Throttling the Muse

I’ve a penchant for avoiding that which poses a danger of making me happy.

You know that friend whose phone call you keep failing to return, and how the longer you avoid calling, the more your anxiety around not having done it deters you from doing so?

I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding something that I want to do—preferring, it would seem, the guilt-ridden angst I feel around not having done it.

Desperately wanted it; guilted myself out of it.

For years.

This is my account of how I stopped cock-blocking my muse and got back to the business of writing.

My reasons for sharing are two-fold. I want to keep myself honest—sure-footed on this path that I’ve had to fight myself to tread. I also hope this will serve some other poor bastard who’s gotten him or herself into the unenviable position of getting in the way of their own writing.

Part One: Not Writing is the new Writing

Words have power.

The word journal, for instance became so loaded for me that I actively avoided writing in one for the better part of a decade.

Words are also contagious. Once journal became infected, the disease took down parallel words. Soon screenplay was withering and novel was coughing up blood. It wasn’t long before what had infected journal became an epidemic, killing off writing as a whole.

After an unthinkable degree of frumpy navel-gazing on the issue, I discovered the way out of my guilt/aversion loop in a passage of Stephen King’s On Writing, which I will proceed to cite in the vaguest possible terms. King asserts that the two things one must do as a writer are write and read. I like to think I saw the loophole immediately, but it may just as likely have taken me months.

The journal infection had decimated writing and all its subsidiaries, but somehow words had been left standing.

I began reading voraciously, convinced (if naively, then thankfully so) that by doing so I was working on my writing. “Writers write, sure,” I told myself, “but they also read. I’ll work on the part upon which I can work.”

I read my first mystery novel, telling myself I was filling a gap in my writing education. I then simultaneously dove into a horror novel, a fantasy series, an autobiography and a book of erotic short stories. I called this venture “genre research.”

I started a new bookshelf as a testament to my endeavor—a visual reminder of all the time I’d spent “working on my writing.”

For four months I worked on my writing without writing a word. I was collecting words, however.

And words have power.

Part Two: Burning the ‘Journal’ and any other loaded concepts.

Edict One: Writing is Writing.

Anyone chastising themselves for not writing whilst whiling away any number of hours per week emailing, Facebooking, drawing up status reports for their job, IM-ing, tweeting, texting or doing any number of other things the kids are doing these days has an emotional misfire around the definition of writing.

When the voice inside your head condemns you for “not writing,” you’d do well to identify the implied qualifier. Your Inner Shithead may be right, but she’s not right about everything. What he should be saying is: “You’re not writing _______ of late.”

You likely write every day. You’re not avoiding writing, you’re avoiding your screenplay. Or your blog. Or the poetry you wrote in college, but somehow let drift when it didn’t seem to fit into the day-to-day of that job/significant other thing you’ve got going.

For me it was my journal. Tome after tome filled with ink and shelved like trophies for years. The trouble with trophies is that as soon as you stop collecting new ones, the old ones start to represent not what you’ve done, but what you no longer do.

Which brings me to:

Edict Two: Burn your Journal.

Seriously: fuck that guy. You’re never gonna call him back and he probably hates you by now anyway.

I know I’m jumping metaphors here, but my point is this: whatever that thing is that you erstwhile loved but now avoid with desperation: drop it. Just let it go. Zip-archive your blog and shut it down. Box up your journals and stick them in your mother’s garage. Cloud the folder marked ‘screenplay’ and delete all evidence of the file from your machine.

There. Pressure’s off. No more expectations. No more trophies staring you down, no more partially-filled Moleskines dated 19anything.

Edict Three: Carry on. Blood will out.

If you’ve a drive to write, like as not that sensibility seeps into your daily interactions with the world. You likely “craft” emails instead of writing them, and your texts arrive in bubbled series (1/3, 2/3, 3/3…). Your tweets go out fully punctuated and your co-workers often dip into their dictionary widget when reading your inter-office IMs.

Just carry on. Blood will out.

Part Three: How Not to Shoot your Muse in the Face

When your muse finally peeks her head out, try not to knee-jerk and put a cap in her.

After years of gut-churning annoyance whenever my therapist suggested that I keep a journal, I found myself recounting a whole slew of dubious family history to my brother in an email, and realized I was writing to myself more than him.

And what is writing to oneself, if not journaling?

The realization that I had inadvertently journaled poked at all the anxiety I had around that toxic word. I was on shaky ground, and I knew it. I sent the email off and let the whole thing go.

Eventually you’re going to find yourself writing a Facebook post that reads suspiciously like a poem, or wake up to a quote in your head that would be the perfect catchphrase for a character in a screenplay.

Over-think these moments and you’ll crush them. Acknowledge trippingly and move on.

Part Four: Writing the Lunch Box.

