The Muse, When She Want to Dance, You Dance

 By Stephen Jay Schwartz


The title sounds better when said in a Jamaican accent. I don’t know why, but it does.

Lately I’ve been sitting down to write and I stare at the current scene and instead of moving forward I look at the people in the cafe and I think something completely off-track, I think about how everyone has an orifice or two in their body that leads to the inside of their body which allows them to consume solids and liquids and evacuate liquids or semi-solids (gross) and they walk around like this doesn’t bother them, like it’s normal to have these holes in their bodies, and for some reason their bodies don’t cave in around the holes, they stretch and compress and the holes remain, and the people act as if nothing about this seems odd and, I don’t know, if it were me I’D GO MAD.

After which time I focus on the page and re-read the sentence I wrote and discover it looks strangely dyslexic and I delete and start over again.

Where has my mind been lately?

I don’t remember writing like this when I was under deadline. On deadline I move forward confidently with the fear of legal consequences guiding my hand.

Even as I sit here now, at another favorite cafe, I stare at the fish in the aquarium, not because I’m lost or have nothing to do, but because the fish are staring at me, and I find this disturbing. I do not know what it is they want nor why they’ve chosen me as their target.

Am I just finding excuses not to write?

Why is writing my favorite and least favorite thing to do in the world? How can light be a particle and a wave at the same time?

Whatever’s going on in my head, it’s all good for the book, I tell myself. And then I think that the book has been outlined and I’m forty-thousand words in. I know the book I’m writing and there is no place for catostrophic abstract nonsense.

But is it really abstract, when the tilt of the earth’s axis adjusts a degree every ten thousand years and the resulting Ice Age could destroy us before we’ve gained a foothold on planets capable of sustaining human life? WHY IS THAT FISH STILL STARING AT ME?


I think it’s a stalling tactic. I don’t want to dive into my writing each day for fear that the best I can do might not be good enough. It’s a common trap. The fear of failure. When I was working a full-time job I had the excuse that there simply wasn’t enough time to produce good work. Therefore, if my work was lacking in any way I could simply point to the fact that I had been rushed.

I’m not rushed now. I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I don’t know exactly how long, and I’m not going to run the numbers.

When I’ve talked about this before people have sent emails saying they hope I get past my writer’s block. But I’m not blocked. I know the story, I’ve written my outline, I’m ready for action. What slows me is that I want every paragraph to represent my very best work. And why shouldn’t it? I’ve done all this background stuff so that I can concentrate on writing a “finished” scene. And that’s where I stop. That’s when I get the fear. With all the time in the world, with the outline, with the research books by my side…will my best be good enough?

It’s so much easier to do ANYTHING else. I could clean the apartment, because I know the apartment CAN be cleaned. I can write a blog, because I know I can finish my blog. I could do some terrible, menial day job, five days a week, hating it every step of the way, and I could do it well because I know I can do it well.

Most things I do don’t require that I do my absolute very best. The problem is that I expect that from my writing.

And that’s scary.

Fortunately, this week, a beautiful woman whispered in my ear. “I’ve got some words for you,” she said. “Would you like to dance?”

The muse, when she want to dance, you dance.

I’ve had three good days so far. My knees were a little weak at first, and I’d forgotten how to lead, but she’s helped me along.

The best piece of advice she’s given me is this…”Don’t think. Write.”

And look…the fish are staring at someone else for once. Maybe now I can get a little work done.

25 thoughts on “The Muse, When She Want to Dance, You Dance

  1. billie

    Glad the muse came and asked for the dance!

    Reminds me of a Michael Cunningham passage I think sums up this state of mind:

    Michael Cunningham wrote in a NY Times Op-Ed piece, "Found In Translation:"

    Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

    But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

    Me again… I know for me there can be a spell of… as you say, not writer's block but a sense of the enormity of capturing what's in my head and getting it onto the page, that seems huge. It's not that the story isn't there, it's that I want to capture it exactly the way it exists in the ethers. And that's the hard part.

  2. Chuck

    SJS, you made me think and you made me laugh (several times) in today's blog. Love your introspection, and whether you realize it or not, today's voice was quite similar to what I've "heard" in your writing. It's very unique. It's you.

