Murdering Unicorns: Ending The Myths That Poison The Writer’s Life
“And I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, that awful goddess — of her and her glorious ankles and shining eyes and her mighty writing desk at which she sits, and there this deep-bosomed goddess, this lady of the golden pen, this woman of the silver tongue, does sit. And there she waits for inspiration to strike her about the head and neck with its inspiration stick but despite her flashing eyes and heaving milk-sweaters, the Muse does not arrive on a pegasus carrying a wicker basket of encouragement and illumination, and instead She Of The Mammoth Earthen Mammaries is left stuck in the mire-swamp of writer’s block, and there she shall be bitten to death by grumpy unicorns, and when she arrives in the Underworld, her pale ta-tas bruised by unicorn bite, Hades will totally laugh at her and be like, “You so crazy! BTW, I got your daughter! She’s mine, hooker! Boo yay!”
– From the Homeric “Hymn To Demeter”
This, then, is the writer.
He is a creature who fills up a metal tub with effluence — which is fancy poesy talk for “horseshit.” Then the writer casually steps one foot into it, then the other, until he is standing in the metal tub filled with horseshit. Oh, but the writer? He’s not done. He will then gently lower himself into the tub of aforementioned equine waste product until he is, if possible, neck deep. Finally, for an extra measure, the writer will offer an open-mouthed smile and get a little of that stallion poo up in his mouth.
We love to bury ourselves in horseshit. We are the kings and queens of lying to ourselves — we saddle ourselves with countless myth after countless myth. We believe that the writer’s path is one that ill-conceals many boogeymen and restless spirits, and that any misstep along that path will get us pantsed by goblins, given a Dirty Sanchez by a trio of cranky banshees, and gored by a unicorn. Meanwhile, our beloved manuscript will be loaded up into a rickety wooden cart and dragged off into the thorny wood by a brigade of cackling tricksters.
Mm-mm. Nuh-uh. Hell no. Eff that right in its emmereffing ay, bee-ay emmereffers.
If you’re going to do this, if you’re actually going to complete a novel — and then make that novel the best goddamn book you can muster from fingers stained with brain-squeezings– then you have to get shut of these myths. You must put them out of your mind, lest they be (at best) speedbumps or (at worst) landmines. Do not believe the horseshit. Do not buy into your own crazy lies.
It is time, my friends, to murder some unicorns.
Odysseus Falls Prey To The Muse’s Hypnotizing Vagina
You do not work for an invisible made-up spirit called “The Muse.” You are not a slave to your inspiration.
You know what? Let’s talk about meth-heads for a second. Always a fun topic, right? Those ruined teeth. Those scabby faces. That persistent cat-pee smell. Meth addicts — “tweakers” — are like many other drug addicts in that they are forever chasing the dragon. What’s the dragon? The dragon is that first and most glorious high. You do meth the first time, your dopamine centers jizz tub-loads of pleasure juice into your brain. You are overwhelmed by the feeling of invincibility: you can do anything. You can eat mountains. You can punch God. You can use that oak tree outside like a baseball bat and knock your neighbor’s shitcan house into the stratosphere. (And the crowd goes wild.) The second high? Not as good as the first, though. But you keep trying. Third high? Not as good as the second. Fourth? Mmm, nope, still a series of declining pleasures. The dragon will always escape.
That’s like writing. That’s the nature of inspiration.
Inspiration — often the lead-off that kicks your novel into high gear — is like someone knocked over a hive of happy bees inside your skull-bucket. It feels awesome. It is suddenly the reason why you write. And you write and you write and you write until one morning you feel a little like an asshole. You feel uninspired. Devoid of pleasure juice. No more happy bees. Often, the default response is, “I’ll wait. I shall sit here and write only when the Muse comes to choke me in her mad game of autoerotic asphyxiation!”
You will be waiting a long time.
In fact, what will likely happen is that she’ll show up and whisper in your ear, except she’ll whisper the idea for a new novel, a better novel, because that’s what she does. She’s a trickster spirit, that one, luring you off the path with sweet whispered nothings (and, for all I know, a magic vagina). Do not listen to her.
Because she isn’t real.
Whatever asshole said that thing about work (or genius) being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration should probably be punched in the face for giving advice that rhymes because, pshhh, c’mon. Rhyming? Really? Still, he’s right. You want to write a book, then learn that the prevailing feeling is one of frustration. In writing a novel you will feel wayward and weird just as often as you feel energized and excited. Your book does not thrive on inspiration. Your book is born only of work.
Your book thrives on your ass finishing the job.
Stop chasing that dragon.
You do not work for the Muse. She works for you. Chain her to the pole and make her dance.
When Gilgamesh And Enkidu Slayed The Dreaded Writer’s Block
Said it before, will say it again. And again. And again. Writer’s block is a myth. Doesn’t exist! Sorry.
