Posted by: stelladuffy | May 25, 2009

writing and discipline (kill the muse)

Was talking to a friend the other night about the writing course she’s signed up for, and her awareness that she needs someone/something to push her to do the work, hence opting for a course, rather than just going it alone. She said she felt (even while knowing the feeling is ridiculous) that she ‘ought’ to wake up full of words, and ideas and have them pouring forth from her on to the page/screen/notebook – and, knowing that’s not reality (knowing herself, which is a great start!), she’d find it easier to push herself/be pushed with some kind of structure.

Which led me to thinking a bit more about how it is to make one’s own work … the constant endless task of making one’s own work. I remember leaving university, knowing I wanted to act and to write, and being horribly aware that FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE I had to make up my own career. There would be no structure I could follow for work, no plan, (no pension plan!), no path that others understood and was clear and already in place. I’d have to do it all myself. And this was both fantastically exciting and utterly terrifyng. Twenty-five years later, I still find it terrifying on occasion, and (fortunately!) exciting every now and then!

So what’s useful then, in terms of making yourself work when there’s no structure to fall back on, no-one telling you what to do? I think it really helps to know your own patterns, to know what you lean towards, in both action and belief. This friend acknowledges she has a false notion about what ‘being a writer’ might be like (and as a respected and skilled performer she’s even more aware that NONE of us are constantly fired up by whatever a muse might be, or enthusiastic, or always brimming with ideas/plans/actions) and so is taking steps to get round that notion – by signing up for a course. Know yourself, work with that knowledge, maybe even re-make those notions that are so deeply embedded, even when we ‘know’ better.

My own preference though would be that we didn’t have these insane notions in our world at all. That we weren’t teaching our children that to be creative involved ‘imagination’ (ghastly thing to ask of a child “use your imagination”! why not just use what you see? what is? surely that’s as good a start as any!), or that to be an artist one needed to suffer, or that creative work is hard work, or that we hadn’t somehow bought into the notion that some forms of ‘art’ are better than others, that some forms of WORK are inherently better than others – the genre snobbery in fiction, the theatre vs tv vs film snobbery, the ‘real’ art = painting ideas etc etc. And the main problem, I believe, is the idea of the muse. That some things/people/forms are ‘inspired’ and others aren’t.

Yes, we all know those days (rare enough!) where we DO wake up filled with the words/ideas/plans/plots/whatever are needed to make the work required, but many more of us have many many more days where we don’t. Where what we do is just show up. Show up at the desk, in the rehearsal room, in the space, in the studio, and we get on with it anyway. We spend a day (or a couple of hours, or ten minutes if that’s all we’ve got) in TRYING ANYWAY

And here’s the thing : there are no tricks. Yes, some people give themselves treats (bribes!) – I’ll spend an hour writing and then I can read my book for half an hour. I’ll write for two hours and then I can have lunch. I’ll stay at my desk until I’ve done SOMETHING and then I can do something else. (The problem with that, for me, is that doing SOMETHING actually, hopefully, leads to something else, but if I’ve already given myself permission to move on to something different, then I’m less likely to get working on the something else!) And for some people they work. But of course, the treat/bribe/permission to stop working is just that – it’s permission to STOP. What’s the permission to start?!

The thing that works for me is to agree I’ll write 500 words today. 500 words, every day, when I’m working on a first draft – maybe some weekends off, rarely both Saturday and Sunday though. What I find about promising myself 500 words is that it’s really very do-able. It almost always leads to another 500 or even another 1000 words. But it’s rare that I can’t even manage 500. (It might take a long day though!) When I first started writing I did what other people suggested, write 1000 words a day, write 1500 words a day, write 5 pages a day … and it was too much for me. Or too much for me to aim for and I used to come away disappointed – in my word count, or in my abilities – or both! Now I (usually) come away at least thinking I’ve got something I can make better later.

What I know from making theatre is that it would be really ok to just make one scene today, just come up with one idea. It would be fine to have a day where all that happened is that we ended the day thinking we’d maybe made one thing we might still like tomorrow, even if we were unsure about it, even if we didn’t know WHERE or HOW it might be useful. And it’s really very possible to apply that to books too. It doesn’t have to be a whole scene on the page/s, it certainly doesn’t have to be a whole chapter. It’s great if it’s something you can build on tomorrow. But it might not be. It might just be the stuff you need to get out of the way BEFORE the more useful stuff comes. It might be the very rough page or two of prose BEFORE you fill it in with lovely ideas and clever lines and nice images. (Or it might just be work you cut entirely tomorrow or next week. And that’s fine too, because at least you’ve done something today!)

The best advice anyone ever gave me (Susanne Bier when I was writing the State of Happiness script for her) was not about how to write, or what to do with characters, or anything to do with the actual project – it was just about making work. And here it is : “You don’t have to be brilliant.”

You don’t have to be brilliant. But you do have to do SOMETHING. And that way, you’ve got something to make better later.

No muse, no tricks, no perfect bribe. Just you, and what might be a story, and what you plan to do about it, how you decide to let it show itself. And while I often ask the story to come to me – in dream, in musing, in prayer, in walking, in swimming, in all the other times I’m not at my desk – what matters ultimately, in terms of making the work, is that I AM at my desk. (Or in the rehearsal room/studio/wherever you make your work.) There is no muse. There’s just you. How cool is that?


  1. Great advice.

    Have you watched some of the TED talks ( Elizabeth Gilbert and Amy Tan’s wonderful talks on creativity and the muse are quite inspiring.

  2. yeah, I watched the Elizabeth Gilbert one. thought it was great.

  3. Ooh, yes! I totally agree with the whole creating=making thing, but it took me a while to connect being in a ‘creative’ business with my whole steady, patient farming/craft heritage, where imagination was an alien concept, but the practical making of things absolutely central.

    I also wonder whether there’s an underlying snobbery that somehow values conceptualisation (=frequent meaning of ‘creative’) over making.

    But a huge load to be responsible to oneself. So much easier sometimes just to hand the burden over to some poor hapless muse!🙂

  4. I was one of those children that found (and still do) a wealth of possibilities with a lovely big cardboard box.

    Incidentally, the phrase ‘I got my inspiration from…’ was banned on our writing course when we had to critically review our piece of creative work we were handing in.

    And there’s nothing wrong with Muses – as hopefully, one day, everyone will discover…

  5. Thanks, Stella. I needed that.

  6. It is a real pleasure to read your advice. Before I can read the novel you suggested I should read (the anti-romance I need so as to counter-balance my translating romance novels and most importantly, discover your novels). I must say I really appreciate your honesty, your pragmatic view on muse/inspiration/courses. This is both enlightening and refreshing. Thank you!!!

  7. thanks Laurent. I do try …

  8. This was a great piece (load?) of advice for me to read right now so thank you. I do struggle with the discipline side of things and it is very interesting to read your take on this.

    I realized I never thanked you for your comment on my blog a while back – so thank you for stopping by, and for your words of wisdom about the wonderful world of ttc! Which we agree with 100% by the way. Hopefully you remember them and know what I’m talking about, if not just smile and nod🙂

  9. remembering, smiling, and nodding.
    glad you found this useful.

  10. I couldn’t agree more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: