Calliope — she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)
There are writers who like to talk about their muse. They don’t have to necessarily be thinking about one of the classical nine Greek muses, just trying to personify that indefinable thing which is inspiration. It’s an easy thing to wax poetic about because, well, most writers don’t truly understand this thing that we do.
Stephen King has his own way of describing his muse, when talking about his writing room:
My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That’s the other level, and that’s the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it’s a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level — the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread — fades even more. This is a real thing I’m talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it’s good, it’s better than the best pill.
Is that helpful to somebody struggling with the blank page? No, of course not. What’s helpful is how King ends the piece:
My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.
Meaning that being a writer is somewhat like being a Boy Scout. Always be prepared.
Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.
Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.
Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:
Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”
So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.
People don’t often think about what they need to write. Just a great idea and 10,000 hours, right? They don’t realize that writing requires tools, always. And not the ones that all those websites have been trying to sell you, either.
See what Margaret Atwood has to say:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s different for every writer. Maybe you’re one of those people born knowing the right word. If so, chuck the thesaurus and move on.
But she’s right about the no-whining thing. Get on with it. Writing still beats doing everything else out there. Except maybe velociraptor wrangler; that’d be cool.
Harper Lee, c. 1962.
There’s a lot of education that can go into being a writer. All those workshops, retreats, seminars, and conferences; there’s enough of them that just taking in a small percentage could be a full-time job.
There’s also the less-formal education, that involves just listening to what other people think of what you’ve done. That’s always necessary, because writing is nothing without its audience.
But it matters who you listen to. Not every opinion matters, after all. Harper Lee knew that. Listen to this, from one of her letters (written after To Kill a Mockingbird was published) that are being auctioned off next week:
…one is not supposed to be aware that critics, reviewers, and English teachers exist.
All those people have their place, of course. But their beliefs should probably only be taken seriously in moderation. Especially by a writer who’s just trying to write.
There’s an old joke about how in Irish families, the boy who can’t throw a ball, well, he’s the priest.
A similar weeding-out procedure is suggested by this line from Rachel Kushner’s brilliant 2013 novel The Flamethrowers:
That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else. That might seem like an insult, he said, but it wasn’t.
So, in other words, run with it.
So, your book is done. Awesome. Now you’ve got to make sure it gets sold. It’s not an easy thing these days, with thinner marketing budgets, digital clamor, and thousands upon thousands of books blooding the marketplace every year. As many authors have discovered, getting your book noticed often falls on their shoulders, even if they were lucky enough to be picked up by a real publisher.
Social media marketing helps, among other things. But all that time spent marketing your way takes away from the job at hand: writing. As Jay McGregor writes for Forbes, self-published author Mark Dawson decided to risk doing the thing that is often recommended but is nevertheless hard to do: Give it away. That’s just what he did with The Black Mile, a heavily researched historical thriller.
There was the good news. He “sold” tens of thousand of copies over a weekend.
… he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.
Now, Dawson is a self-publishing machine, making a living writing, selling, and promoting his work. Of course, a lot of that is possible due to exciting new self-publishing technologies available from a host of companies.
But it still boils down to writing a good book to begin with. You know, the kind of thing that people snap up 50,000 copies of over a weekend. Next, be prolific. Very, very prolific.
Yes, Nebraska has writers.
Used to be, once a writer’s books went out of print, that was it for most of them. There might be a few copies moldering in a library’s backshelves somewhere, but generally not being out there in a bookstore or taught in a classroom meant that your work was going to be forgotten.
It would be nice to think that in the era of digital publishing, that nobody’s work will ever be forgotten. It will just sit there in the cloud, each bundle of bytes ready for download just in case anybody ever wants to read that 1960s coming-of-age novel or 1920s society-lady memoir or 2010s zombie romance (first in a tetralogy).
That’s not going to be the case for most of us, of course. The average writer lucky enough to get a chance at getting her or his book published will get that one moment of attention (maybe) before returning to the anonymity from whence they came. And that’s okay; one has to make room for the next chap coming down the way.
For some writers, there may be something like this great project from Nebrasksa’s PBS affiliate on “The Lost Writers of the Plains.” Using written and audio essays, they cover everyone from black intellectual activist Bertram Austin Lewis (who fought the good fight on minority inclusion in the academy decades before it was au courant) and Margaret Haughawout (a poet who brought modernist literature and a taste for men’s clothing to her obscure little country college).
Even those lost to time may eventually get one more shot at being remembered.