Bursting out of You or Showing Up?: How to Romance the Muse


There’s so much to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life that I feel like I should be reading it more slowly. Today I read 30% of it in one sitting and I could barely contain all the thoughts that it brought up in me.  I sat in the airport and both laughed and cried in the short time that I read.  Other passengers stared.   The ideal way to read it would be to read just one page or one section a day, and ruminate on and write about that one bit.  It’s so dense with wisdom, with feeling.  It’s the kind of book needs to be chewed, tossed on the tongue and savored.  It needs to be digested and felt.

The part I found most encouraging in the sections that I read was Annie’s descriptions of her own writing processes.  I see quotes like Bukowski’s “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, don’t do it,” and sometimes feel that I am on the wrong track.  There are days when I sit in front of the computer screen and need to walk around the room, have a coffee, make myself a sandwich, have another coffee, and still it’s like pulling teeth to get anything out.  Some days I know that all that I wrote that day will be useless in the final draft.  In terms of word count for the work I’m wrestling with, I’ve done nothing all day.  I think about Bukowski’s quote and think about how it’s not bursting out of me, it’s not even coming out when I’m trying.  Maybe the muse isn’t smiling on me. Maybe I’m not chosen.  Maybe I’m just a fraud thinking I can write when really I can’t.

But Dillard experiences the same frustration.  The same feeling that it’s coming too slowly – or not at all.  She also makes her two cups of coffee and “fools around all day” when she’s trying to write.  The honesty and authenticity with which Dillard writes about her writing process and her struggle brings tears to my eyes, inspires me, and soothes my soul.

She writes, “Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle-bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.”

Writing isn’t easy.  It’s a process, a life.  For most of my writing life, I followed Bukowski’s advice.  I only wrote when I felt like I was going to explode if I didn’t.  I waited, passively, for Calliope to smile upon me, to fill my chest and my mind until my hands couldn’t write fast enough.  In the last ten years, all this waiting got me maybe fifty pages of writing that I was proud of.  Sure, when I was bursting, my writing was good.  But I made a promise to myself that I would no longer wait for my genius to show up, but I would work at it.  And I’ve written the same amount of work that I’m happy with in the past six months as I had in the ten years prior.

Yeah, sometimes it’s wrestling.  And sometimes nothing comes out.  Sometimes what comes out is terrible.  But showing up means that Calliope visits more often.  It means that I have time set aside in my day to work, to think about writing. It’s not as easy as passively waiting for the muse, but the more often I show up, the more often it comes bursting out of me.


*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

My 500 Words Challenge

It’s amazing sometimes how the universe seems to be sending very distinct messages, as if it’s conspiring for goodness.  Pronoia.  After writing a post about forming writing habits and a post about writing word by word, my reading of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life presents me with this food for thought, which she refers to as “comfort for friends discouraged by their writing pace:”

“It takes years to write a book, between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant… Thomas Mann was a prodigy of production. Working full time, he wrote a page a day. That is 365 pages a year… At a page a day, he was one of the most prolific writers who ever lived.  Flaubert wrote steadily…For twenty-five years he finished a big book every five to seven years.  If a full-time writer averages a book every five years, that makes seventy-three usable pages a year, or a usable fifth of a page a day… On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.” (13-14)

Then an email from Jeff Goins over at Goinswrites.com shows up in my inbox with an invitation to participate in a 31 day 500 word challenge.  Jeff’s advice echoes Annie’s:

“Here’s what I know about writing: It happens in small bites. Step by step. One little chunk at a time. You don’t write a whole book. You write sentences that turn into paragraphs. And paragraphs turn into sections that, then, turn into chapters.  In other words, it all begins with words. You don’t control the outcome, just the process.”

So, clearly, the cosmos are trying to tell me something and I figure that I don’t really have much choice other than to join the challenge.  I won’t be holding myself too strongly to the word count, but I’ll be working really hard to make sure my butt is in my writing seat for at least an hour a day, as per my New Year’s System.  And I’ll be using the My 500 Word Challenge as extra motivation.  Nearly 700 other writers have signed up so far, so it should be some excellent community-building.  I’ll be tracking progress here.   Feel free to join us!

