So since November started, I have graded 38 second drafts, 38 first drafts and in the process of 38 quizzes. Also at MIT we moved from one building to another, which entailed packing and unpacking and rearranging and trouble-shooting. There was a party on Saturday, because God I needed that, and then right back into more grading, worrying about this election and trying to remember to eat at intervals.
So, yes, for those of you who sounded surprised when I started my NaNoWriMo novel on the Fourth of July: this is why.
“If genius is not necessary for production, still less is it necessary to have entire liberty. What is more, liberty presents pitfalls that rigorous obligations may help us to avoid. A stream narrowly hemmed-in by its banks will flow more impetuously.” –A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.
This means a few things.
You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.
If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.
Budding writers and poets sometimes talk about the muse, most often to complain about her absence. Although the urge to write can feel uncontrollable at times, I think the greater urge is not to write but to have written, to have a physical ream of paper with lots and lots of words, that you can wave around (literally or metaphorically) and say, “I did this!” And if more folks actually acted on that desire, then the Library of Congress would have to be a hundred times bigger. But mostly they don’t and in my professional opinion, based on working at the MIT Writing Center for almost twenty years, there is a really good reason why they don’t: writing is hard.
It is hard for students and professionals, for people who don’t think of themselves as “Writers” and for people who do. The difference is that experienced writers don’t sit around waiting for the Muse to show up with a big lantern to light their brains up with shiny ideas and pretty words. Experienced writers bitch and moan like everybody else, but then they sit down and write. Butt to chair is the only way, as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has clearly shown. (Google it if you don’t know. If I stop to explain it to you, I will get distracted and never finish my idea.)
I once wrote a poem titled “There Is No Muse” for a poetry reading at which I was going to be reading beside three poets whom I knew were going to read poems about the muse. They all did. Possibly not coincidentally, they were all male. Not sure what that’s about.
The Greeks believed in the Muses (three or four or nine, depending on which writer you look at) mainly to explain poetic, artistic and scientific inspiration, because let’s face it, it is pretty awesome when it happens to you. Divine spark? Nice way to wrap our brains around something that is pretty mysterious. Just don’t use it for an excuse not to do the work.
Humans believe in a lot of strange things, when you get down to it. Some of them we have let go of over the centuries. Take the unicorn, drawn to virgins, especially female virgins, the beloved objects of patriarchal desire and control. Teddy bears protect children with the ancient spirit of the bear. Most people in the modern world don’t believe in unicorns anymore. It is much harder to stop believing in teddy bears. Maybe the muse should be left somewhere in between those two.
I will leave you with a video that explains why I still kinda believe in teddy bears: