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THE ANTI-MUSE

From an online dictionary:

muse: noun

  1. (in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
  2. a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

As writers and artistic creators, we know what it’s like to be inspired by a muse. For me personally, it amounts to daemonic possession. I sometimes become driven to write something that insists upon being expressed: a snippet of dialogue, a scene, a story, subplot…the list goes on. Sleep beckons, but the muse is unrelenting. And when sleep manages to intercede, I am prone to wake with new inspiration driving me to make a note, record a message to myself, or even return to my office and proceed with fingers to keyboard, in the zone, channeling the muse-deamon that refuses to allow me to rest, infected as it were with the only remedy being to write, write, write, write. Disregard the eye strain, sleep deprivation, aching neck muscles and celebrate the moment because it may be fleeting, or it may continue unabated. You just never know because there is a fickle character to this whole muse thing. Surf the big wave while the surfing is great and celebrate the moment while it lasts.

Okay…I could go on, but you get the idea. I don’t know what other writers experience. I have spoken with some who completely understand this possession, but we are a varied lot, so perhaps it isn’t universal. I for one am an undisciplined writer. I do not write every day, a practice so many successful and accomplished authors recommend (which could explain my limited success). Like a streaky baseball hitter, I can go from slump to hot streak—from no muse at all to complete immersion and full throttle. While I relish the muse taking over and writing while in the zone, of late I’ve been contemplating something I now refer to as the anti-muse.

I don’t have a hard and fast definition of the anti-muse, but the bite of this daemon is every bit as potent. I envision it as a many-headed Hydra with poisonous venom. Once bitten, I am overcome with a certain paralysis. Alternatively, the anti-muse is a Medusa whose eye-catching glance turns me into stone. In either case, the result is the same—don’t care to write at all. Wild horses can’t drag me to or away from writing because I’m not inclined at the moment. For me, this is not writer’s block (I don’t believe in that) so much as non-interest in writing.

I’ve come across a number of different articles, posts, YouTube videos and the like that address creativity, what goes into it, and how to release your creative potential. I suppose a form of the anti-muse (one of the Hydra heads) could be somehow wrapped up in creativity.

Motivation and getting motivated is a bit of a tired topic these days, filled with gurus and Tony Robbins wannabes who want to teach you to reach your full potential (blah, blah, blah). I’m willing to put lack of motivation as one of the Hydra heads. Although, somewhere is this paragraph the notion of ambition needs elaboration. Is lack of motivation the same as lack of ambition? If I felt more motivated I might actually look up the difference between motivation and ambition but I’m not that ambitious. Besides, Caesar was ambitious, and things didn’t work out that well for him. I’m going to imagine the original Hydra head was cut and these two other heads sprang forth, one with the venom of anti-motivation, the other with the venom of anti-ambition.

Stress, time pressures, competing priorities—do I need to elaborate on any of these? Other things occupy the mind and time while effectively blocking the muse from entering.

Procrastination? I know an author who made a career writing books and giving workshops and seminars about procrastination. When the procrastination bug bites writing is simply put off until tomorrow. Even better, as the saying goes, “Don’t do it today when you can put it off until tomorrow and don’t do it tomorrow if you can put it off all together.” That’s probably not an exact quote but you get the idea. Procrastination is a very effective anti-muse.

Of course, the entire notion of laziness belongs in this conversation. I’ve certainly experienced feeling lazy when it comes to writing. In fact, this feeling can last for days or even weeks. This is by no means being sluggish or depressed as energy and upbeat mood can coexist very nicely with the kind of writing laziness I’ve experienced.

Another anti-writing infection can loosely be categorized under distractions. Heck, there are many other ways to spend my time and many of them are more enjoyable and more attractive than sitting down to write, especially if I’m not quite in a writing mood. Distractions are another head to this anti-muse Hydra.

The same can be said of excuses. There seems to be no limit to the possible excuses I can come up with to rationalize why I should not be writing today or at least at any particular moment. Here I am not talking about basic needs such as eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. Do I really need to elaborate on a long personal list of rationalizations?

My individual list detailing the anti-muse has thus far included:

  • lapse in creativity
  • lack of motivation/ambition
  • stress from a multitude of sources
  • time pressures
  • competing priorities
  • procrastination
  • laziness
  • distractions
  • excuses/rationalizations

I suspect my own personal list is longer and with more reflection I can uncover some more bullet points representing additional heads to this beastly monster that is the daemon that takes tight hold and refuses to let go, that paralyses me into not writing.

With such a monstrosity representing my anti-muse, it’s amazing that I get any writing done at all.

