Few of us craft our novels in a cabin deep in the woods, toasted leaves dripping dew outside the window after a cleansing rain. No, most of us bang on sticky keys or scribble on notebooks in stolen moments during lunch breaks, on soccer fields while the kids play or on our morning train commutes to our jobs that pay the bills. Writing coaches often admonish us to kill our darlings. I’m asking you to kill your muse, too, or at least your fantasies about its necessity.
Some of the best writing insight I’ve received from successful authors has centered on discipline. During a workshop at Eckerd College Writers’ Conference, bestselling author Michael Koryta repeated the advice he’d been given by other literary greats to “keep your butt in the chair.” After a novel workshop with award-winning author Laura Lippman, I asked her how she found the time to write seven novels while working full-time as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “Just like you pay yourself first by putting money in your 401k, pay yourself first with your writing time,” she said. “I got up early and wrote for two hours before I went to work.” Lippman released her 20th novel this year and now writes fiction full-time.
Think of writing as your career. Even if you’re not getting paid for it. Yet. It’s not a hobby. It’s not the magic that springs from your muse. It’s your job. I worked as a television news reporter for ten years and I vividly remember my first live report for the ABC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Florida. A manatee got stuck in a drainage canal and I had to craft the story on the ride there, bouncing in the live truck, getting details by phone from the videographer who was already on the scene. Within minutes of arriving there, I went live and told the story. No muse. No special inspiration. Only the beep of the live truck mast rising. The producer talking in my ear. Just the realization that I had a job to do. So I did it.
Here are a few ways to stay on track with your writing discipline:
- Set writing goals that are realistic for you. Make them tangible. My goal is to write 1,000 words every day.
- Eliminate distractions. Facebook is still my kryptonite, but you can use online tools to block social media.
- Find accountability partners and check in periodically to report on your writing progress.
- Enter writing contests that force you to meet external deadlines.
If you’re like me, I suspect you sometimes feel like a fraud, an imposter posing as a real writer. One of your greatest fears is that a literary guru will rip off your mask and expose you as a charlatan. Those head games will stifle creativity and stunt your writing progress every time. It’s easier to hide behind the ephemeral, the fluidity of a muse that captures our imaginations with unexpected moments of brilliance. Without the scapegoat of an elusive muse, we’re left facing ourselves as real writers who must tap into our storytelling well every day and produce words on the page.
Novelist and non-fiction author Anne Lamott advises us to write “the shitty first draft.” She understands that the pursuit of perfection can paralyze writers to the point that we prefer to write nothing rather than something that fails to live up to what we imagined. I still agonize over every word, but I write on deadline just as I did during my news days.
Recently, I attended the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s annual retreat in New Mexico, where I sat on a patio with an early breeze brushing my cheek, the sun climbing into the sky. With my laptop balanced on my knees, I breathed in the morning air and tapped on the keys. I’d never felt more writerly with nature as my muse guiding my fingers. Then I flew to Las Vegas for a work conference, inhaling recycled air on planes, attending medical association lectures with little sleep. I came home to Chicago to piles of dirty laundry, bills to pay and more work crises to manage. Still, I made time for my fiction writing. Not because I felt inspired. Not because I was answering the call of a muse. But because it’s my job. It’s what I do.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.