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Picking When to Start: Scheduling the Muse

August 20, 2010 Opinion, Publishing, Writing 7 Comments

By Henriette Lazaridis Power

Last week, The New York Times ran an article about Elizabeth Gilbert that was mostly about Eat, Pray Love, the movie version, but that happened to contain a rather incendiary phrase: “Oct. 15, the date Ms. Gilbert has picked to start writing her next book, a novel”.

the date Ms. Gilbert has picked to start writing her next book

This statement, this intention on the part of Ms. Gilbert, runs counter to some of the notions we hold most dear about the art of writing. Even those of us who have shed the image of the muse as a kind of finicky visitor, even those of us who remind ourselves that writing is a job like any other, and that appointments with the muse can and must be scheduled—even we practical types still balk a little at the idea that a writer can pick a date on which to Be Inspired.

It’s one thing for a writer to say she’ll wait to start after she’s had that second cup of coffee, but it’s quite another for her to say that she won’t start until she’s vacuumed the beach sand from the car and is starting to wonder if she’s going to any parties for Halloween. That kind of long-term planning may work for the business side of writing (submission day, pub date, launch), but it has nothing to do with the creation of a novel. Right?

There’s an implicit snobbery in some of the reaction I’ve encountered to Gilbert’s plan. Surely, she can’t be a truly gifted writer if she can pick her start date like that. The not-so hidden logic goes that her apparent disregard for the workings of inspiration proves the lack of it in her work. And there’s a kind of proleptic schadenfreude. We just know she’ll fail. October 15 will come and she won’t be able to write a word. Serves her right, playing fast and loose with the muse that way.

And then there’s a sub-layer of fear. We might be tempted to follow Gilbert’s example, but the thought of the flickering cursor or the blank page is more than we can bear. She’s going into uncharted territories, and all we can do is watch her disappear, part wishing she’ll fail, part wishing we dared follow.

I have to say, after an initial jolt, the phrase in the Times article made perfect sense to me—and it fits in in a strange way with even the most idealistic notion of the writing life. What Gilbert is doing, it occurred to me, is what athletes know as tapering. Her big competition is on October 15th (and the weeks or months to follow). Between now and then, I figure, she’s made a promise to herself that she’s not going to think about the book, not going to write any notes, not going to do any research. She’s resting up and gaining strength so that when the big day comes, she feels—to quote one of my rowing coaches—like a caged animal ready to attack. Is this a hacker’s cheapening of the muse? Hardly. It’s a writer’s way of making sure that her creative juices are at their strongest, her way of attempting to meet the muse at her best.

In my own writing, I’ve had stretches when sloth takes me over, and it gets to the point when I am practically disgusted with myself for not working. The next time that happens, I should remind myself that these are productive times. Restorative, even. And then I should pick a date on which to get going.

Q: What’s your view on the pick-a-date concept? Do you taper?


Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. E. B. Moore ebmoore5 says:

    I like the idea of the caged animal ready to attack, but if I’m caged without a pen and paper I tend to snap at whoever has inadvertently locked the door. Not good for family dynamics.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nichole Bernier and Randy Susan Meyers, Henriette Power. Henriette Power said: Scheduling the muse? Do we want to adopt Elizabeth Gilbert's novel-writing approach? My post at Beyond the Margins. […]

  3. Becky Tuch Becky Tuch says:

    Interesting post.
    But we don’t know a couple of things, right? For one, what does it actually mean to “begin a novel”? Does it mean to actually start writing page one of chapter one, or does it mean to start making scene sketches and staring at the wall for a few hours a day? It means different things to everyone, I imagine.

    But this is a funny idea nonetheless. Reminds me of talking with a friend about family-planning and she burst out laughing, saying, “On a Tuesday? No one wants to start a family on a Tuesday!”

  4. Gwen Mayes says:

    Yes, you can schedule the muse — it’s no different than lugging yourself to the gym and yawning through some warm-up crunches before you drag yourself to the treadmill. By the time you’re 15 minutes into the sweat, you are glad you showed up, are feeling more limber and proud of yourself for making the effort. What’s the ol’ saying, “luck follows those in motion.”

  5. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    I tapered once: picked a date to start writing a novel once based on moving into a new apartment. I knew I’d be too busy before the move, and thought inaugurating a new place by starting a novel would be a cool thing to do. It also gave me a point on the hazy horizon to focus on in the weeks/months leading up to the move/start date.

  6. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    Wow, Henriette. I devoured this post, smiling all the way from “[e]ven those of us who have shed the image of the muse as a kind of finicky visitor… still balk a little at the idea that a writer can pick a date on which to Be Inspired” to the end. You so humorously capture the snobbery and the fear that underlies the act of setting of writing deadlines, Your analogy to tapering is very useful. I have consequently marked September 7 (the day my 12-year-old returns to school) as the day on which to release the caged animal inside me. I just hope it attacks my novel.

  7. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie says:

    Loved this, Henriette, even though I’m reading belatedly. It seems I take breaks from everything. Some may call it procrastinating. I choose to call it prioritizing! I don’t know if I could ignore inspiration if it suddenly smacked me in the face, but I can certainly put off pressuring myself about a project until a certain point. And though I feel a hint of envy over Elizabeth Gilbert’s ideal writer life, she so charmed me in Eat, Pray, Love — and she connects so well with readers both in person and in print — I feel she earned it.

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Henriette Lazaridis Power

Henriette Lazaridis Power
Henriette Lazaridis Power is the editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing new work exclusively in audio form. Her novel CLEAN MONDAY will be published in 2013 by Ballantine Books. A Rhodes Scholar and a Ph.D. in English, she taught at Harvard for ten years before remembering that academia had never really been part of the plan. Since turning to writing full time, she has published work in Salamander, The New England Review, The New York Times online, The Millions, and Camera Obscura, among others, and has won a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant. Read Full