…This was originally an ask, but it seemed smartest to do it as a new posting because it’s kind of long and I wanted to be able to put the bulk of it under a cut.
I’ve got a writing question: right now I’m knee deep in a first draft of a novel that I’ve been working on for almost 18 months. I’ve resolved to finish it soon but my muse keeps getting distracted. I get ideas for other stories like Doctor Who fanfiction for example. My question is has this ever happened to you while you’re working on a novel and what to do about it? Do you give in and write the other story or do you ignore your muse and work just on your novel? Thanks.
Short answer: sure it’s happened. In fact it happens all the time.
What do I do about it? I look at the local work situation and decide whether or not I can spare some time to indulge myself a little with the new inspiration of the moment. It might be a day or three, until the sharp edge goes off the desire. But if I’m at all close to deadline, the most I’ll usually do is spend a few hours – maybe as much as a whole working day if necessary – making the best notes I can on the concept, whatever it might be; then I put them aside to come back to later. This is the way it has to be, because I do this for a living.
Now, if you’re not writing things to deadline for a living, you have other options open to you. I’d say – in the short term – that there’s no harm in taking a little holiday from the longer work, doing some fanfic, and then coming back, rested and refreshed, to the novel in progress.
But let me add here that the phrase “give in” and the occurrence of the term “muse” in the above worry me a little on your behalf. Everything may in fact be just fine, but I have to unburden myself about something.
Essentially, the whole “muse” thing really bothers me. There are maybe 2% of people who use it to mean “The part of my creative process I don’t understand, but I know it’s me in charge of it; I just haven’t yet completely worked out what being in charge looks like or how it works.” But the other 98% of the time, in my experience, any sentence about someone’s own writing that includes the word “muse” is code that (when deciphered) means the person using it is attempting to somehow avoid owning / being ultimately responsible for their own creativity. Invoking the Muse means, most of the time, “It’s not my fault” (– not that this isn’t the basic existential position of human beings to start with, but let’s leave that be for the moment…) – “It’s not my fault, because something got at my creativity and made things go down this way against my will.” Or sometimes, “It’s not my fault, because this is Bigger Than Me and has to go where it wants.”
This isn’t what really happens. What does happen – so very often – is creativity running all over the landscape expending the valuable energy associated with it anywhere it likes, because it has not been properly trained and taught discipline. The training and discipline (like the creativity itself), and the management of the (theoretical) Muse are your responsibility: yours to own and to implement. It might be useful to think of your creativity as being very like a puppy. It may be just adorable with its big puppydog eyes and the way it licks your nose, and it may do the coolest tricks, and it may grow up into the most beautiful dog you ever saw… but if it is unmanageable and won’t come when called or poop where you tell it, it will make your life a living hell. (Yes, you’ll get people who say “No, no, I’d never want to discipline my creativity, it must run wild and free!” Uh huh. Do they have dogs? If they do, what do their houses smell like? I bet you can guess.)
It’s best if the training starts early. Fortunately, you’re in just the right place. 🙂
With this in mind, it’s okay to personify your creativity, as long as you’re quite clear that the Muse you’re going to construct is your sock puppet and not (creatively speaking) the other way around. And interestingly, the techniques are much the same for your internalized / personified creativity as they would be for a puppy. Every time it does something impermissible – say, jumps up on the table to eat your dinner, or starts trying to distract you from something else you really should be writing – you stop it from doing that, take control, and then show it a right behavior and reward that somehow. (I was about to invoke the rolled-up newspaper trope, but we are all well post-Cesar Millan now and newspapers have surely been superseded by going “Sssst!” very loudly.) (Still, the image of chasing one of the Muses around the house with that rolled-up newspaper has some attractions. I’ll get back to you on that after I’ve given it a test run.) …Anyway, this is just as simple sometimes as saying to yourself (or saying it aloud: somehow this seems to make the enforcement of discipline stronger), “Wow, I really wish I could work on that story / project right now… But I can’t, so I won’t.” And then you do some of what you ought to be doing, but ideally a more fun part of it. My version of this sometimes looks like writing something out of sequence that I might have been saving to do later.
You may have to do this repeatedly. Very repeatedly. After all, the desire to create can be extremely powerful, and to create something new and fresh that you haven’t been hammering your head on for months and months, even more so. This can be one of those the-grass-is-greener things that keeps recurring, and you just have to keep pulling yourself back again and again to what you ought to be working on.Fortunately, it gets easier the more you do it. (This is the sucky part of discipline, admittedly. But it beats years and years of cleaning up after the Wonder Puppy who never got the hang of being housebroken.)
Something else that you have to keep an eye out for… Such powerful desires to create the new/fresh/exciting thing can also accidentally become a weapon in the hands of any aspects of your personality that are uncomfortable with your creativity, or prefer that you not succeed at the goals you’re heading for. You have to do a little self-examination here, and look to see whether there’s anything going on in the back of your head that occasionally – or often – seems to work to derail you. (If you routinely start stories and don’t finish them, your suspicions should be aroused here.) There’s nothing unusual or wrong about this; I think every writer has aspects of his or her personality that sometimes try to knock them off course when they’re moving full speed toward achieving a goal. Sometimes these back-of-head influences are in the ascendant and sometimes not, but if you have such tendencies operating you must stay aware of when they’re active, and learn how to take that rolled-up newspaper to them. Once you’re aware that this problem is in play, when it rears its head you can derail it instead of it derailing you.
Taking the longer view and looking past mere discipline: the business of managing the creativity itself – solidifying your mastery of your self-constructed Muse, and teaching it to do useful things instead of just stopping it from misbehaving – may take a while; but no work you do in this regard is ever wasted. Most of what I know about this aspect of the work involves tanking up hard on raw data of every kind – not just the stuff that seems to apply specifically to your subject – and meeting and talking with as many interesting people as you can. Also it’s important to read about subjects that you don’t think you’ll particularly like or be interested in, as well as ones you do. You will find that this invariably functions to put tools into your hands that you didn’t suspect you needed and which prove incredibly useful. And (if possible) travel: as much and as widely as you can. New places and different environments do amazing things for the interior landscape and the room that your creativity has to stretch out in.
The broad effect of this kind of purposeful preparation seems to be to increase the frequency, power and depth of those sudden accesses of inspiration that “come out of nowhere” and absolutely blindside you. The increased incidence of this kind of sudden creative onslaught serves to both help your work and to reconfirm that you’re responsible for the creative impulse (even though you may remain uncertain about the mechanisms of its operation for months or years); because this kind of thing happens more and more reliably the more you prepare the ground for it. In my opinion it’s a confirmation of that old saying – I can’t recall at the moment whose it is – about how the fire from Heaven will not descend until you’ve built the altar to receive it.
When you have, stand back, because sometimes you’ll be rewarded out of all proportion with truly astonishing accesses of creativity even when you have done what’s frankly the most crap altar-building believable. The nature of creativity seems to be that it desperately wants to happen, and will happen just anywhere, given half a chance. It’s astonishing how undiscriminating it is. And maybe this is lucky for us. 🙂
Hope that helped.