Having Trouble Finding Your Muse?

Once, while teaching high school writing classes, I graded a technically perfect essay. The sentences had excellent grammatical structure. Every comma, period, and semi-colon was in place. No words were misspelled. No typos, no capitalization errors. Each paragraph was indented just right—consistently five spaces over. 

I gave this paper a big fat C. 

Why? Because it was as stale as week-old bread. And I wanted fresh apple pie.

Sentences were functional, but rigid. Perfunctory. Nothing original. All form but no style.

Stellar grammar, punctuation, and spelling are not the primary ingredients of an effective essay or a well-told story. Correct mechanics are, if you will, the icing on the cake—or the whipping cream on the pie.

But this student essay had no substance. No life. No flavor.

Like his classmates, this student asked, “What’s my grade?”

This is a question I came to detest. I’d reign in my temptation to yell, “You shouldn’t be writing for the grade. You should write for the joy of writing!”

So . . . are you asking the right question? Are you asking, “What’s my grade?”

Unfortunately, for some students, it’s all about the grade. But who can blame them? Isn’t that how we’re trained in school? The grade and the final product are often the goal. The process isn’t valued as part of the journey. There’s no room to mess up when we’re constantly being assessed. There’s no room for experimentation, risk, transparency, and soul. It’s all about the spelling, periods, and commas.

So I implemented ways for students to find that joy instead of being plagued by the grade. I started them in the journaling habit. I checked to see that they wrote, but I didn’t read their journal entries. I wanted them to write unhampered by fear of grades, criteria, or “What will the teacher think?”

All pictures are Courtesy of Visual Hunt unless otherwise noted

The journals worked like magic. Students found freedom to discover their own voices. They developed their thoughts, worked out their feelings. They chose which entries to develop into finished pieces for assessment. Fear diminished. Instead of turning in pieces that were as dry as bread crumbs, their works offered much to savor.

So the students were asking the wrong question. Instead of obsessing about performance and asking, “What’s my grade?”, they learned to ask, “What do I long to say?” 

I’ve recently found a kindred spirit in Bryan Hutchinson, author of Serious Writers Never Quit –They find: The Way. His ebook captures much of what I was trying to convey to my students. If this had been around back then, I would have made it required reading. 

Perfect mechanics don’t make perfect essays and stories, and students can get too caught up in “correctness.” Bryan goes further in laying out the roadblocks to effective writing, then shares his expertise and encouragement for overcoming them.

With its conversational tone, this book could be a letter from your favorite uncle. Yet its easy-to-read style belies its power. He gives you permission to not be perfect. He shares ways to not feed self-doubt. 

We doubt our abilities and knowledge, and constantly compare ourselves to others. We fear judgment, criticism, and failure, which feed the self-doubt monster.

Doubt can overpower until you discover the power of journaling, like my students did. Learn to discover your voice, the voice that lives in your experiences, opinions, joy, and pain.

Your voice is who you are. 
It’s the real you with all your flaws, all your quirks, and all your genius. 
It’s not the mask you wear to keep people from mocking you. 
It’s the real you–uninhibited, unfettered, and full of the passion 
that drives you to get out of bed and face a new day.
–Bryan Hutchinson

To come into your writing voice, 
you must let go of the need to appear flawless. . . . 
When you’re in the flow it doesn’t matter if you get it right the first time, 
it only matters that you put your thoughts onto the page.
–Bryan Hutchinson

Journaling (is) a powerful tool for unleashing your voice . . . 
the ideal place to find yourself, discover what you think, 
believe, and who you want to become. 
A journal is where your innermost thoughts can live and breathe. 
Your journal is the secret garden for your thoughts. 
Your journal is also a laboratory–
a place where you can practice before you go public.
–Bryan Hutchinson

Write down your ideas no matter how stupid or worthless they seem right now. 
Maybe you’re just not ready for them yet. 
Later, when you feel differently, they might seem brilliant. 
We writers need raw material to build our castles, 
so in that sense every idea has merit. 
–Bryan Hutchinson

Bryan offers multiple guidelines for keeping a journal, stressing that you should only use what works for you. Oh—and no editing while the creative brain is on task.

This book to geared to those who have trouble writing their first drafts—that is, the doubters, the fearful, the ones who are tempted to quit.

