Murdering Unicorns: Ending The Myths That Poison The Writer’s Life

Writing Advice

“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?

37 comments

  • Nope, you covered The Big Three. Though I’m often a victim of the “this sucks and is never going to go anywhere” blues. Solution: finish that draft and put it away for a little while (usually a month while working on something shinier). Distance and time often makes the heart grow fonder. If it doesn’t, well either it needs more time or it does in fact suck.

    Also, I’ve known people that have acted like their “Muse” was a real person and gave them names. It’s hard not to punch those people in the nads.

  • Like Kate said: you pretty much had it.

    There’s the one that’s a corollary to the muse one where you think that it’s going to be easy, though.

  • Good post, and you got the big three that I know about.

    The only other one I can think of is one you’ve debunked numerous times. Namely, that you don’t need to do revisions because your work is so wonderful.

    • @Anthony:

      Oooh, good one. Tack that on as a corollary to the Myth of the Perfect Draft. Not only should you not aspire to a perfect draft, but you should also not believe you’ve crafted one on the first go, either. :)

      – c.

  • This post is so awesome. I love your voice and style. Not to mention, it’s so true!

    But sometimes it’s a lot easier to just pretend it’s not true. Our first instinct or desire is to choose the easiest path…which means complaining and making up excuses and chasing the muse. It’s a weakness worth overcoming.

    The myth I fall for most often is the whole I need to be GREAT before I start. Like I need to study, and read all the classics and a million other boring books I don’t want to read, and whatever, before I even dare to write a single word of a novel. Cause otherwise it will be a waste of time.

    Oh another myth is “needing” it all to be perfect in order to write. I have to be in the perfect mind frame, in the perfect moment, in the perfect place, with the perfect stretch of free time and the perfect mug of tea in order to write. Without even a SINGLE one of these things, I cannot write. So I won’t even try. BIG FAT MYTH.

    Definitely need to get out of that pile horseshit I seem to like to sit in and take a long cold shower.

  • Good stuff. I’ve been tweeting out choice cuts as I read.

    When I feel like the-asshole-that-can’t-finish-the-bloody-novel-right-now I tend to listen Charles Bukowski. He always reminds me that I have to work.

  • Stephen King on “the muse”:

    “There’s a mystery about creative writing, but it’s a boring mystery unless you’re interested in this one small animal, sometimes quite vicious, that makes its home in the bushes. It’s a scruffy little thing with fleas and often smells of whatever nasty mess it’s been rolling in. It can never be more than semi-domesticated and isn’t exactly known for its loyalty. I’ll speak more of this beast — to which the Greeks gave the comically noble name musa, which means song — later, but in the meantime, believe me when I say there’s little mystery or tragic romance about the rest of it, which is why they never show the working part in movies about writers, only the drinking, carousing and heroic puking in the gutter by the dawn’s early light. ”

    Also, the tab order on your comment form makes me want to punch the monitor every time it makes me scroll back up to the top. True story.

  • I’m with you! But so many want their draft to be brilliant the first time–and tiny pieces of it might be, just enough so that they work on the other 99.9% of it, honing and honing for draft after draft, until it’s great.

    But so many don’t want to put in the work, or think writing should be brilliant, or tossed away. I teach college English, and I have redesigned my classes to REQUIRE revision, to force students to revise until the essays are “acceptable.” And my students resist, but when they realize their grades depend on it, they choke down their ire and get the work done (or don’t, and fail the course).

    Thanks so much for putting these myths into words–and I love the mythical references, too!

  • How about the corollary myth to the Muse one, which is that writing is supposed to be a painful process? That Real Writers place the Act of Writing somewhere between syphilis and those little barbed fish in the Amazon that swim up your nether-regions — something that, if you value your virility, you’ll avoid at all costs. That Real Writers must suffer like soldiers in the Somme for every word gained, every plot point mastered, and they must turn to drugs or drink or any other less destructive but by no means more useful behaviors to coax the words from their fingertips–and above all, they must never, EVER be caught doing anything so prosaic as actually *enjoying* the act of writing.

    Writing is work, yes. But it’s also deeply rewarding, as all productive work is, and my favorite hours of the day are the ones I spend scribbling or typing on a blank page.

    That’s why I can’t stand it when writers whine about how much they hate to write. If it’s so awful, then go be an accountant. Let the rest of us penmonkeys have some peace.

    • @Lara:

      Word. Writers who hate to write should, duh, stop writing.

      Writing *can be* painful, and pain doesn’t mean you should automatically stop. But it can also be beautiful and weird and wonderful.

      Writing requires occasional suffering, but it shouldn’t be constant.

      – c.

  • The critique myths: 1) Critiques are crap; don’t listen to what anyone says. 2) They’re more important than your gut instincts.

