When the Muse Doesn’t Show

Most of us are busy people. We have all kinds of junk to do in between writing sessions – most of us have some kind of job or another, loved ones and not so loved ones to deal with, and all the usual menial tasks that make up our lives. We therefore have to fit our writing around our routines – we don’t have the luxury of brooding at oversized desks in unfathomably plush apartments, as any rom-com about literary professionals would have us believe. We have to make time for that crap, in between cooking dinner, buying groceries, and watching TV like normal goddamn human beings.

“If I had the time,” we might wail, baby puke all over our necks, “If I had the time, I’d be on my third bestseller by now!”

And so it goes. But then, a miracle happens! You get a week off work! Your kids finally sod off to university! Your dishwasher starts working again!

You seize the opportunity. You set that time for writing your masterpiece – you’ve finally got the chance to start that novel/write that screenplay/get a couple of short stories under your belt! This time next year, you’ll be a freakin’ millionaire!

So there you are, sitting at your desk or kitchen table, your coffee freshly brewed. You’ve got your notebook, Word doc, Celtx programme, or (hell’s bells) tablet in front of you. You raise your trembling fingers to the keyboard…

And nothing happens.

You can’t think of a single thing to write about. Perhaps you have a vague idea of the kind of thing you’d like to create – a short film about how things never go right for someone, maybe, or a story that makes the reader question what’s real and what isn’t. Maybe you have the perfect opening sequence – you can practically see every shot, you can even imagine the expressions on the characters’ faces, and you might have an idea of what will happen at the end. But the stuff in between? You realise that while you have great bits, you don’t have a story at all. Well, crap.

Writer’s block is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a writer. You don’t get banker’s block, or software engineer’s block, after all.

The problem with vague ideas is everyone has them. I bet that if you’ve ever told anyone that you write, at least one person comes back at you with, “Well, I’ve got this idea for a film about a guy who…” Yeah, buddy, we all have ideas. Doesn’t make you a writer though, does it?

Writers have to sweat it out and go beyond the idea. They have to reword, redraft, and pick over every single little detail for the reader’s benefit. In my opinion, the ones who aren’t prepared to do this are arseholes. I went to a short film screening not too long ago, and the audience was left with more questions than answers about the storyline. When we dared to ask the writer what the hell was going on, he merely sniffed and said that it was all explained and clear. We just didn’t ‘get it.’ He also starred in it, incidentally.

Some cynics might say that if you don’t have ideas, then you aren’t a writer. I think that’s true to an extent – only if you aren’t writing anything. If you sit and wait for a story to fall into your lap before putting anything down, then you can’t really call yourself a writer. I found this floating around on the webz recently:


This whole idea of refusing to wait for the muse isn’t new – Stephen King puts it fairly well in his On Writing memoir:

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

Here’s another Stephen King gem:


So what do you do? Do you just sit there staring at the screen? I don’t think so. You might try writing anything. You could write about something that happened to you long ago. You could even write out a stream of consciousness on bits of paper, which, as far as I know, is how Bob Dylan often writes.

You could even buy an ‘inspiration’ book. I used to have one called ‘Creative Block.’ It was full of nuggets of advice like, ‘make a really long paperclip chain.’ I couldn’t tell you if it worked or not – I never used it. I don’t think it would have worked for me. That’s not to say that the books wouldn’t work. I have one now by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto – 642 THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT. It contains some pretty good prompts, actually:


Incidentally, I once read a murder mystery novel about just that – two smalltown kids who overhear a series of conversations. I can’t remember the title, or even if I enjoyed it. I wonder if the writer had read such a prompt. The point is, he got something written.

Write anything, but don’t furrow your brow at a blank screen.

My own little hero, Buster Keaton, puts it like this:

The daily story conferences at the studio usually lasted from ten to six… …What I never could understand was why I got so few good ideas during those long story conferences. My best notions would invariably occur to me at home, more often than not in the least inspiring room of the house, the bathroom.

Perhaps his 1926 masterpiece, The General, was dreamed up while he was on the can.

I think it’s true that our best ideas come to us when we’re not trying to come up with something. I once got an idea for a short story when I was on holiday in Florence. The story wasn’t about Italy either. But my mind was relaxed enough to get out of staring at the screen. J.K. Rowling allegedly had the idea about a school for wizards while riding on the train. Was she racking her brains for a story at the time? Perhaps not.

Charles Bukowski takes a different tack with his ‘Don’t Try’ philosophy. In his 1990 letter to William Packard, he writes:

When everything works best it’s not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It’s when you’re mad with it, it’s when it’s stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It’s when there’s no hope but that.

He goes on to say:

We work too hard. We try too hard.

Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.

You might think that if you can’t think of anything, then writing hasn’t chosen you. When we think this way, we can feel like failures. We shouldn’t.

Switch that laptop on, write just about anything. Write a list. Write about a dinner party that went horribly wrong. You’re not writing to get published. You’re writing because writing makes you feel good. And if you want more of that feeling, you’ll keep on writing. The stories are in there somewhere. Even if you have to spend hours in the john, or keep on writing things that you don’t feel flow well. From time to time, it will flow. That’s when we know we’re on the right track.


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