20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder

Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.


  1. I agree. Last year I took six weeks off from editing to write. I was so excited at the start and wrote three stories in two weeks. Then it got harder. I kept finding myself turning on the TV, then scolding myself: "You've waited so long for this dedicated writing time. Don't squander it." So I'd go write, but the ideas didn't come as easily. The fifth (and final) story I wrote in that period needed six drafts before I was happy with it (which is a lot for me). And then when I reread it months later, when my muse wasn't so depleted, I still saw big problems. Thankfully by then I was in the right mindset to somewhat easily fix them.

  2. "The subconcious takes time to fill up" – yes. And " ideas come directly from work" – yes again. Good article.

  3. Thanks. The writing process may be partly mysterious but there does seem to be a commonality of experience which is sometimes a consolation.

  4. Janice, and that's why I don't throw abandoned work away. Sometimes you can come back to them much later and get excited about the piece all over again.

  5. I so agree with your post, Janice. When the Muse heads to the Yukon, I work on other things. And, as I've said before, I almost always have 3+ stories where I got stuck, so I can bounce between them, working on this one while the other one sticks its fingers in its ears and goes "Nyah, nyah, nyah".

  6. Ideas, boy... I am pretty good at creating characters and premises, so I can write the first two pages and be happy with it. Then I have to think of a plot to go with the premise, and everything goes to hell. RIght now I have three or four wonderful openings on file waiting for a story to go with them...

  7. Great post, Janice. And timely as hell for me. I just wrote in my writing journal this morning how the work itself begets more product. Having spent several fallow "eight hour days of unproductive misery myself recently, I was reminded all over again the benefits of journaling about your work. It really can (for me at least) lasso the muse and get her pondering your stuff again. Thanks for writing and posting this!

  8. It's a little comforting to realize the greats suffered too.

    Janice, I experienced the oddest reaction to the Grecian (I believe) urn at the end of your article. I almost swear Aubrey Beardsley could have created it.

  9. Thanks for the kind words and good luck with all those great beginnings and absent middles.

    Well, Aubrey Beardsley was almost certainly classically educated so not surprising if he got inspiration in the Greek vases.An interesting point, though.

  10. A terrific blog, Janice. Like RT Lawton, I never (well, almost never) throw unfinished pieces away. I’m hopeful that some future version of myself will have the inspiration I’m currently lacking.


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