My 500 Words Widget

January 1: 1087

January 2: 675

January 3: 940

January 4: 545

January 5: 629

January 6: 1201

January 7: 524

January 8: 0

January 9: 1152

January 10: 1398

January 11: 540

January 12: 513

January 13: 583

January 14: 503

January 15: 1159

January 16: 278

January 17: 0

January 18: 1097

January 19: 506

January 20: 537

January 21: 1302

January 22: 2173

January 23: 0

January 24: 0

January 25: 634

Reading for Writers: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Chapter 1.1

In her first chapter of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard begins to explain the complexities of writing.  She hones in on the process.  She starts with the importance of the word as a tool, a hammer, a pick, that gets to the root of the gold you are searching, plumbing depths and getting you closer to truth.  But she also asserts the need to know that many of your words will need to be scrapped, thrown away for the good of a piece.

This first chapter is a perfect example of sparseness that works.  Dillard moves back and forth between musing about writing and metaphors for writing.  For example, she tells of the inch worm that is constantly searching climbing a blade, “in constant panic” (7).  When putting forth her metaphors, she does not fumble with explication or transitions. Instead she boldly throws the metaphor out juxtaposed with her thoughts about writing and allows her reader to draw their own conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the metaphor.  This book would be a quick and easy read; this first chapter is a mere 21 pages.  But Dillard trusts that her reader will stop and parse the nuance behind her words.  This makes for an enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader and an excellent example of how to write in a way that engrosses the reader.

I loved her discussion of why to write word by word:  “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses – to secure each sentence before building on it – is that original writing fashions a form.  It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.” (15)

Though she also discusses the merits of writing like a steam train, without thinking and just going, going, going, this quote really resonated with me and with the way that I write.  I love a little thesaurus.com and Wikipedia.org while I am writing.  Sometimes I feel the need to find just the perfect word and when I do, it leads me on a new idea or metaphor that runs away into the sky in beautiful swirls of words.  This happens also with Wikipedia. Often I have a question or want to know more about some small detail I am including and once I get into Wikipedia, I’m off on new paths that I never imagined but are wonderfully complex and inspire the piece I am working on to go further than I ever thought.

My creative nonfiction professor balked when I told him how long it took me to do our weekly three-page exercises.  I was often spending hours on an assignment that was intended to take only one or two. “You’ve got to learn to write faster. There’s going to be demand for your work and you’re going to have to fill it.”  I tried to explain that I wasn’t being overly meticulous or editing as I wrote, necessarily, but that my process for creativity and association took a lot of time and consideration to come about.

I love the non-linear, associative, over-the-top writing of someone like Tom Robbins (some of you might know that he’s one of my favie faves), who said in an interview with the New York Times, “The reason I write so slowly is because I try never to leave a sentence until it’s as perfect as I can make it,  so there isn’t a word in any of my books that hasn’t been gone over 40 times.” I think this kind of consideration and thorough thought about each word is exactly the reason that Robbins’ sentences are so jam-packed with meaning and imagery and purpose and humor.  They leave me both feeling full and always wanting more.  In the same interview Robbins says that he often starts with just a title, and you can easily imagine how you can go from just a title to a whole whirlwind of a novel if you building it word by word in this way.

The quote above from Dillard helped me to remember why I write this way.  After a failed (well, 17,165 words, which was excellent for me, but not the 50,000 word target) attempt at NaNoWriMo and a push from my nonfiction prof, I was doubting my process and this little aside in The Writing Life reminded me that my process is my own. It does get results and I do love what comes out of it.  So, I can let go a bit on this insistence on word count and instead remember that what I need to put in is time.  Sit so the muse will show up.  And when she does, I’ll be there, listening slowly and conscientiously, even if she gives me only 100 words a day.


*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.