Doubt is often evident when tackling the first draft of any project. Unless we adopt a new perspective about first drafts.

Bryan claims that first drafts have unique value in the writing process. They should never be considered “crap.” 

As I told my students, the first draft is the step of getting your words from your head onto the paper. Then you have the materials for shaping your piece into the desired form. Bryan likens this to the sculptor’s lump of clay or an artist’s empty canvas. 

Anna Syberg at her Easel, 1910–Courtesy Commons.Wikimedia

In fact, his concepts for creating the first draft apply to any creative endeavor. That dovetails perfectly with what this blog is about, whatever creative arena you’re tapping into—painting, sculpting, writing stories, acting, cooking, designing, building, or making music. 

Imagine. Create. Experiment. Embrace the process. But above all, just do it!

This is how Bryan envisions that all-important first draft:

When you write, you’re mining diamonds. 
You move a lot of dirt at first. 
That’s just you refining and polishing your thoughts. 
But deep inside that dirt—that deliberate thinking and refining—
is a pile of diamonds you can share with the world. 
You write the first draft so you can uncover them. 
You edit to polish them to a showroom sparkle. . . . 
It’s the process of creating that matters.
–Bryan Hutchinson

Mindset matters above all. I never thought I had anything in common with pool players, but I loved the examples Bryan pulled from Paul Newman’s character in the movie The Color of Money (1987). The need to focus, silence the inner critic, engage positive self-talk, and tune out everything else—the way athletes do, too.

According to Bryan, the right mindset helps you get those initial words on the page, into your journal, into your first draft. After that, editing makes your voice clearer, through correcting, condensing, and organizing the material.

Will everyone love what you write? No, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, that question falls into the same category as “What’s my grade?” Instead, ask, “What do I long to say?” 

At the end, Bryan has compiled a list of 21 lessons that capsulize the book’s message, including such nuggets as “Write what you love and write for you. The true artist creates from within.” And “Your writing will be loved by those who need to read it most.”

It’s not the most talented or educated that make things happen. 
It’s what you believe about yourself.
–Bryan Hutchinson

Whether you consider your first drafts as diamonds in the rough, stale bread, or building blocks for castles, if you need that extra push to get writing, read this book.

Do you get stuck on first drafts? Or the first step of any creative project? 
OR . . . How do you overcome those first draft fears?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


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11 thoughts on “Having Trouble Finding Your Muse?

    1. Great blog Laura! This reminds me of a former student who technically played the piano superbly. Unfortunately, her performances were much like the stale bread you mentioned. Loved the advice given here!

      1. Yes, you definitely need emotion in piano playing to take it to the next level. The same can be said for all the arts. We can probably put all artwork and performances into two categories—those with passion and those without.

  1. Pretty nifty advice here! I think I have moaned about my first drafts to you often enough that you know they are far from perfect. I may have to give Bryan’s book to myself as a stocking stuffer!

    1. Might be tough as a stocking stuffer since I think it’s only offered as an ebook right now. 🙂 Also, no matter how “bad” the first draft is, we won’t have an improved draft #2 or #3 or #4 unless we tackle that first draft first!

  2. Interesting about that “What’s my grade?” question–the students are putting their hopes in marking that is totally subjective– not just in the sense of how someone determines the worth of the actual writing, but also in the fact that someone has to determine what an A, B, or C actually mean. I remember once when I entered a writing contest, the judges sent back the graded rubric, each point on a scale of 1-10. The problem was, there was really no clear statement as to what the numbers meant. Was a 5 or 6 average? or was it a percentage? after all, 50-60% is failing in most grade books. Even an 8 at 80% is just a C. And a C to me meant, you didn’t get anything from it. You couldn’t understand it. You were bored.

    I like the question “What do I want to say?”

    But that brings up another question: in this likes/loves, share/follow, importance-of-social-interaction, need-a-big-platform world we live in, does what we want to say often die a slow death if we want to be heard? Has that become our new grading system?

    1. You always raise great questions, Elizabeth. Good food for thought.

      How frustrating and unproductive to get feedback from the judges without really understanding the scale.

      You make a valid point. It certainly seems that platforms and the need to be heard (via Facebook likes and shares, blog subscribers, etc.) drive a writers’ success. But isn’t that what writers want and need—an audience? Until someone comes up with a superior way of gathering an audience, social media is probably going to be the means to that end.

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