“But I feel blocked!” you cry. “I’m writing this book, and suddenly I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t know where to go. I cannot proceed. My writing process is like a drain trap clogged with human hair and sadness.”
Lies, lies, lies, myths, legends, deceptions, pbbbt. Boo hoo. *crap noise*
Growing up, we had the main house, and we had a trailer that sat at the base of the property that my father rented out. True and disgusting story? The one tenant, despite advice to the contrary, really enjoyed flushing tampons down the toilet. Tampons being super-absorbent and all (it’s their selling point!), they loved to lodge in pipes, swell up with water, and then block the pipes utterly. It was a very literal blockage: no myth, here. When this happened, the only recourse was to dig up the yard, find the length of pipe, crack it, clear it, and replace it. It was an awful job. Dire in its unpleasantness. Not only are you clearing out befouled tampons in piles of mud, but it’s also, you know, sewery. I hated doing it. I told my father, “I hate doing this. Do we have to do this? Seriously?”
His response was fairly simple: “Well, how else is it going to get fixed?”
And there it is.
Listen, I’m not saying that you cannot get intellectually gummed up. But what I am saying is, it’s not unique to writers. It’s unique to nobody, in fact. Everybody everywhere gets that feeling of either a): “I don’t want to proceed. In fact, I’d rather drink some tea then lie down and have a nappy-nap;” or b): “I actually don’t know how to approach this problem — the solution eludes me like a coked-up house sparrow.”
You know how you were once in math class and the teacher broke out that asshole of a problem: “If Mary-Sue is traveling on a train at blah blah blah, and Bobo the Clown is traveling on an opposite train coming blah blah snargh poop donkey, how fast what time what color hair where are my pants?” (Or something like that; I was clearly not a math whiz.) Your response might’ve been like mine: it was either “I don’t want to do this,” or “I don’t know how to do this.” Except nobody called it “Mathematician’s Block.”
It wasn’t unique to me. The glazed-over looks on everybody’s faces showed me that everybody in the class felt the same way.
Now, look out across the rest of the writers out there.
They all have that glazed look at one point or another.
Writer’s block is bullshit. It’s a thing everybody experiences. Carpenters, CEOs, parents, baristas, goat farmers, serial murderers, and so forth. It isn’t unique to you. Stop giving it power. Stop believing that you are somehow mystically blocked. You know how you clear a tampon-clogged sewer pipe? Dig it up and replace it. You know how you solve that math problem with the trains and the bullshit? Start doing the work. Number by number, calculation by calculation. Except with writing, your solution is even more awesome: you just make shit up.
That’s how you get past writer’s block. You combat one lie with another: the glorious lie of fiction.
Push like you’re pooping.
Work through the misery.
Write through the pain.
The “block” will dissolve. Unlike, say, pipe-clogged tampon knots.
And Hercules Did Rescue The Golden Draft From The Fire-Breathing Goat Dude
Last one (for now):
The perfect draft is a myth.
We have it in our heads: this shiny, burnished shield, this aegis of our own importance. It’s nonsense. Put that out of your head.
Your first draft is probably going to suck.
Your second draft will be pretty assy, too, though (ideally) less assy than the first (but sometimes, believe it or not, more assy — you must go deeper into the sucking darkness before you emerge into the light). We writers get it into our heads that, “Well, this isn’t good enough,” and then we bail. We mentally check out because we are disheartened by the turd-soup we just cooked up.
Stop that. Stop believing in the myth of the perfect draft.
You ever watch Bob Ross? The painter guy? With the mighty white-dude afro and all the happy little trees?
Here’s every episode of that show:
For 25 minutes, he paints what looks like nonsense. Green blob here. Circle there. Smudgy blue oval toward the middle. And during these 25 minutes, your thought remains the same: “He’s not going to do it this time. He can’t pull this plane out of its tailspin. This will be his first officially shitty painting. On television. PBS. His failure will be on public record. He’s doomed.” And what does he do during the last five minutes? He brings it all together and with a few smudges and paint-strokes turns that unformed mass of blobby nothing into a magnificent vista of Mother Nature. Deep blue lake, happy pine trees, some rocks, whatever.
Lesson: it’s always crap before it’s not.
That’s not to say you should aspire for crap. You should, however, accept that “This Sucks” is part of your novel’s life cycle. It will get better as long as you let it get better.
You don’t expect a newborn to know how to do math or clear sewer pipes. So don’t expect your first draft to be the one that blows everybody’s socks into the sky, either.
Put the perfect draft out of your mind.
It sucks now. Which is why you’re going to keep working to fix it.
Identifying Those Foul, Duplicitous Unicorns
What writer’s myths have you identified? What myths do you fall prey to most often?