Some days the muse follows us no matter what we do, like a friendly, cuddly puppy who’s just too curious to stay put. Other days, she hides and makes us chase her. For many writers, a little advice from people who’ve succeeded at the journey before us can help us catch our own personal muse, or at least wait patiently for her to turn up on her own. Here are a few of my favorites.
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
This quote is from Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer famous for The House of the Spirits and City of the Beasts. She’s sold over 70 million copies and been translated into 35 languages. If she doesn’t embody the importance of showing up and doing the work, I don’t know who does.
“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
Neil Gaiman, the legendary fantasist known for works like Sandman, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, said that. He’s also known for panicking and calling his agent like clockwork about ⅔ of the way through any given book, convinced he’s lost his talent and needs to give back the advance.
“If you’re using dialogue, say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
This from John Steinbeck, who you probably read in school. Don’t hold that against the man, though. He won a Pulitzer and a Nobel from his work. Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath are his most famous, but if you want to see him putting that advice into practice, you can’t go wrong with Cannery Row.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Elmore Leonard wrote over forty crime and thriller novels, including genre classics like Get Shorty and Be Cool. More than half of them got turned into scripts for movie or television. His advice to keep your writing natural and as unartificial as possible might feel like a tall order…but really he’s saying to relax, and let your instincts do more of the work.
“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”
Best-selling author Zadie Smith produced books like White Teeth and On Beauty by remembering what every author needs to keep in mind. We are our best selves when we are writing, so we do our loved ones a service by making sure we write. Otherwise, they get an incomplete version of us, and they deserve better.
“Always carry a notebook, and I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.”
Will Self wrote ten novels, five short stories, three novellas, and five nonfiction collections. His advice here is for when the muse is teasing us, showing up when we’re not able to write at that moment. We can capture what she suggests, and get to it later during our writing time.
“You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse.”
The great Maya Angelou needs no introduction to anybody enough into the English language to want to write in it. This advice about understanding your own pathways, principles, and procedures for getting into your writer persona is universal. It’s just a matter of quieting down long enough to listen to yourself about it.
“You actually have to write. Daydreaming about the book you’re going to write someday isn’t writing. It’s daydreaming. Open your word processor and start writing.”
Andy Weir broke big onto the scene with his self-published book The Martian, which was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon. He got there by writing, as he says. Much like his protagonist, Mark Watney, he made it by seeing the challenges and doing the real work needed to overcome each in their turn.
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
You’ve heard versions of this line many times in your life as a writer, but this Pulizter and Nobel winning author of Song of Solomon and Beloved is one of the first to say it on record. You have a unique contribution to the literary world someplace inside of you. Don’t you owe it to the world to bring it out and share it?
“Be strategic and resilient in pursuit of your dreams. That sounds like a cheesy quote, right? But nah, I’m serious. Resilience is one hell of a quality to master and not many have the skin for it.”
Tiffany D. Jackson has penned New York Times bestselling, award-winning YA books like Monday’s Not Coming and Allegedly. Nobody succeeds like she has without braving rejection letters, editorial suggestions, and one-star reviews. When your muse starts to hide because those are incoming, tell it to toughen up. It’s the price of admission.
“People are going to judge you all the time no matter what you do. Don’t worry about other people. Worry about you.”
Poet and writer Jacqueline Woodson reminds us of this important fact. It’s especially important to remember when you’re comparing your accomplishments to other authors. You are on your own path. Write the best book you can, and don’t look around too much.
“Hold fast to your dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
These words from legendary poet Langston Hughes capture the most important aspect of writing. The arts, including writing, are the soul of humanity. Without serving your muse, you risk losing your own. Without contributing your writing to the world, you miss a chance to enrich the souls of us all.
“Be curious, not judgmental.”
Poet Walt Whitman, another name you can’t help but have heard in school, brought us this smidgen of advice with two edges. Be curious, but not judgmental, as you observe humanity and how we all behave. It’s the best way to capture their interest on paper. Perhaps more importantly, be curious, not judgmental about yourself. Note the habits, strengths, skills, weaknesses, and quirks within yourself and your writing, then without blame, adjust your writing to capitalize on some and avoid the rest.
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
We’ve all had the experience of starting to write a scene, character, or entire book only to find it didn’t want to be written the way we wanted to write it. To trust that instinct and go with it might go against the grain, but we have instructions to do just that from none other than Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time.
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anais Nin, erotica author and the woman responsible for Collages and Winter of Artifice reminds us that sometimes our writing is for ourselves first. The more of our experience, perspective, and passion we can put on the page, the better the final work will be.
“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly. They’ll go through anything. You’ll read and be pierced.”
If you ever need a little pick-me-up about why to keep doing what you’re doing, Brave New World author Aldous Huxley has this to say about it. You’ve felt this in the writing of others: that scene, that snip of dialogue, that line that went right through you and left you changed. You have the power to do it, too, right there in what you’re writing.
“Tears are words that need to be written.”
Paolo Coelho, the man who brought us The Alchemist and sold more than 150 copies worldwide, the bestselling Brazilian author of all time, gives this glimpse into what empowers his prose. The wounds we all have give us some of the best fodder for our muses to feast on, and a well-fed muse creates amazing books.
“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
You’ve heard the name Virginia Woolf, even if you’re not 100% where from. She was one of the pioneer writers in stream of consciousness, and one of the first writers to be considered actively a feminist. Her explanation of the writer’s journey, though tongue firmly in cheek, checks out. Where on the journey are you?
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”
Erica Jong is best known for Fear of Flying, her novel that leapt off shelves in 1974, but she’s written far more novels, satire pieces, and poems than just that. Her advice applies particularly to writers who need just a little push to move toward finishing their manuscripts and going out on submission (or to self-publication). The next step of any journey is scary, but it’s necessary for reaching the end.