    The revision myth: If you revise enough, your story will eventually be perfect. Problem, your brain can only write so well at any given time due to the fact that you have more to learn; thus, you can only revise it to the top of your current ability, because you only know what you know. Do your best, send it out, learn by experience instead of by pissing around with the same ms for YEARS.

    Keep writing: you’ll get better. Keep editing: you’ll get stuck at the same level of competence.

  • I find it amusing that you speak of murdering unicorns when my November thus far as been spent killing a magical pony named Rupert. He’s a magical pony, and I am killing him almost daily. Unicorns are assholes anyway, just ask Rupert, he knows.

  • As always, a great post. I’d fill in a longer list of myths, but I’m writing this from my phone in a coffee shop. With that said, I’ll add another myth: People who write in coffee shops are writers. This is false. The kid with the latte over there? Hasn’t put a word down. Reason? You can’t possibly concentrate with burr grinders and water pumps ringing off at 95db every fifteen seconds. Apply the porn test: if you can’t watch porn there then it’s too noisy, either in traffic or noise, to get work done. My fingers hurt from typing on this tiny screen. Remember, porn.

  • The God King Is Always Right

    You take a class. You get into a critique group. Somebody who you respect and adore and whose writing makes you creme your jeans looks over your work.

    And they all say the same thing. “I think this one part right here kinda, you know, sucks.”

    And that’s good. Because you can take that feedback and work with it and make your writing that much more awesomerer.

    Until you realize that they’re all saying the same thing about different things. Some of them contradict each other. Some of them contradict themselves.

    Huh.

    Not every piece of feedback is good, useful, appropriate, right, pretty, shiny or encrusted with precious jewels dug from the deep mines of Faerie.

    Sometimes it’s wrong.

    Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. They are suggestions and it’s up to you as the writer to figure out if they have merit. Ultimately, it’s your story/book/article.

    The God King Is Always Wrong

    Somebody tells you that the monkey in the third scene, the one whose silly antics and poo flinging forces your protagonist onto his epic journey of self discovery and kingdom saving doesn’t really work.

    And your first thought is, FUCK YOU PEOPLE WHY DON’T YOU RECOGNIZE MY GENIUS???!!!!

    This might not be a productive line of thinking. Maybe that monkey should be an orangutan. Maybe it should be a grizzled veteran of the Clone Wars who knew your protagonist’s dad way back when. Maybe that feedback your getting is actually useful.

    Though not every piece of feedback will have merit a lot of them do. Your manuscript can’t be a precious snowflake wondrous to behold and too fragile to stand up to the weight of criticism.

  • I wish I could remember how and why I came to your blog in the first place. Somebody posted a link somewhere. But that was yesterday (in my brain, yesterday = gone forever).

    Anyway, here I am, subscribed and enthralled.

    Levi

  • Your articles are always helpful for me :]

    I think you just about covered the big three problems. The thing about your articles is…there just so true to life. You speak in an easy way so everyone can understand, and you make your point.

    Other articles go like this,
    “Ten ways to get rid of writers block:
    1. Make sure your Main character doesn’t go in the 3rd point of view omniscient when the plot is incomplete on a Tuesday night”
    Well. Not really.
    But their pretty complicated and pretty much repeat what the last persons article said. I’ll have to follow you on twitter and tumblr.

    Seriously, nice job dude ^^
    I’m just getting back into writing (after my writing phase when i was 10 years old) and these articles are giving me a ton of inspiration :]

  • Wonderful piece – thank you for putting it down. I’m not a fiction writer (…yet?), but as you say it applies to any kind of writing – and, indeed, any kind of work.

    I do agree with the fellow above who wants to punch the monitor over the tab order of your comment form, though. Man. Seriously. Punching.

  • Wow wow wow love this post. I need to quickly erase about a dozen or so from my blog, in which I wallow in my own wallowy fat brained stupidity.

    There’s another one, and I don’t have a clever name for it. The second book (or twentieth book) thang. “I just can’t seem to make this book as good as the first,” or “the first was so much easier,” or “I’m out of ideas,” or… blah blah.

    It’s as if we forget that we tend to improve with practice, rather than deteriorate. Your standards may have gone up, but unless you’ve had a mental or physical deterioration, etc., you’re likely a better writer the longer you’ve been doing it. And you’re not a useless ass if you don’t get it right the first time. Or we’d all be winning Grammys, Emmys, the Nobel Prize, and possibly getting our black belts in the first karate class we take.

    When your standards rise, your stuff looks crappier. This can be a very good thing.

