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Have you ever sat down to write and noticed that your writing was not so good as it used to have been? And by “not so good” I mean really, really bad? Quite possibly the worst writing ever?
When this happens, whatever you do, don’t panic. Even the very best writers can produce some very bad writing from time to time. What’s important is that you keep from letting it get the best of you.
There’s nothing wrong with producing bad writing, but when you look at all the awkward, poorly written sentences and start thinking: “This bad writing is mine, so by association I must be a bad writer,” watch out. This can become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you identify yourself as a bad writer, the more bad writing you’ll tend to produce. The more bad writing you produce, the more difficult it gets to ignore the idea that you’re a bad writer.
This can be an easy trap to fall into. As writers we tend to be so emotionally attached to our work, that judging ourselves by the quality of our writing, even in our roughest drafts, happens almost by reflex. The more emotionally attached you get to your writing the more self-doubt you experience whenever your writing doesn’t “come together” in the way you had envisioned it. You begin to wonder if you’re a phony, a poser. and soon your thoughts become consumed by worries about your talent as a writer rather than the writing itself.
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As a writer, it’s important that you learn to disconnect your sense of self-worth from your writing. When you do this, you’ll find that not only does writing become much easier, but the quality of your writing will also have a tendency to improve. One way to do this is to change your perspective about the creative process, to stop thinking of yourself as the wellspring of creative genius, but rather as…
As a writer, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of “being written,” the feeling that the words coming out on the page are not your own, but someone else’s. The ancient Greeks attributed this feeling to a visitation from the muse, a spirit that endowed all artists and creative people with inspiration. The poet, they thought, was merely a spiritual medium with her ear tuned to the divine. If she produced a work of genius, the credit was due not to the poet herself, but to the spirit that provided her with the inspiration. Indeed, the only thing that the poet could take credit for was the fact that she was able to listen clearly and effectively capture the message that came to her.
The wonderful thing about this idea was that if the same poet happened to produce a work of questionable quality, it wasn’t her fault. The inferior verse could be blamed on “bad reception” or even a muse that provided less than quality inspiration. Because bad verse was not the fault of the poet, she could continue to write unencumbered by thoughts of whether it was good enough or whether she could produce something better. The quality of the work didn’t hinder the poet psychologically because the poet wasn’t concerned with producing good verse, but rather in channeling it. If the poet continued in her efforts to channel inspiration without worrying whether it was good or bad, the quality of the connection with the muse could only improve.
Elizabeth Gilbert put forth this idea in her amazing talk at the TED conference, encouraging creative people to readopt the mindset of the ancient Greeks. She argues that by doing this we can circumvent the pressure put upon us when we’re expected to be the wellspring of all creative genius. This is far too heavy a responsibility for any single artist to shoulder. She argues that if we start paying homage to the muse once more, we can overcome the feeling of emotional attachment to our work.
What does this mean in practice? It means that you must relax your beliefs about the nature of reality and imagine that the muse is with you whenever you write. You must imagine that whenever your writing is uninspired, it’s simply because your muse isn’t giving you good stuff right now. When you put all the pressure to produce on a being outside yourself, the bad writing that comes out on the page is no longer your fault.
At this point I imagine that the realists among are probably reeling with derision at the idea that we should imagine faeries sprinkling inspiration dust on our heads. After all, are we not living in the age of scientific reason? Why should we delude ourselves to believe that the muse exists?
And my answer is: because it works.
Personally, I’ve found that the exercise of imagining a muse in my life can work wonders. Oftentimes I’ll look at Cezanne’s painting, “The Kiss of the Muse” and imagine that I’m the one who’s being kissed upon the forehead. The resulting rush of creative energy that I get is quite incredible. Whenever I find myself in the flow, I imagine that the hands of the muse are upon my hands, directing every keystroke. When I finish and I find the writing to be particularly good, I look up and say “thank you,” and express my gratitude as best I can. Also, when I feel uninspired I no longer have to beat myself up for not being a good writer, I can simply beseech the muse for some more inspiration. Whenever my writing is bad, it’s easier to keep an emotional distance from it, because I can imagine that the muse wasn’t having a good day instead of thinking that I wasn’t having a good day.
Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I’d like you to know that I realize I’m probably deluding myself. Most likely it’s all in my head, but if deluding myself helps me get better results in my writing, then why not do it? Instead of regarding it as an exercise of blind faith, consider it an exercise of the imagination. You know how that works, right? You’re a writer, after all.
Other Sources of Inspiration Believing in the muse, however, is not the only way to think of yourself as the conduit of inspiration rather than the source. If you’re religious, you could beseech God or the Catholic patron saint of writers. You could call upon the jinn, the spirits of the ancient Arab world who possessed poets and made them recite verse. If you’re a die-hard realist, you could call upon your subconscious mind, which can be just as mysterious or capricious as any muse or jinn.
When you consider inspiration as coming from a source outside yourself, it becomes more difficult to see the bad writing you may produce as your own fault. The bad writing is simply a product of mental noise that keeps you from accessing the inspiration that’s already there. Ignore the bad writing. Don’t let it get to you. If you continue to write with the idea that you should channel inspiration instead of producing it, you’ll find that the bad writing will bother you less and less. Keep it up, and you may find that it disappears altogether.
Kenji Crosland is a creative writing major who, scared of becoming a starving artist, became a corporate headhunter in Tokyo. Since then he’s regained his sanity, quit his job, and currently blogs about creating an ideal career at unreadyandwilling.com. He’s currently developing a web application that just might change the internet. Follow him on twitter @KenjiCrosland.