Just wondering what categories you can add to the list. A fellow writer suggested I author a self-help book directed to writers to address blocks to writing (not writer’s block, more along the lines of what I am calling the anti-muse). In fact, that discussion is what provoked me to think about the topic. This colleague even claimed to know a publisher who was interested in the topic.

As for me, I think I can invoke several different reasons why I certainly am unlikely to get bitten by a muse to write such a book.

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52 thoughts on “THE ANTI-MUSE

  1. MamaSquid says:

    Lovely subject for discussion. The author Stephen Pressfield famously labeled this anti – muse “Resistance” in his ass-kicking book The War of Art. The way he put it, “Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.” It is staggering how many ways Resistance can manifest and how persuasive it can be in preventing us from our life’s great creative work. Nefarious stuff.

    Liked by 5 people

    • victoracquista says:

      GD was kind enough to attach the Star Wars graphic to adorn the post. The rebels such as Luke had joined the resistance. Yet, if I ally myself with the “resistance” it seems I would be joining forces with the anti-muse. Hero or villain? Confusing semantics to say the least! I have decided to become a resistance fighter. I think that puts me in an inspired place.Thank you heartily for educating me about Stephen Pressfield’s book. I shall have to purchase it and place it next to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

      Liked by 4 people

      • MamaSquid says:

        I’m not a mystic, but my best work is done at the subconscious level. The best way I know to describe my writing process is “moving a feeling through.” I start with a core emotion and by the end of the scene it’s processed. It’s funny as I have studied developmental editing and structure in depth, and a proper scene has often been formally identified as containing a core value shift. My subconscious knew how to do this long before I had a label for it.

        I’m currently battling with my own Resistance and it takes some very convincing forms. I am six months pregnant and learning that growing a baby is hard freakin’ work. I’m already exhausted and the baby isn’t even here yet. Every time I sit down to edit, I produce garbage, or maybe I just can’t connect at that subconscious level so it feels like garbage, it’s hard to say. What I know for certain is that my brain is operating differently than it used to and the old ways of approaching writing are failing. The odds of achieving that magical “flow” state any time soon, especially with an infant on the way, seem remote. People keep saying, oh, I have more important things to focus on right now, but I’m really struggling with the fear of losing my creative identity for any length of time.

        Is this a form of Resistance, where I’ve convinced myself that I’m creatively stunted, or is it just the reality of becoming a new parent? Am I full of excuses or new life? Can both be true? In the meantime, how exactly can I make the best use of this big dumb brain of mine? I’m not ready to give up.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Fascinating anecdote and perspective, MamaSquid! I hope one of our writers who has experienced pregnancy while fictioneering chimes in here with elucidating comments.

          As for me, I am struck by this sentence: “What I know for certain is that my brain is operating differently than it used to and the old ways of approaching writing are failing.”

          Can you unpack that for us a little more? How, exactly–or in what specific ways–is your pregnancy-impacted brain operating differently from its pre-pregnancy state?

          Liked by 3 people

          • MamaSquid says:

            Mainly, I find it very difficult to sustain concentration for long. This has affected my day job as well (I’m down to working half days) and even my relationships because when the fatigue hits, I can’t hold up the end of a conversation. I also have ADHD and am off meds for the time being as we’re trying to keep medications limited to the most critical ones. As for my fiction writing specifically, in addition to just being exhausted, I have a more difficult time evaluating my work objectively than I normally do, and given that the stage I’m in with my WIP is final revisions, this is seriously cramping my style.

            For example, I’m currently stuck on a scene that really should be a simple continuity edit, but I’m convinced the nature of the continuity change has fundamentally altered the meaning of the scene. Is it still working in the context of the global story? I’m not sure. I can’t “feel” the value shift the way I normally can, it’s like my instincts are all screwy – I can’t “feel” if something is working or not. The part of my brain that can see the big picture seems to be struggling right now. I’m used to being able to gauge whether or not an edit is an improvement. And here’s where Resistance comes in – I get so frustrated that I just get distracted by something else rather than doing the difficult work of figuring out how to work around it. So I suspect it’s a legitimate problem that is exacerbated by my own BS. It’s like the Serenity poem – I need the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can’t change and the things I can.

            Liked by 5 people

            • Ah; yes! I can see how that could prove frustrating and problematic–the inability to “gestalt-think” your way through the revision process: it’s like you’re trying to finesse-glove questions of weighted value, perspective, and continuity whilst working with muzzling mind mittens. Is it possible you can simply give yourself permission to create the bulk of the narrative now, and revise later? Or put off substantive revision until you feel “sharp” enough to focus on certain mission-critical tasks? (Is it also possible that you are as good–or nearly as good–as you ever were, but simply feel off-the-mark due to the physical changes you’ve referenced?)