  • I’ll admit I’m one of those that talks about my muse like a person (*he* is a pervert and always visits me in the shower). But not once have I ever imagined that I work for *him*. Nuh-uh. It’s the other way around. And if he doesn’t show up to work some days, I either grab his ass out of bed, or I’ll just start rearranging things in “his” story (i.e. write anyway) until he starts freaking out about how I’m messing everything and he tells me how things should be. Heh. Sucker. He falls for that trick every time. Writer’s block be damned.

  • Awesome post, Chuck. Articulate, funny and spot-on.

    I think all three of these myths boil down to finding excuses not to write: “the Muse hasn’t come back”, “I’ve got writer’s block” and “I can’t write until I know it will be perfect”. When you treat them as myths, you realise you’ve got to get your butt in the chair and start typing (or scribbling with your quill pen or whatever). It’s down to you choosing to do it.

    The myth that I used to most frequently fall for was the one that a writer is born, not made — that you are either a writer by right divine or a poser with a pen. This meant that when it began to feel like work, or when my first draft sucked (and they all suck, almost by definition), I would fall back on the excuse that I wasn’t a writer after all, because real writers surely never have to work but just poop out warm, cinnamon-scented texts of perfection. Writing, I now know, is a skill you learn and improve, like carpentry or plumbing or surfing or serial killing. Which means I’ve got nobody to blame if it sucks, but also means that when it doesn’t suck, it’s because of me. That’s pretty cool.

  • I almost showed this post to a student of mine who cites “block” as a reason for her lack of production. Then I remembered all the vaginas and PETmA (m for mythical)-agitating unicorn and dragon slaying. So, while she might need to hear it, she’s not ready for full frontal Wendig.

    Oh, and @Levi: love the profile pic. Looks like you’re doing 1-armed pullups on your webcam.

  • Another day I loaded one blocked text simply giving it to anothern writer to continue. She wrote some paragraphs, changed radically what I myself thought about my own material, she gave it back to me, and now it had become one of my favorite incomplete stories — now SHE is blocked, and I’m waiting for her.

    Maybe I should present this article to her …

    Note that the original start was abandoned by me, but I turned to another idea, I dont like to stop writing just because of a particular block on a particular story. Only translation deadlines can make me stop writing.

  • I guess I never considered Writer’s Block to be unique to me…or to writers in general. I’ve always viewed it simply as a name for those times when, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t write at the moment. Or day. Or week. Or month. I get Art Block too–same thing except I either don’t feel like drawing or I am unable to come up with something to draw. Most of the time, it’s not a hindrance; it’s a sign that I need to step back for a little while and do the macarena in my backyard in a neon green tutu with one of my ball pythons and come back to the writing/art later.

    Good post, though!

  • Confirmation that we’re both right. :P

    Ciar – Thank you, I needed that reminder right about now.

    Incidentally, my muse is a bitch who says, “Write faster. I have more ideas.”

  • I don’t mean to sound at all superior, because I am most certainly not – I’m not even a *real* writer by your reckoning, Chuck, as I’ve always been too distracted (or maybe too chickenshit?) to even seek the precious Monies for my scribbles. I see so many writers (read: ‘people that write’) fall to these myths and I can’t see why, none of them have ever rented a room in my head.

    I mean, with my art I have this idea of the perfect first draft, but writing? Naw. If I don’t edit, it’s most often because I’ve flitted on. I’ve never believed in writer’s block. I mean, I give up on stuff all the time, but I call it ‘I’m not having fun *sulk sulk*’. And when you are a muse, you don’t need to have one. It’s possible I do imagine some fantastic, legendary well as the source of my ideas, but I’ve always thought of myself as more a sneaky thief of them than some licensed conduit. Certainly not a beneficiary – I’m lucky if I can get the ideas out of my head before they crowd out other things. Like, umm, feeding myself and remembering the old inhale, exhale.

    Anyhow! Where do these myths come from? Who made them? Why do people give them such power?

  • These are all why I’m doing NaNoWriMo. Especially number three, which by the way, keeps having me go back and revise as I write. A terrible, terrible habit I’m trying to break. Of course, having ‘evidence’ to back up the hubris that my first draft not only should, but -will- be perfect doesn’t help. I’m referring to the time I got an essay back with a good mark and the comment ‘well edited’. An essay that I shat out the night before in a haze of sleep-deprivation and Earl Grey tea… That said, a first-year Art History essay does not equal a novel. I must remember this: essay =/= novel.

    As to the muse thing, I mainly see it as my characters coming to pester me into writing them down. I’m looking at you, Michael, you and your party of favourites.

  • Haha! I laughed so hard. Love this post. It was inspirational. But that’s easy to say, since today my muse was bringing the dragon right to me (probably because all week I have written without her). Tomorrow, when the creeping rot disease comes back, I will re-read this for some ironic inspiration. :D

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