  3. David Corbett

    Actually your title sounds pretty cool with a Transylvanian accent too:

    Zee Myooze, ven she vant to dantz, you dantz. Bwahahahahahahahahaha …

    Writing is the bitch goddess who owns you, which isn't the worst thing about her.

    Writing is the parachute jump you've trained for, but there you stand in the bay door, frozen, staring down at the spinning world below.

    Writing is the solo coming up next — all the other players have killed, blown off the roof, and you know in the sick little pit of your soul that your chops are slops, but here comes the downbeat, you step into the light, put the reed to your lips.

    Writing is the unthinkable thought you can't stop thinking.

    And you sir write like the demented savant jester who has the Queen's ear.

    So WTF, brother. Jump in. Join the party. Fuck the fish.

    P.S. Loved billie's quote from Cunningham. Too true.

  4. Eika

    See, this is why I objected so strongly when my sister bought me fish for Christmas. Now I have to keep the things alive because she asks about them every time she calls, and in the meantime there they always are, staring at me.

    I can usually get by knowing it's not my best work, because I have old things I read– it's better than them, and I haven't edited this one, therefore at least I'm improving. Progress, I can live with. But right now, I'm stuck for a different reason.

    I have a basic outline, I know the main plot points backwards and forwards, but there's one event that can go two ways. And I know if I choose wrong, it will greatly overcomplicate things in an already complicated story, and so I'm paralyzed by indecision.



  5. Gar Haywood

    Stephen: One of the things I love about you, and this is entirely selfish of me to say, is that your work seems to come so hard for you. We have that in common. For your sake, I hope you get over it, but if not, know that your "best work" is only possible at a given place in time, because the target keeps changing with every ticking of the clock. So seeking perfection is futile. By all means, seek it out, but learn to settle for something just short of it, because something just short of perfect is the best any of us will ever be able to do.

  6. Allison Davis

    Ah, so nice to invite us into your head to help us not feel so alone when we find the fish staring at us, and no call from the Muse. I think I'm undisciplined when I become distracted, clean the room, do the dishes, when I can't keep my butt in the chair and when writing feels like slogging through mud when I'm editing. When, really, it's just the process.

    Falkner: "All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible….. The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." Or my favorite: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." Ray Bradbury.

  7. Tammy Cravit

    Those fish are creeping me out. Thanks a lot.

    Writing is hard. It just is. Even when the words flow, even when you have a great story and great characters and you know exactly where you're going, it's hard. Even when I was freelancing for my local paper, when the characters and stories were right there in my hand and I 450 words was a long article, writing was hard. Writing a novel is more like a marathon than a series of sprints – no matter how good you are, by mile 20 your endurance will be tested.

    There are those who say we writers are crazy, to choose this passion, this livelihood. Maybe we are. But then, the muse chose me, and she never asked my opinion about the matter.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love those fish!!!!! No wonder you weren't getting any writing done. They're mesmerizing.

    I think what you need is a nice trip to New Orleans.

    And I love the comments today. I have that "it's never the book you wanted it to be" blues this week.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alafair – I think that's what the fish are telling me, too, in their telepathic, fish-like way.

    billie – thank you for that Cunningham quote. It's so on-the-mark. It speaks to the process. You, know, Hitchcock planned his films so completely, story-boarding every scene, that when it came to making the film he was bored. I feel a little like that, after having outlined the book as I have. But it's the only way I know how to do it. And, fortunately, new innovations occur in the transition from outline to prose, so there's plenty of creative insight to look forward to. And it does get easier as I narrow the sense of "enormity" in my head, as I write and "funnel" my story points into the book. Each chapter I write means I don't have to juggle all that shit in my head anymore.

    chuck – thank you – your words really meant a lot to me when I read them. Makes me feel like I'm accomplishing the things I set out to do. I never know until I hear it said.

    David – God, but you do make me laugh, man. You crack me the fuck up.
    I love your Transylvanian accent, which bumps my Jamaican accent into the number two spot. And all your metaphors…I dig 'em, brother, especially the jazz interpretation. And I'll take that "demented savant jester" label for life – I'm having the engraver prepare it for my tombstone right now. We might need to get the Murderati team to pitch in, though, cause he charges by the letter.

    Alaina – ain't indecision a bitch? I always feel better after I've done all that hard prep work – making the choices about which road to take before I spend the time writing it. The problem with stories is that they can go so many different ways. It's not as easy as brain surgery or rocket science, which require very particular paths to ensure their success.