              Liked by 3 people

        • victoracquista says:

          I don’t think you’re creatively stunted; after all, you are creating a new person. That seems to me to require more effort than writing something brilliant. I want to quip that two brains are better than one, but that seems trite. I wonder if there are physiologic and neurochemical reasons that might be at work. Never having been in that physiologic state myself, I can’t offer any personal experience. I have sometimes thought about writing a novel as having a time of conception, gestation, and culmination in giving birth to something beautiful (at least in the eyes of the creator). I sometimes discuss a book that I have written as though it is my offspring. Not sure…just random musings…
          People say, “Fear is a mind killer.” Perhaps suspending judgement about your current concerns about creativity will open up some brain space for creative expression. I have a friend who likes to say, “I’m not going to let those thoughts rent space in my brain.” Now I must ponder the current housing shortage within my skull…

          Liked by 4 people

        • MamaSquid, your mental fog and fatigue are common during pregnancy. It seems to be a result of hormones run amok. If you can acknowledge that the frustration you feel isn’t healthy or helpful, maybe you can see your way to setting the forced writing aside and not beating yourself up about it. Write when you feel like writing. Because the good news is that it does get better — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not till your newborn finally sleeps through the night. But you will return to your old self, probably even improved.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. You said it for me, MamaSquid! I was going to cite Stephen Pressfield’s name for this insidious enemy (or anti-muse, as Victor terms it–I quite like that term as well): “Resistance”. On any given day, the writer experiences tension between his desire to write, and resistance that arises to challenge or thwart that desire.

    I, too, applaud Victor for bringing up this topic; it never gets old. I also value the unflinching, self-deprecating way in which he writes of this struggle between muse and anti-muse.

    I suspect you are quite right, Victor, when you speculate that that there are as many ways of addressing this issue as there are writers. I’ll share my own idiosyncratic approach in a later comment on this most excellent blog post.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    When I’ve run into resistance (as has happened frequently with Sly), my solution has been to throw in another character, and hope he integrates into the story down the line in a way that fools my reader into thinking his key contribution was my intention all the time.

    Then, of course, I have to figure out the key contribution.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Just as you disbelieve in writer’s block, Victor (as do I), I am inclined to disbelieve in muses, which rather eliminates the possibility of anti-muses as well, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to suggest artists/scientists are wrong to ascribe to the belief that such inspiring/anti-inspiring metaphysical or metaphorical beings exist, but I, too, have considered these kinds of questions and simply come to a different conclusion.

    Creativity is a mysterious process. It is tempting to grant the power of inspiration to some force outside ourselves, and I don’t deny that inspiration is often — maybe even always — instigated by some exterior stimulus or stimuli. But that bit of brain prodding results in inspiration only if your mind is open to it at that precise moment. How many years might you see the same gnarly tree, to be struck one day with inspiration to write a story about an old woman bent with arthritis and guilt who finds both release and imprisonment as her garden slowly nourishes and strengthens her while it absorbs her, feet first, into the shallow grave she dug to hold someone else long ago?

    I contend it’s something already present in your brain — an image, a sense memory, a dream, something you’ve heard or remembered or just learned — that your open mind (alpha wave, relaxed brain state) allows the exterior stimulus to connect with. If you’d been pre-occupied with the shopping list or financial stress or back pain (beta wave, normal active brain state stuff) you would have missed it.

    You mention being in the zone. That’s an alpha wave place to be. Certainly, it feels elusive and fickle and difficult to grasp — primarily, I think, because we don’t feel in control of it. The trick is learning how to summon it at will. I understand some swear by yoga, others by mind-altering drugs. But it’s your mind, and believe it or not, you can learn to suppress beta waves and let loose alpha waves all on your own.

    On the other hand, sometimes we just can’t avoid the necessity of immersion in the daily minutia.

    Liked by 5 people

    • victoracquista says:

      I think I agree with you in principle. Conceptualizing muse and anti-muse as external factors doesn’t explain the internal workings. I have used different brain entrainment acoustical inputs (holosync, various other downloads available on YouTube, etc.) To provoke different brainwave patterns and hemispheric synchronization. I’ve never tried to use these to facilitate writing as I tend to utilize them more for sleep, dreaming, deep meditation. I just might have to experiment with alpha stimulation and writing. I absolutely concur about training one’s mind. I should also confess that I wrote the entire piece from the humorous witness perspective as I observe the machinations of my own mind.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    I mean no disrespect here, but this discussion has inspired me. I am now researching what was known of the brain in the sixteenth century.

