Ignoring the Knock of My Muse

It’s been two weeks since I touched my creative writing work-in-progress.

Oh, I’ve got plenty of excuses. I spent the last few days of my last MFA packet focusing on my critical essays. Then I had to finish a freelance project. Next up, flying to Chicago for AWP. I blogged from there every day, but while blogging is writing, it’s not my WIP.

Is my muse satisfied with my WIP project timeline and multicolored flow chart? She will be, I suppose, if I keep to that timeline and convert that flow chart into prose.

In the five days or so that I’ve been back from Chicago, I’ve reflected on my WIP; I’ve done some research on my WIP; I’ve outlined the next section of my WIP; and I’ve told my wife I had great plans for my WIP.

Not a word has been written of my WIP.

I have a very real deadline on this next section, one imposed upon me by my MFA program. But, more importantly, I have a higher obligation, my commitment to living an art-committed life. For now, the WIP is the center line of that artist’s road. I’ve been idling for two weeks at a rest stop.

It’s not unusual for me to boast about not suffering from writer’s block. When you have worked as a wire and daily-deadline reporter, you’re conditioned to write to keep your job. And I have been writing the last two weeks–freelance pieces, blog posts, business correspondence. But there’s writing, and there’s writing. My muse only cares about italics.

Steve “Voice of Golden Eagle” Cox, the flutist/songwriter I interviewed in Memphis, Tennessee, said our muse is persistent, but if she keeps knocking and we don’t answer, eventually she’ll stop. Her knuckles seem to be holding up well for now, because her rhythmic tapping still rings in my ears like a metronome. It sounds fainter with each day, however.

I was going to post today either a “Creativity Tweets of the Week,” or a short look at a book by essayist John D’Agata and editor Jim Fingal about D’Agata trying to stretch the truth in an essay heroically fact-checked by Fingal, and how it now seems Fingal conspired with D’Agata in writing the book to change the facts to suit their narrative. A false rendering of a pushback against falsehood.

I wish I could say this post stretched the truth, that I manufactured this story to 1) engender sympathy, or 2) let others know they’re alone in neglecting their muse. But I’m a journalist, what D’Agata insists he is not. My creative nonfiction presents facts.

I can conjure various reasons for my block. My creative muscles are going to ache once I begin, the way real muscles do after two weeks away from the gym. I’m going to be forced to face in this part of my WIP some painful memories and emotions. And my ambitions for this section likely are higher than I can achieve in the three weeks I have left in this MFA packet period. Ultimately, however, the reasons don’t matter. Action does.

My plan to get unstuck? Proclaim on this blog that I will write today at least a few words of my WIP. There. I said it.

I welcome your thoughts/suggestions/bacon recipes.

UPDATE 6:30 PM ET: Well, I got back on the hog and produced 2,600 words. I’m not going to allow myself to wonder how many–or how few–of those words will survive the revision process. It felt good to open up the throttle, though, and now the engine’s idling, awaiting another ride tomorrow.

32 thoughts on “Ignoring the Knock of My Muse

  1. Funny, but I was thinking about you only moments before the email came announcing this post. I was actually thinking “I wonder how Patrick’s doing with his fiction writing after being at AWP and doing all that reporting that he does so well?”

    When I saw the title of your post, I was intrigued to say the least!

    I’m having a dedicated writing day today. I worked really hard all week so I could carve out this day. There are some non-Milli’s-creative-writing I’ll be doing (such as assignment feedback for a student), but ultimately this day is for my own writing. There are two new stories I want to write. I want to get the first draft of at least one of those down today.

    What say you to an accountability challenge? I heard yours as being “I will write today at least a few words of my WIP.” And you heard mine above.

    I’ll check back later today with a report from my writing desk . . . and look for yours here too. 🙂


      1. Great update, Patrick! I loved how you described it as opening up the throttle. Best of luck with the next phase. Sounds like your big scene is coming up.

        Because of your post today, I shifted my priorities and put blog writing last. I didn’t end up doing any blog writing, but I did get the first draft of my story down. And it was fun!

        Thanks for the inspiration.