    Gar – words to live by, man. It means even more coming from you. I hope to reach for "just short of perfect," that would be great. But, again, that's all "thinking" stuff and, like the Muse said, "Don't think. Write."

    Allison – I keep trying to tell myself it's the process, but then I think it starts to become an excuse. We're so tortured, us writers. Nothing's good enough for us. Why do I have to feel guilt when I'm cleaning the apartment? That just ain't right.
    I love your quotes from Falkner and Bradbury. Especially the Bradbury.

    Tammy – that's a great quote – "The Muse chose me, and she never asked my opinion about the matter." Wonderful. I try to tell that to the folks I know who chose stable, business careers. They don't really get it. "You don't have to suffer as much as you do," they'll say. "You could be such a successful business man if you just put your head to it." To that I can only respond with flatulence. And they still don't get it.

    Alex – and I will be taking that trip and I'll be seeing you so very, very soon. It's funny how we both have to take a five-hour flight to see each other when we live in L.A. Going from one LA to the other.
    I agree – the comments today are wonderful!

    Allison – Alex is talking about Heather Graham's Writers for New Orleans workshop, which we are both attending next week. But I want to make my reservation for that house now, for a later date, to be determined.

  10. Katie Arnoldi

    This is great. It's exactly how my mind works too. I love "Why is writing is my favorite and least favorite thing to do in the world?" That's exactly what I want to know. I love your posts, Steve. Keep going. You are the best. That fish has been looking at me all day.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen
    I SO get this. It’s the law of diminishing returns. Before you start the book – when you’re still on page one, chapter one, and all you have on the screen is that cruel taunting little cursor up in the empty left-hand corner, the book is utterly brilliant. It’s the next Pulitzer/Nobel/Edgar/Dagger/Shamus etc, etc, all rolled into one.

    The more words you put on the page, the more those possibilities shrink away until, by the time you type THE END, it is what it is, warts and all.

    It’s not writer’s block, it’s writer’s slump. A lack of energy and enthusiasm and sheer faith in what you’re doing. We all get it.

    Now, if anybody knows a really sure-fire way to get over it – other than just to wait a while until it goes away of its own accord – I’m all ears.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – thanks for cheering from the sidelines – I needed that. A lack of energy and enthusiasm…boy, that describes it. Punctuated by moments of energy and enthusiasm. Things are made more difficult by the fact that there's SO MUCH energy and enthusiasm going on with the screenplay I just finished…producers and actors all getting riled up. And the best part is the screenplay is finished, so all that's left for me is to watch the fun stuff unfold. And that makes it ever more difficult to face the daily word-count grind on a novel I'm not even near completing.

  13. Barbie

    I have whole stories in my head, characters screaming to get out, full plots, everything "ready". I have for many years. Yet, I've never finished anything; I never write because I don't think I'm good enough.

    I get it.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Barbie – my bet…you're good enough. Just write a bunch of what you might consider crap, just write it. Keep writing it until you write the last two crappy words, "The End." Then go through it all again and make it a little bit better, and reach "The End" again. Then have a few people who respect read it, take their notes, go through the manuscript again and get to "The End." And then you will have written and completed a book, and I bet it will be good enough.

  15. Reine

    Stephen, you've taken the thoughts that afflict us all and turned them into a flash of stalking crap-eating fish on the hunt watching me from behind. And they will not go away.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    And I've returned to them today, Reine, at the same cafe. I guess I can't get enough of a bad thing.

  17. JT Ellison

    Funky ass fish.

    I'm glad the muse retapped you on the head and said just write the story. Worrying about making it perfect is procrastination, and procrastination is fear. And you, my friend, are a brilliant writer, and have nothing to be afraid of!

  18. lil Gluckstern

    I can't add anything much more, except that I hope what you write will find its way to me. Somehow. Maybe the fish are trying to tell you to get on with it-who knows?

  19. Rie Langdon

    Just catching up on your last few posts… maybe reading several at once gives me this insight (you decide) but perhaps the reason the fish are staring at you recently is because there is some sort of Universal Fish Consciousness and they know about the beta fish that got a hole you could see the toaster through.

    Seriously, I loved the post on optimism. Thanks for reminding me the glass isn't just half-full, it's all-the-way full.

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