently following the movement of the mind wherever it goes: my trains of thought have derailed and crashed into each other and OMG it’s literally a train wreck in here and the fire trucks are on their way and all I can hear are the sirens.


Explore gently, but don’t give up.


Write anyway, yes; write no matter what, yes; but not with violence.


Write with a sense of allowing, not pushing.


Just show up. Sometimes that’s the most we can ask of ourselves.


And sometimes: don’t.


That’s right. Just don’t.


When it feels so hard that you’re doing yourself harm if you persist, stop. Take a break. Come back tomorrow. Or the next day. The page will still be there waiting for you.


Yes, yes, it’s true that “if you want to be a writer, write.” But that doesn’t mean you need to do yourself harm. In my experience, when I’ve pushed myself too hard, I just shut down more, and started to actively hate writing.


Just come back tomorrow and try again. It’s the return that’s important.


If you have anything else you need to do in your life—be it a full-time job, household obligations, child care, elder care, whatever—sometimes you really will need to attend to that and it really might leave you depleted to the point where you can’t do one more thing.


Sometimes you’re just empty.


Maybe you just need to give yourself a break, not holding too tightly to a writing schedule that you’ve given yourself, not beating yourself up if you need to adjust the schedule.


When people start a contemplative writing practice, I encourage them to take baby steps when it comes to establishing a writing schedule. To make a commitment to their relationship with writing, yes, but slowly. This is a relationship for a lifetime, not a one-night stand.


I encourage you to start with maybe five minutes a day, three days a week. Sometimes even five minutes is too much. That’s okay, just dial it back even more.


Take tiny sips until you find a writing schedule you can keep up regularly.


Then you show up, and if you miss a session, don’t worry about it. Just keep returning to the page.


It doesn’t matter whether you’re inspired or not. For just five minutes, follow your mind wherever it takes you. Stop when the timer goes off (this is important). Come back tomorrow.


Returning to the practice, again and again, with gentle self-compassion, is what matters.


I may write nonsense. When I’m particularly blessed, I may write something brilliant. Either way, I write.


Inspiration will find you again. And it’s better if, as Pablo Picasso famously said, it finds you working.


But sometimes your practice will drop off for a bit. And that’s okay. Just keep coming back to the page.


The purpose of practice is the practice itself, much like meditation practice. But, like meditation practice, it doesn’t end there.


We meditate, not to become better meditators, but to become better at handling all the shit life throws at us. Contemplative writing practice, with its aim of making friends with the mind, complements meditation in this path towards compassion in the face of whatever is.


But for writers, contemplative writing practice also brings us gifts we can use no matter what kind of writing we do in the real world: the gifts of discipline, persistence, consistency and self-compassion; of knowing we’re good enough no matter what; of learning by doing how to meet the page no matter what.


All of this makes us better writers as well as better humans.