A few months ago, having noticed my twitching reaction to the mention of my journal, my lady said, “Call that thing something else. Call it your lunch box.”

When you get back to The Writing That Dare Not Speak Its Name—and you eventually will, provided you don’t think too hard about it—remember that words have power.

I believe I was able to get back to “writing for myself” due in large part to my refusal to refer to said writing as journaling.

I’m not a suspicious man, but I’ve come to believe in a very practical sort of emotional jinxing. I had restarted my “personal writing” around the same time I began working on a novel, and I was terrified of spooking myself out of either.

I found that even euphemisms freaked me out. I’ve been writing quite fiercely for months now, but I flip the bird—literally put two middle fingers above my head and say “middle fingers to the sky”—every time I refer to journaling, directly or otherwise. It’s silly, but it seems to diffuse the anxiety that I still fear may resurge and throw me off my game.

I’m not suggesting you find your own brand of self-inflicted OCD, but you need to find some way of continually taking the power from these blocks you’ve put up for yourself in the past. By this stage you’ve gotten past them. The trick is leaving them behind you.

Epilogue: Identify and counter your idiosyncratic idiocies.

There were a few practical things that got in the way of my writing, even after I’d gotten over the emotional blocks that had been holding me back. I can’t speak to anyone else’s triggers, but for me they line up like this:

Time. Place. Expectations.

Regarding time:

Like a lot of us, I don’t have the time to write. I work four jobs and probably always will. If writing is contingent upon having the time to do so, I will simply never write.

I find this unacceptable. I have come too far battling my Inner Shithead to accept that what I have fought so hard to enable myself to do was not, in all practicality, a viable option.

If time is money, then it can be budgeted, so I set out to reallocate the time that I was not spending on work.

Netflix. Surely I could shut off the TV in the evenings in favor of getting some writing done.

Wrong. I tried it in good faith, but it turns out that after a four-job day the only activities I’m coherent enough to perform are watching TV and drinking.

This left mornings. Convinced I could perform any task for a week, I began “The Five O’Clock Project.” I would wake at 5am every morning for a week and write. To my astonishment week one went well and The Five O’Clock Project has since become how I live my life.

I’ve found that my grogginess in the mornings is not the detriment to my writing that my fatigue is in the evenings. My mind is alert in the evenings but cluttered by the day’s events, whereas the mornings find my head tired but clear.

A significant logistical boon to The Five O’Clock Project has been the relocation of my coffee maker to its new perch within arm’s length of my bed.

Incidentally, The Five O’Clock Project has become the one moniker for writing that seems not to require throwing fingers to the sky.

Regarding space:

I find clutter distracting. The only things on my desk are those items with which I write, upon which I write, or upon which I set my coffee.

Cleared, too, is the area around my desk—anything that might catch in my periphery or become a focus when I look up. I apply this moratorium on clutter to my computer as well. All non-writing applications closed or minimized, and no icons showing atop a black, imageless desktop.

There’s a theory that one’s mind mirrors the state of one’s surroundings, and vice-versa. By that rationale, a cluttered domicile both projects and imposes itself upon the mental state of the occupant, while ordered surroundings both imply and inspire an ordered mind.

So I keep my writing space clear. The rest of my apartment is a mess.

Regarding expectations:

I mentioned that my only requirements for success with The Five O’Clock Project are that I:

A) Wake up at 5am, and

B) Write.

The two most important exemptions from this list are:

A) How much I write, and

B) What I write.

It’s important that I never answer the question, “Did you write today?” with, “Yeah, but only in my journal.” This gets back to the Writing is Writing edict. If I’d been asked that question a year ago and replied, “Yeah, but only an email,” I wouldn’t have a journal in which to write and I’d never have had the stones to start a novel because I was too blocked to write at all.

But I digress. Just remember: Writing is writing.

The way I tackle my Inner Shithead’s expectations around the quantity of my writing (A paragraph? What’re you, twelve?) is as simple as my choice of paper.

I’m currently writing on a $1.29 5x7 yellow pad from CVS.

I scorn the concept of quantity (throw my fingers to it, as it were) by tearing off each perforated sheet as I complete it and setting it aside. When the stack of sheets begins to look like an accomplishment in terms of quantity (as it did recently, sparking my desire to share here what I’ve learned on my journey back to writing), I gather up the sheets, take a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come in these past few months, then stash the stack somewhere out of eyesight of my desk.

Because Writing is Writing. And the rest is just clutter.

Did I write today? Yes, as evidenced by that single sheet of yellow paper on my desk.

No partially-filled Moleskins to suggest an acceptable quantity to have written, or to set an arbitrary bar for when I’m allowed to feel I’ve accomplished something; no moments when I’m not so much desperate to write as to finish that journal.

I’d rather just write.

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