Keeping the Muse Atop the Monitor: Freedom versus Order

I tend to get obsessive over stuff.

Like writing.

If you were loose enough with your time to read the first post of this blog, you may recall I said stuff like, “I’m treating this as fun, for its own sake” and “I’m taking my time. It gets finished when it gets finished.”

For a while, all was well. I just kicked back in my chair, put my fingers on the old keyboard and told myself the story. Great fun!

But then the gremlins of perfectionism, hurry and ambition started climbing up on top of the monitor with my muse. At first I thought it was just because my muse is pretty cute and they wanted to put the moves on her. Also, no such luck. They were there to drag me down, just like they’ve always been.

“Don’t you dare leave this page until it’s better than Hemmingway! And no, Steinbeck’s not good enough,” said Perfectionism, adjusting his twisted boxers.

Hurry jumped up and down and shouted, “Four hours a week is not enough! You need to be cranking out more words per day or you’ll only have one novel finished before you’re dead! Maybe not even that!”

“This is how you’re going to show ‘em,Carson. Anybody whoever said you were less than 100% fantastic, once this baby hits the best-seller list, boy, are they going to feel small. And that’s what we want, right?” Ambition lit a cigar and blew the smoke in Muse’s face.

Day after day they kept up this nattering until I started to believe it. Poor muse was reduced to sitting next to the keyboard, having been shoved off the monitor altogether. She was miffed, of course, and spent more time sulking than helping my story along.

It’s easy to describe now, but as it was going on, I wasn’t fully aware what was happening. It’s a slippery slope one slides down into the slough of obsession.

Then, fortune smiled. I have the chance to talk to a good friend about the work and how it wasn’t going well, how it was starting to feel like an obligation instead of a lark. She wisely helped me stop talking about it and visualize what was happening. That’s when I really saw the gremlins, along with poor Muse, and realized what was going on.

I realized that my first-novel project is subject to the same tension that informs the rest of my life—the desire for spontaneous freedom versus the desire for rigid order. If the two get out of balance, it’s bad news—too much freedom and nothing gets done; too much order and creativity goes to hell.

So, what’s a wannabe novelist to do? Just three things, I think. First, remain aware of those gremlins and what they’re up to. Second, choose to keep the balance tipped in favor of spontaneity and freedom. Third, make a conscious decision at the start of every writing session to do the first two. That should keep Muse on top of the monitor, where she belongs.

I could work on a clever closing, but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll just say I hope this is helpful. How’s that for spontaneity and freedom?

Inspiration from a Hindu Writer’s Passion

The Hindu : States / Kerala : I had this irresistible urge to read and write: MT.

I have had it–and still have it–so easy! The Indian writer in the story above walked the proverbial 10 miles to get to school–pretty intense, even if it wasn’t in the snow. There’s mention here, too, of an author selling his work in the streets–talk about self-publishing!

Here in the USA, yesterday was Thanksgiving Day. This story reminds me of all I have to be thankful for and of what true passion can mean for a writing career. If you’re in the mood for a dose of inspiration, check it out.

Best to all,


“Rewriting”… no, “Revising”… no, “Editing”… Oh, Crud…

As I’m puttering along with this first novel of mine, I have discovered the desire to rewrite.

Already. Hooray…

One reason for this is that I’ve been listening to the audio version of Lawrence Block’s instructive Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which is full of great teaching and humorous writing. I’ll get a notion from Mr. Block and feel I simply must apply it right away, before I lose the idea or forget how I wanted to implement it.

I also just like rewriting. For me, there’s a certain pleasure in juggling the puzzle pieces of narrative and language until they fall together in a pleasing manner. (Not that I’m doing that here, as you can probably tell.) This is probably because 1) I’m a pathological perfectionist in matters I care about 2) I’m coming back to fiction after a long hiatus and need to polish the rust off everything I write 3) I like sitting for long periods in front of a computer screen, sipping Arizona Diet Green Tea and snacking on wasabi-dusted almonds.

This is just dandy now, while I’m only about fifty pages in, but as the piece gets longer it’s going to get harder to do this sort of immediate rework. I’ll end up doing so much rewriting I’ll never make any progress on the story. At the same, I hate to set some kind of wrongheaded precedent in the early pages, follow through with it and then have to slog through fixing the whole damn thing when the first draft is done, or make an abrupt change to some story element partway through and then have to make the former part match up with the latter, again after the first draft is done. (Man, oh man, was that sentence long enough? You think?)

Keeping in mind I get to do whatever I want in the course of this enterprise, I have devised a plan. It even has phases, which as a sort of sometime development guy I am certain are bound to enhance it.

Phase 1: I’m going to slow down and spend part of my regular sessions writing new material and part revising. I’ll devote entire sessions to writing or revising, or mix them during the same session as the mood and situation strike me. I’ll keep this up until the manuscript is too long to support this method. At least then I’ll have a first part that’s somewhat fixed, which will give me less to repair at the end… in theory.

Phase 2: Once Phase 1 peters out, I’ll just move ahead and make myself notes in the text, probably cross-referenced to an appendix I’ve already got appended to the document’s end (that’s another post), for necessary details. This will probably look something like this:

Basil pushed open the double doors, only to find Penelope waiting for him, gun in hand. [set up gun in previous action]

The bit in the brackets will be hyperlinked to the appendix entry. I got the brackets idea from some science fiction writer, I think, who wrote an essay about avoiding writer’s block this way… or something like that. It was a long time ago. If you know who it was, let me know and I’ll give him or her credit in this space, which will no doubt lift his or her career to heights previously undreamed of.

