Margaret Atwood seems like the type of writer who would have a Muse, doesn’t she? In fact, when I tried to think of the famous writer most likely to have a Muse, she was the first person who popped into my head.
Atwood is certainly comfortable talking about Muses – at least in general terms. In one famous prose poem, Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women, she refers to “The Muse as fluffball!” (Unsurprisingly, this line has many nuances when read in context with the rest of her poem, so I encourage you to search it out…) In another work of hers – an essay called MacEwen’s Muse about Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen – she relates how MacEwen views her (male) Muse’s function: the creator of order out of chaos. That’s a pretty succinct definition for creativity!
But Atwood – normally forthcoming and open-bookish on most things writing – is frustratingly cagey on how Muses help her create order in her artistic world.
I finally stumbled upon a recorded discussion she was part of in the mid-nineties at the University of British Columbia on Canada Day, 1983. There, she defined her Muse as “definitely female”, short and thin, extremely old (though getting younger), not someone she knows, and more of a voice and an image than a presence. However, what I found most interesting is that she doesn’t have (and/or doesn’t need) a Muse when she’s writing prose. “It just has to do with poetry – that’s all.”
I guess that means The Handmaid’s Tale was all her – no Muses required…
You may be wondering why I’m so obsessed with getting to the bottom of Atwood’s Muse. Long-time readers know that I believe in the Muses myself. For me, the Muses are metaphorical – not actual Greek goddesses of inspiration. It’s a convenient way of describing where those creative ideas come from.
It’s also handy to have something to blame when things aren’t clicking as they should...
Creative Block vs. Writer’s Block
In my last post, I mentioned that creative block was something quite different than any of the other manifestations of writer’s block. The result is often the same: you stop writing. But the cure isn’t the same, because the cause isn’t.
But first, let’s define exactly what creative block is and why it’s not writer’s block.
I’ve had a lot of experience with creative block, even in my day job. I’ll have the ideas, I’ll have the direction, and I’ll be typing at 1,000 words per hour like nothing’s wrong. Certainly, nothing that would be seen as writer’s block as most people call it.
…except, the writing is not working. It’s stilted. I can’t find the right words, so I stick placeholders in. The information is disorganized and all over the place. The magic has dried to dust. The Muses have gone fishing.
There’s no flow.
If “flow state” is that perfect conflation of idea, inspiration, magic, and focus, then “clogged state” is the not-quite opposite. The ideas are still there, and maybe even the focus and inspiration. In fact all the pieces can be there, but nothing’s quite fitting, and I have to continually bang them into place with a hammer. Even then, it doesn’t always come together.
This is creative block.
Finding other people talking about this (I would have assumed, fairly common) phenomenon is as elusive as finding Atwood’s Muse. But I did find a blog post by writer Chuck Wendig about bad writing days:
“I get a crap writing day at least once a week. Maybe twice. Once in a while, I get a whole bad run of writing days, like I’ve got some kind of creative food poisoning and every day is just the urgent regurgitation of narrative fluids without aim or purpose. It’ll be five heinous days in the word mines, where I’m sweating and raging and kicking dirt.” (Emphasis mine.)
Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Thankfully, I’ve never had a bout last quite as long. But I do understand the frustration. Sometimes bad things happen to good writers.
...And How to Fix It
Is it okay to write bad words? Sure. I am a strong proponent of writing with wild abandon, getting the words down into a lump of clay, and creating the literary teapot from there. So there is nothing wrong if you decide to just keep on truckin’.
However, this is one of the few times when I would say it’s also okay to just walk away as well. Which brings up a good point – what should you do instead? Well, pretty much anything you want. Just as only time will sober you up and not coffee or eating or cold showers, time is the only thing that “fixes” creative block.
Here are some of the ways to deal with creative block. First, try to understand what might be happening. If everything is crystal clear in your mind about what you want to write but it’s just not flowing, then it’s likely you have true creative block. If it’s something else – you don’t know where the story (or poem or etc.) is going, or if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, or fear, or whatever – then go back and re-evaluate.
If the diagnosis is definitely creative block, you can:
Keep writing – get the bones down while you have your writing time, and decide to fix everything in the rewrite.
Go for a walk – walking helps generate ideas and solve story problems, but it can also help reset your creative compass so it points in the right direction again.
Do something else creative – get out the ol’ camera, pull out the paints, build a birdhouse. It’s a good way to keep up your creative interest without getting frustrated in your clogged state.
Watch Netflix – or TV, or a movie, or whatever – you get the drift. Sometimes it helps to encourage your brain to just turn off for a while.
Read a book – ah yes, this old chestnut! Much like watching Netflix, but your mind is obviously more engaged.
Do some research – besides the obvious benefits to your piece, research can help with inspiration as well.
Go to the bank – ...or the grocery store, or mow the lawn, or do whatever else needs doing in your life. Sometimes a break from the office is all I need.
Key Takeway: Creative block is different from other forms of writer’s block in that you often have motivation, inspiration, and free-flowing words, but those words just aren’t coming out right. You can either push through or take a creative break until the words go from “clog state” to “flow state” once again.
What Do You Do for Creative Block?
I’m curious – have you ever experienced creative block? The words are coming, but they are the wrong words? Or they’re falling into the wrong places? Let me know in the comments below, along with any steps you took to help make it better. (And if you find anything more on Atwood talking about Muses, please let me know too...)
Meanwhile, check out Margaret Atwood talking about the creative process in the video below.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
Unlocking flow is so powerful, but chasing it is super counter-productive. You are right, one should have more manageable and predictable ways of expressing their creativity. Thanks Graham!