  2. First of all, your reasons for not working on your WIP recently are perfectly valid, and I would argue that reflecting, researching, outlining and talking about your WIP definitely do count as working on it.

    But I also know that feeling when you realize that it’s time to take more concrete action, and I love your strategy. I like to tell myself, “I’ll just write one sentence, and then I can stop.” Of course, one sentence leads to the next and then I’m back in business. It’s overcoming the inertia that’s the hardest part.

    I’m picturing you at work as I write this! I hope you’re having some satisfying writing time.


    1. And I believe I was writing when you posted it!

      I could have kept going beyond what I wrote, actually, I was really in the zone. But I had a freelance project to work on as well, one I had anticipated coming on Tuesday that instead arrived this morning. I’m confident I can pick up where I left off tomorrow, however.


  3. booksentinel

    Was it indeed a block? By that I mean, were you intentionally finding reasons not to write because there was nothing there? It sounds like you had something to say, and chose to ignore it for other things. Rather than see that as a block, I’d be inclined to dive deeper and see if I couldn’t discover WHY.

    Sometimes I DO have something to say/write, something that even SHOULD be written/said, but I find other ways to occupy myself, and then chalk it up to block. Somehow being blocked is more acceptable, the inevitable agony of being creative, and being afraid is shameful.

    Must think on these things more. . .


    1. Hmm. I guess it depends on how you define “block.” If it’s because “there was nothing there,” then no, it wasn’t. It was more like ignoring, or actually hiding, for the reasons I articulated.

      I like the distinction you’re making here; it can be easier to think that something is blocking you, rather than someone, namely yourself.


  4. Dear Patrick,
    I’m really glad you took the time to write this post, and then publish it today. I went along reading it, waiting…..expecting…knowing this self-revealing sentence was just around the corner:
    “I’m going to be forced to face in this part of my WIP some painful memories and emotions.”

    I had to smile a little because I can so relate to what you’re going through. It’s very difficult to face some painful stuff that’s inside of us, true. But the relief you feel afterwards…indescribable. Not only that, but I’m absolutely certain your work will have a huge beneficial impact on many creatives who read your work -not just here on the blog (having had a taste with The Clear Monkey especially).

    I admire you for putting yourself on the line (because as much as you may feel you ‘have’ to, there are other choices). I’m glad you are getting the support and encouragement ‘nudge’ from the VCFA staff and fellow classmates (and your wife). I feel like thanking them too 🙂


    1. You’re really the best, Carole Jane.

      If I were workshopping this blog post, I’d identify the line you knew was coming as the keystone. I didn’t get to the hard part today, but I could see it on the horizon, and now that I’ve started writing I feel okay about it coming.

      It’s funny you mention VCFA support. Yes, you could say they are supportive, very much so. But if not for VCFA I wouldn’t be delving into myself the way I am, which may be beneficial for my writers and readers but can really be quite annoying at times! 🙂 Right now I’m feeling that love my children likely feel when I make them do something in their best interests that they’d rather not do (well, I hope they still feel love in those instances).


  5. My only solution is to actually put my butt in the chair and write what I know will be a crappy first sentence.
    When my goal is to write about emotionally challenging materially, I have to give myself permission to write around it for some time before I look at what I have written and revise my way into the deeper truths.

    I hope to see a report at the end of today that let’s us know you have made some progress. Even a sentence will break the hiatus.



    1. Hi Kate,

      It’s funny what you said about “writing around it.” In a sense I’ve been writing around this scene since I started this project a year ago. I have decided I’m ready to write it now, but that has more to do with my growing understanding of the work’s voice and structure than it does to do with emotional readiness. As for the crappy first sentence, that is absolutely my modus operandi. I’m sure the first was crappy, with many more after that. So be it; that’s what revision is for!


      1. Kate Arms-Roberts

        I’m glad to see you got a good chunk written yesterday.
        I am not surprised that it was the demands of the work and your understanding of how it is coming together is what pushed you into writing the scene rather than any sene of emotional readiness.
        A friend of mine wrote in her blog http://laughingatchaos.com earlier this week, “And I discovered that changes are made when the fear of the unknown is less than the pain of the known.”
        In the context of a creative work that challenges us emotionally, the motivation for me to push into the hard place happens when the fear of never finishing the project is greater than the fear of confronting the emotion.