I don’t know if this is going to work. There’s at least an even chance I’ll find myself in rewriting muck sometime during this process no matter what I do. That’s okay, though–as long as the green tea and almonds hold out.

Please let me know if you have better ideas! Not high bar, I’m thinking.

Oh, and as a reward (consequence?) of reading today’s post, I’ve attached what Winnie the Pooh would call a “small smackerel” of the work in progress. It’s as raw as Christoper Robin’s nose in February, not even proofread, but you’re welcome to check it out: smackerel 11-23-11.

The Writing Police Have Left the Universe

One thing I have to remind myself every time I sit down at the keyboard to story-tell is: “The Writing Police have left the universe,” or “the Writing Police have lost their funding,” or “the Writing Police have all quit to become ski instructors in Vail,” or something even sillier.

The point is, there are no Writing Police anymore, and, in fact, there never were any. Nobody is going to come haul you away in irons if your writing is lousy.

I find this a great comfort on those days I’m confident every word or combination thereof I am putting down is trash–which is pretty much every day. Once I remind myself that the Writing Police are an illusion, I can free myself to write crap–and boy, is writing crap fun! Once I get beyond getting it right and get on with getting it written, the story starts to flow.

Every writer’s Writing Police–unless he or she is blessed to be free of them anyway–are different. On some days, mine look like Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Melville and King. Three of them stare over my shoulder and curse my incompetence while the other one gets the handcuffs ready. On other days, they look like everybody I’ve ever wanted to prove myself to–quite a large crowd. They gather everywhere–behind me, on the desk, on top of my head, laughing derisively while I try to get out the next sentence. No handcuffs here–when they want to take me away, they all just grab me at once.

This literary constabulary used to bother me a good bit, but now that I’m older, and somewhat better at not giving a damn, I have discovered a way to make the Writing Police hightail it. I simply think, or even say out loud, “I shall now right the skunkiest load of crap ever known to man! Observe!” Then I start doing it. At this point, the Writing Police flee in terror–no, that’s not right–they evaporate.

Because, you see, they were never anywhere but in my head, after all. And I run that joint.

So, friends, I say to you, when the crap is flowing, let ‘er rip. Sooner or later, the gold and diamonds will come.

If you have any experience with the Writing Police, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks.

Waiting for the Next Cultural Bus?

Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Taboo book words: Readable and Plot?.

The link above references an article about whether or not the book business’s emphasis on readability and plot keeps fine literary work out of the public eye.

My thought, on about two seconds’ reflection: sure it does. What’s popular always crowds out what’s more artistically refined or ambitious.

On the other hand, fashions change. Maybe in today’s climate Kafka wouldn’t have a prayer of publication, but who knows what the case may be 50 years from now? Melville was ignored for years until people’s perceptions changed enough to recognize his genius.

Luckily, we have literary awards helping ensure that soulful, soaring, lyrical writing gets at least some exposure.

So, in regards to the finest in lit, are we sunk or do we just have to wait for the next cultural bus to come by? Your comments are welcome.

A Blockhead Again

Several years ago, I decided I hated fiction writing because:

  • It was hard. I had to make up everything and make every word a gem.
  • It kept me inside on sunny Saturday afternoons.
  • It made me stay up late or get up early when I wanted to sleep.
  • It made me sneak off to an empty conference room in the middle of the work day when I wanted to eat.
  • It made me grumpy and worried because I was sure I wasn’t good enough.
  • It took me away from my family.

All this for the privilege of collecting short-story rejections and the overwhelming probability that any novel I produced would never be published, even if it was great.

So I gave it up and vowed never to write fiction again. I chucked all my fiction-writing books and turned to drawing and painting with equal measures of passion and ineptitude. (I still love visual arts and will keep after them.) I wrote non-fiction, pursuing a blog about project management for 18 months and continuing with an already established gig writing dining reviews for The Thirty-A Review magazine. I also continued doing oral storytelling, an art I’ve practiced for about 20 years, most recently with the Carapace group in Atlanta, GA.

But, as the sage has said, “never say never.”

Recently, a couple of things happened:

  • My old college roommate, the talented Kevin McLellan (not the poet at U. of RI), completed the first draft of his first novel. This inspired me and made me think, “well, if he can do it…”
  • I learned about self-publishing on e-platforms such as the Kindle, which one can do with minimal up-front costs. This made me feel I had at least a fighting chance of finding an audience should I write a novel.

Thus, I have once again become a blockhead. I find myself at the beginning of a novel and, to quote the Craig family motto, “I have good hope.” Unlike previous attempts, this project has a decent chance of completion because:

  • I’m not “writing” this time; I’m storytelling. Deathless prose be damned. I just want to engage the audience.
  • I’m treating this as fun, for its own sake, not for fame or money or anything else.
  • Even though it’s fun, I am considering it as work.
  • Even though it’s work, I’m letting it get done organically; that is, if something more pressing than writing time–like family–comes along, so be it. Think non-attachment.
  • I’m taking my time. It gets finished when it gets finished.
  • I’m planning to keep my day job, whatever happens. No pressure.
  • I’m letting my writing muse (gremlin?) run free, instead of shoving her into some literary crack.
I’ll be sharing the work in progress in this space and I invite your comments. Please don’t feel the need to be nice or offer praise, unless it’s truly merited–I am looking to improve, not to be stroked.
And now, as Jackie Gleason used to say, “away we go!”