Feel the Fear and Court the Muse Anyway

It’s not only writers who suffer creative blocks.

Recently I visited friends in the mountains of Maryland, an artists’ mecca. My host was a sculptor who works in wood. Ordinarily ideas come to him while he’s working or listening to music. But lately he’s hit a dry patch, following some success, and was telling me about the various words of wisdom he’s been offered by artists about courting the muse.

"Permit yourself idleness. Sit receptive and wait," was one suggestion. "Art’s your job. Put in the hours no matter what you come up with," another. "Try working with something other than wood." How befuddling, all this disparate advice. If I’d thought he would listen I’d have encouraged morning pages and artist dates.

As a freelancer, I've learned a few things about my own process. For example, I write best sequestered in my home office (and if you think you’ve got problems try writing in a cubicle among software developers when the lid blows off and they start shooting rubber bands). I’ve also learned that when a deadline’s looming not only must I not allow writer’s block, but the deadline serves to light a fire under my butt. But that’s business.

Poetry's more akin to sculpture. I've written quite a few poems. I've gone months not writing them, too. Poetry requires poetry-head, and if you’re not in it, good luck to you. How do you get in it? Steep yourself in other peoples’ poems and then go out into the world and take notice. Word of warning – poetry and mystery novels have turned out to be a poor mix. The world of story blocks poetry-head. Maybe once I’ve finished....

Okay. The novel. After my blog post House of Cards I was reminded by Clare2ey that sometimes writers get scared of finishing. Her comment made me squirm. Too close to home. Yeah. For me, fear of finishing stems both from fear of rejection and fear of success. Flip sides of the same coin. Eyes on me.

Those fears shed light on why I’ve never submitted creative work for publication. I’m talking more than ten years of writing poetry and creative non-fiction. Well, except for one poem, and its rejection by Georgia Review – my first submission – stopped me cold. True story. (Oops...do mystery org newsletters count? Submitting to those, too, took a good deal of courage, but I have managed it. Twice.) That’s it. By no means is it all she wrote, folks.

So what happened to me when I neared the end of my novel's second draft? It’s true I got cold feet. Cold enough to wake my critic. The one I’d sent napping during drafts one and two. Although I know now that the novel benefited by her wise council – and I didn’t give up and I figured out how to handle the changes and I’m going strong again – still it was coming uncomfortably close to being ready to send that book into the world that so frightened me.

My friend the sculptor? His last piece was so good it was scary. I think maybe that’s his problem. In that vein, remember Capote, Harper Lee, and Salinger? For each of them, success spelled the end.

Note to self: I’m an optimist. Better work on my problem with the affirmative side of that coin.


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