  6. It doesn’t sound like “block” to me… “resistance” maybe. All your other projects are serving you well by distracting you from your WIP. Don’t I know this dynamism! Isn’t it happening to me as well, even as I’m distracted from my WIP by your blog. But can’t you feel the creative cauldron heating up. I suspect all your “delaying” may in fact be serving to gestate your ideas. You can’t fool us, Patrick… we have no doubt that your “work” is well served by all the projects in your art-directed life. Cheers.


    1. Hi PJ, thanks for sharing your own distraction, and apologies my blog is contributing to it! (Note my writing this post contributed to my distraction.)

      I think you’re right in focusing on the word “resistance.” Booksentinel made a similar point above. I think you’re also right that my delaying was, in some ways, writing in another form. I often feel my subconscious writes for me, and I just take dictation. Once I started writing I felt that a bit; a part of me had already been writing it.

      Thanks for everything you contribute here, PJ!


  7. I think you should give yourself credit for thinking about it…but writing a few words would be better, obviously. And I know you’ll do it. I’m actually interested in your timeline. I need one of those for my own WIP, which has also been neglected lately, due to working on my student’s packets. However, I am happy to report I wrote last night and this morning on it. Happy weekend.


    1. Yea to writing last night and this morning, Charlotte!

      The timeline along the top is the monthly one I put up for each MFA packet. There are four rows–my WIP, a personal essay, and the two books I’m reading/analyzing with critical papers. I’ve added a fifth one for a book proposal I’ve been putting off.

      Below the timeline is a flow chart I created for this WIP chapter, with the boxes being an interview subject and the ovals my reaction/reflection.

      As far as a timeline for the book itself, I have a loose one that I worked out on the train back from my last residency, but I don’t put that on the white board. It looks too far ahead to be useful to me as a motivator.


  8. I agree with Charlotte, sometimes just thinking about it, keeping it as that itch in the back of your mind, is enough. A few words is key, and whatever you can get down, crap or no, is better than nothing.
    I write in the middle of the night, after my three sons have gone to bed, and by the time I’m done I’ve fallen asleep at the keyboard.
    Good post, man.


    1. Thanks! Normally I write in the pre-dawn hours, while the wife and kids are asleep. Perhaps as a result, I’m usually ready for bed at night before they are. I was a night person in college, but somehow the workaday world shifted me.

      Thanks for the encouragement, and yes, I think Charlotte was on to something there.


  9. The best bacon recipes are the simplest and require no written directions. I have spent a pleasant half hour ruminating on my favourites:
    bacon alone in all its crispy glory; bacon and pancakes, preferably while camping and it’s cold; a BLT, the sublimest of sandwiches; and my favourite, fried eggs and toast with bacon. I am salivating.

    Atlanta has a bacon festival March 31. I knew this was a civilised city.



        1. Oh my, Sue and Margo, such pressure! 🙂 It’s hard to imagine anything more delightful than a bacon festival, and I would only trust a Southern city to do it right. Still, while I may be able to “report” from MFA residencies and writing conferences, the lure of a bacon-based event would cause me to abandon my “journalistic obligation” and simply savor everything. My posts would consist of nothing but “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.”


    1. I agree with the simplicity approach. You left off two combos I love–bacon-wrapped scallops and bacon-wrapped shrimp. Pork and shellfish were made for each other.

      Margo, I’m reading your comment at just the right time, as I’m about to go fry some up. I’m serving some with eggs and toast this morning, putting some aside for a lunch BLT later today, and topping off the evening by topping off burgers I’m going to be grilling (have to take advantage of the 70-degree weather we’re having here in DC right now). Just FYI, I do not do a “bacon day” every day; I wouldn’t be alive to write this blog if I did!


      1. I had forgotten the ease of bacon and seafood and I knew I had left one out — the bacon cheeseburger. Enjoy every artery clogging moment of your day. Me, I figure what a way to go 🙂


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