Ditch Your Muse, and Other Truths to Build Writing Stamina

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants.

Originally posted at Breathe Writer’s Conference:

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but my output came in pitiful spurts and dribbles. I was that kid who daydreams of winning an Olympic medal, but stumbles gasping and wheezing through the first mile.

Stamina. I needed to build some writing stamina.

Now, a semester into this MFA writing deal, I feel stronger as a writer, more prepared for the marathon of the writing life. Here are three writing truths that are moving from head knowledge to muscle-memory for me.

1.Your muse is a fickle creature who shows up for work like once in a blue moon. So ditch her.

Too many times I’ve waited for inspiration to strike before beginning a project. Too often I’ve left a project unfinished when inspiration ran dry. But that doesn’t work when professors and classmates are expecting new material. Over the course of the semester, I’ve written and revised three chapters of a novel, two short stories, and a picture book. Much of the time, I was already tired from a day of prepping lesson plans, grading essays, or editing documents. I didn’t have the luxury of writing only when I felt mentally in the groove—I had deadlines to meet!

You may not have teachers to give you deadlines, but give yourself some or ask others to. (Hint: Find a venue for publication and see what their submission deadlines are.) Because good writing can and must happen with or without your muse.

2. It’s okay to write a big messy pile of words.

I haven’t yet reached the point where words flow confidently from my fingertips to the page in lyrical sentences. My first drafts are like middle schoolers—awkward and badly dressed. This means revising will involve painful chopping of large chunks of prose (Hey, I spent a lot of time writing that!) plus a lot of reshaping and polishing of what’s left. The final product will look very unlike the sentences I first typed.

Give yourself permission to write a lot of ugly sentences. Because good writing only happens after you write a truckload of stuff that would make you blush to admit it was yours.

3. Good feedback is worth its weight in gold.

One of my favorite parts of being a student is the writing community. As I’ve interacted with my classmates and professors, opening myself to their critique, I’ve broadened my ideas of what is possible in my writing. They point out confusion where I thought I was clear, tell me where more tension is needed, and suggest plot twists. It’s painful sometimes to be critiqued, especially when trying something new, but it stimulates my mind to find previously unconsidered solutions.

Find people to share with and glean from. An MFA’s not for everyone, but do attend conferences and seek out a writer’s group to join! Because good writing happens within a sharing community.

So ditch your muse, write a sloppy first draft, and go get some feedback! There’s no better way to build stamina in your writing journey.

Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Originally posted at the Breathe Writer’s Conference site: http://breatheconference.com/home/featured-articles/open-water.html

150213 Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Even a few years ago, I would never have thought of doing this, because, quite honestly, I am terrified of drowning. (Pretty much not an exaggeration.)

Since I can currently hardly swim the length of a pool, some of you may feel concerned that my life might actually be in danger. I assure you: I won’t attempt a tri without training. And even with training, well— Swimming in open water? With no pool edge nearby? Pretty sure there will be a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of adrenaline going on.

So why do it? Because we only know the joy of overcoming when we face the things we fear.

In 2015, I’m doing another thing that scares me: starting an MFA in Creative Writing. I think it’s going to be awesome. And hard. I may have to cut some things in my life that I enjoy. Like sleep.

It’s worth it to me because I think it will help me become a stronger writer.

The beautiful—and terrifying—thing about 2015 is that it is still unknown. It is a page yet unwritten, one that may bring joy like we’ve never known—or one that may undo us. We launch out into the open water of 2015 with no edges to grab on to. Facing unknowns, knowing our own insufficiency. Maybe the waters of 2015 will take us under.

When I feel uncertain about the challenges ahead, I think of someone who had a different perspective about the future:

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future (Proverbs 31:25, NASB).

Here’s a woman (and men, you can learn from her too!) who looks with courage at the unknown and smiles in anticipation of success. She’s dignified, strong, self-assured.

I want to face 2015 that way.

A few verses earlier, we get a clue about how she can feel so confident.

She girds herself with strength
And makes her arms strong (Proverbs 31:17, NASB).

She’s doesn’t just plunge in, willy-nilly. She took time to look ahead and to prepare. She gets strong for whatever is coming.

There’s another piece to the puzzle. This person is confident, but not self-reliant. She trusts in God.

… a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30, NASB).

At we start into 2015, take some time to reset your internal perspective. What are your writing goals for the new year? How can you prepare yourself? What unknowns do you need to commit to God?

For me, I want 2015 will be a year to remember: a year where I strengthen my arms, trusting God for the outcome. A year where I smile at the future, anticipating the joy of overcoming.

Give her the product of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:31, NASB).

May it be a year full of writing successes for each of you!

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What do you hope to achieve this year (writing or non-writing)? How are you preparing to succeed? Where do you need to trust God for the unknowns?