    Seeing strange jars containing what he recognizes to be brains in John Dee’s study, Sly begins to suspect that the man plans to pickle his brain once he’s dead and gone; he’s to furnish the scholar with a scientific experiment, examining the physical characteristics of an extraordinary organ. Sly would flee the man’s company immediately, but he sees Dee as the key to stopping the assassination plot against Queen Elizabeth.

    I predict this discussion is the spark of a rollicking episode. I thank you all.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. atthysgage says:

    There’s a reason why I list my “publisher” for my self-published books as Feckless Muse Press. I’ve never found her to be a reliable employee. I’d replace her if I could, but she keeps hanging around, babbling cryptic gibberish and asking where the booze is kept. I confess a underpinning fear that if I did manage to banish her, it would be me who would vanish.

    I’ve always been a slow worker. I did that NANOWRIMO challenge a few years ago, and managed my 50k words for the month. I wrote nearly all of Whisper Blue that month. But the only reason that worked was because I spent a month before hand working diligently thinking, plotting, taking notes. I had that book blocked out down to a remarkable level of detail (for me, anyway). I’ve never done it again. I have no plans to try. The only reason I did it the first time was to see if I could and I could, so — ho hum — not much point anymore. So, in the words of…well, me:

    Blood will tell, my one-eyed muse.
    I never could outdrink you.
    The whispered scrape of blade on skin.
    Crimson blossoms, hungry and hot.
    Give me your voice,
    Your hideous voice,
    I will sing down the moon.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. @Victor: I admire your ability to write in a fully immersed, self-hypnotized flow state. I’ve never been able to achieve that; I can’t shut off the internal editor for more than a paragraph or two at a time.

    As regards the matter of resistance to the act of writing, we need to delve deeper into the reasons for its existence. The first to note is that there are valid reasons for “writers block”, “resistance”, “the seductive under-tow pull of the nihilist anti-muse”—whatever you wish to call it. Some of these reasons are:

    1.) A complete blank as to topic, theme, or plot—after all, the writer cannot write if he or she has nothing to say!

    2.) The need to do more research before the act of writing begins.

    3.) Pressing personal matters which need to be addressed.

    4.) Inner tumult and turmoil that must be quieted before the act of artistic creation can begin.

    5.) Utter exhaustion—it’s hard to write when your eyes are closed!

    Assuming resistance isn’t being created by one of these five valid reasons (this is by no means a comprehensive list), then we must be brutal with ourselves. (I am; heh!) The simple truth of the matter is: There are days that we don’t want to write badly enough to overcome resistance. The desire to write is overwhelmed—even if only just—by the countervailing desire to not write.

    It takes a lot of energy, self-discipline, and time—that most precious of all resources—to create fiction.

    I have given the same advice to others for years: The secret of writing is to write less! That is to say: to create a growing body of work that can be sustained and elaborated upon day-in; day-out—take the pressure down a couple of notches. Remember to have fun, for god’s sakes! No one can sit down with clenched flanks, congealed gut, and gritted teeth at the keyboard and—having thus chained themselves to the desk—bang out an iron-willed masterpiece through the exercise of regimented envisioning, determination, and self-inflicted hemorrhoids. It simply doesn’t happen that way. To be sure, we all have a different idea of what the ideal length of a comfortable writing session might be, but whatever it is—for you—stick to that—and don’t exhaust yourself in masochistic head-slamming-against-a-brick-wall. (Remember Hemingway’s advice to Tom Wolfe? [paraphrased] “Quit while the writing is hot—in mid-sentence, if necessary—that way you can pick up again the next day with effortless ease.”)

    My own method is to establish a MDSQ (mandatory daily sentence quota). When I hit that MDSQ, I increase the quota by one. And keep on increasing the MDSQ by one until a day comes that I cannot hit the desired number of sentences required by the MDSQ. When that happens I reset the MDSQ to its original number. If I fail in hitting the original MDSQ I decrease the MDSQ by one until—if caught up in an extended period of writing resistance—the MDSQ stands at but one sentence. Invariably, the guilt and shame thus self-inflicted by the goad to produce just one sentence, fer cryin’ out loud!–drives me back to the keyboard. Upon which time the MDSQ increases by one each day, and. . . . Round-and-round we go. . . .

    Thus an ADHD/cyclothemia-diagnosed amateur (well, semi-pro now; I suppose) fumbles and stumbles in low-comedy, creatively constipated, alternately manic, than lethargic style—daily, onward—whilst stubbornly refusing to quit.

    PS. Please understand that I am not just speaking to you, Victor, but to any and all who might peruse our ‘umble lil’ site in search of edification and/or amusement on this topic. (But then, you knew that already.)

