When I first began writing my own stuff (after years of being an editor for others), I had a strange experience. I became possessed with a story idea to the point that I could not stop writing. I wrote for 18 hours a day. When I became too hungry to ignore the pangs, I would run to the refrigerator and grab something—anything—that didn’t need cooking, gulp it down, and run back to the computer. I resented my body’s demands for toilet breaks and sleep and how my bottom complained about sitting for so long. I thought that it was the muse who had me in her grip and that I had better write while I could before the flow stopped.
At one point a friend dropped by with whom I had planned to go hiking on the following weekend. I explained to this friend that I could not go, that I had to stay and keep writing. I must have sounded and looked as feverish as I felt, for my friend looked at me sideways and said “yeah . . . I’m not sure I want to go anywhere with you right now.”
When the fit passed a week later, I re-read what I had written. It was crap: all emotion and wish-fulfillment fantasy, something I would cringe to let anyone else read.
Years later I began working with a Jungian therapist. One day I told her this story. She explained to me that I had been gripped by one of my own complexes. A complex is a tangle of emotions that we have unconsciously associated with a particular memory or situation. Complexes exist outside of time: no matter how long ago the original incident happened, these emotions remain powerful and compelling. PTSD is a complex. So is my knee-jerk reaction to being asked to make a salad for dinner, an act to which I have attached many negative feelings from my childhood.
We’re mostly unaware of our complexes; when they happen, all we know is that we suddenly feel a strong emotion and are compelled to act on it somehow. People who are normally even-tempered can become manic under the force of such an emotion. It takes a fair amount of work to become conscious of these inner voices and untangle the emotions from the original event. It took me quite a while to see that my wish-fulfillment story was actually my way of dealing with one of my personal issues. And it did help. Carl Jung called this kind of thing “active imagination” and recommends it as a way of working with your own psyche. But it’s a private thing, not for public consumption.
The muse, my therapist (who has worked with over a dozen best-selling authors) explained to me, operates in a different way. One does not wait for the muse to come and take one over. Instead, experienced authors invite the muse in for specific periods of time through conscious use of ritual. For example, one author puts on a particular sweater when he is ready to work. Two hours later, no matter what, he stands up and takes off the sweater, signaling to that internal voice that he is done for the day. Another prolific author sets himself the goal of writing just one page per day. That’s a book a year.
Almost everyone who writes about how to write says that the first thing you do is show up at the page. You open the notebook or the computer and you start to write, even if you have no idea what to say. And sooner or later, the words begin to flow. It’s fine to stop; some even recommend stopping in mid-sentence, because when you show up the next day, you’ll have a head start.
Another thing that good writers advise other writers to do is to edit out the thing you love the most, the thing that evokes the most emotion in you. Complex-driven writing does not speak to others. Instead, it’s likely to inspire a feeling of embarrassment, like accidentally seeing someone undressed. It’s too personal. It may be helpful to you to express those emotions, but in the same way that breaking down and sobbing or screaming in front of your therapist is helpful. It’s not going to do anything for your reader.
After talking to my therapist, I implemented a ritual of my own. I write at the same time each day. I carve out a two-hour block of time in the morning when I am unlikely to be interrupted. To begin the ritual, I make a cup of Earl Grey tea and take it to my desk. That’s my signal to the muse that I’m open for business. When I take the cup back to the kitchen, I’m done for the moment.
I know that the muse is with me when I find myself writing something I didn’t know I was going to say, perhaps did not even know I knew. I’m sure of it when I go back and read it again later and I still like it. I confirm it by showing it to someone else. If it speaks to them as much or more than it did to me, I keep it. If they look at me sideways and say “uh . . .” out it goes.
Jody Bower, PhD, is the author of “Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story,” coming out in spring 2015 from Quest Books. She works as a writing coach and professional editor; her website is jodybower.wordpress.com.