    Liked by 4 people

    • Idiosyncratic, indeed, yet not without a certain easily followed, regimented logic.

      “Invariably, the guilt and shame thus self-inflicted by the goad to produce just one sentence, fer cryin’ out loud!–drives me back to the keyboard.” This reminds me of my father’s belief that the School of Ridicule was effectively motivational. Personally, I prefer the production-earns-reward approach.

      Maybe it’s a hormone thing.

      Liked by 3 people

    • MamaSquid says:

      I’m loving this MDSQ idea. One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Steven Guise, who wrote a book called Mini-Habits, about lowering the daily task to its least possible point of resistance (such as one sentence per day.) In the beginning this is particularly useful because the brain is resistant to new ways of being and it enables the new neural pathway to form relatively easily. He’s followed this up with another book that suggests habit targets that shift based on how you happen to be doing on any given day – so while some days you may write the one sentence, you might decide the next day that you’re feeling strong, and fifteen sentences is the benchmark for success that day. I’m trying to think of how I can integrate this with the MDSQ concept.

      I think when people tell me I need to adjust my expectations for creative output as I experience new parenthood, they are not wrong. But I don’t think it means to quit writing. I think it means letting go of the old ways I had of defining success when I do sit down to write. I’m still trying to work this out.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Yes, “lowering the daily task to its least possible point of resistance (such as one sentence per day)” is exactly what the MDSQ is! I can hear the sneers and jeers of prolific professional writers now: “MDSQ! A dilettante’s minimalist mad practice of self-sabotage and pre-planned failure.” Perhaps so. All I can say in its defense is that it’s kept me writing–and publishing–long after most of my more “serious-minded” and “productive” peers quit writing entirely–decades ago.

        Liked by 3 people

        • MamaSquid says:

          What people often fail to understand about this approach is that you rarely end up writing only one sentence. The one sentence just gets your brain over that “Oh, we have to do this now?” hurdle and after that you may be so amped up, you write 100 sentences. But even on your worst day, you can still feel you’ve accomplished something with that one sentence. I think it’s quite the trick.

          Liked by 5 people

  8. victoracquista says:

    Carl, you do have a way with words.

    “The simple truth of the matter is: There are days that we don’t want to write badly enough to overcome resistance. The desire to write is overwhelmed—even if only just—by the countervailing desire to not write.” You have stated this both eloquently and with the brutal truth-force of a 2 x 4 to the head.

    “No one can sit down with clenched flanks, congealed gut, and gritted teeth at the keyboard and—having thus chained themselves to the desk—bang out a self-declared masterpiece through the exercise of iron-clad will, determination, and self-inflicted hemorrhoids.” Your voice of reason, truth, and wisdom lightens my load and for a moment, the burden of creating that masterpiece is lifted. You allow me a momentary reprieve from my psychic flagellum.

    Allow me a moment of word play inspired by your close: A muse meant for amusement seems to have bitten my arse. Time to go have some fun! (Not to imply that I’m not having fun all along the way. But then, you knew that already!)

    Liked by 3 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    MamaSquid, I feel a kinship with you. I am an extreme introvert, happiest not to interact with people on the hoof. Online is fine. I can’t help thinking that part of the reason I was just laid off is because my attitude was ‘leave me alone’. I was not in the least social at that job. I couldn’t get myself to talk about what’s on sale at Stop ‘n Shop (a hot topic). What I would have loved to talk about – writing, and books – no one else was interested in, despite it being a compositor for major publishers.

    I have wondered if I am not a touch bi-polar, with my highs and lows. Luckily, my husband loves me as I am.

    I like you for what I know of you. Stay strong! Life is hard. My solution is to write.

    Liked by 4 people

    • MamaSquid says:

      Thank you for your kind words! I’m also deeply introverted, and deal with chronic depression and anxiety (I also have an understanding husband – one of the perks of marrying a psychologist.) I thought it might be interesting for me to write a blog post about the impact of mental health conditions on the writing process in general. It certainly adds to a lot of the traditional artistic angst and makes problem-solving that much more difficult.

      Liked by 5 people

  10. My muse is like that too:

            *Stale Bread Can Wait*
                    My muse is stingy (when implored)
                    or really bitchy (when ignored).
                    When I want to sing of croutons
                    (but her fancy turns to plutons),
                    I have just one way to go:
            with the mighty magma flow.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. The old energy and excitement of free-wheeling conversation is back! This blog thread reminds me of the glory days of Book Country: stimulating talk with honest, intelligent others unafraid to speak candidly about their struggles with the craft. Profound respect and appreciation to you all! (And revisit some of those still-accessible BC threads some time, people. We did good work over there.)

    Liked by 4 people

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