The One With the Muse

Nathan Englander admitted that he often wears earplugs when he writes—even if no one else is home.

A.J. Jacobs writes while walking on a treadmill. (Talk about multi-tasking!)

Truman Capote famously wrote while lying down. “I am a completely horizontal author,” he said.

I’m usually nosey interested in what goes on behind other writers’ closed doors, but I’ve honestly never given much thought to my writing habits. Then friend and fellow writer Julia Monroe Martin posed a few questions about the writing process, and I was shocked to discover I had a process.

What are you working on? 

My writing interests are primarily fiction—novels and short stories. You know, the kind of lucrative career that has me rubbing elbows with Kim-ye and George in Italy.

Right away, I have to reveal one of my writerly superstitions. I don’t often discuss the details my current writing project, at least not before I’ve completed a first draft. I’m not worried that anyone is going to steal my idea. (I’m superstitious, not paranoid.) For me, talking about it too much takes away some of the magic and mystery before it’s a fully formed thing. What I can say is that I’m in the midst of the first draft of a novel which takes place in the 1920s on the barges and canals of the French countryside.Barge


How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

There is an oft-repeated maxim that there are only seven plot lines and that all stories are simply a variation. (This is usually attributed to Shakespeare, but I can’t confirm. Anyone know?) If there are no original stories, then what makes us keep writing and reading?

I think it’s because we each bring our own perspective to the page. This is never more evident to me than when I’m teaching creative writing. One of my favorite exercises is to give students the same photo and ask them to develop a character sketch. Who are these people? What do they want? What are their deepest secrets? If there are 15 students in the class, there will be 15 wildly different answers to those questions. You’d probably have no idea that the same photos was used as a jumping-off point.

By the very nature of my personal combination of experiences, my story is like my fingerprint—unique to me. But, you’re thinking, we’ve all read stories that seem so tired and overdone. I’d contend that it isn’t necessarily the plot structure we find troublesome. In fact, we find comfort in the familiarity of the structure. (Read: The Power of Myth) Although it may masquerade as a plot issue, we really take exception with a writer who lacks a point of view or voice.

The Power of Myth


Why do you write what you do?

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that….We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone — because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.

~Maya Angelou

I’ve heard people say they don’t read fiction because it’s not real. I’ve never quite understood this reasoning. (I daresay that these may be the same people who love “reality” television.) What could be more real than, as Maya Angelou so eloquently wrote, exploring the impulse that “makes us want to explain ourselves”?

I also wonder what people mean when they say that they read fiction to escape. I read it to engage. I want to engage in the common human experience that ties me to people of different cultures and time periods. I’ve learned the kind of person I want to be (or not be) in the world by reading about Atticus Finch and Edna Pontellier and Hazel Grace. A good book touches my empathy and compassion. It asks me to use my imagination by taking me through a swarm of fire ants in the Belgian Congo and set me floating down the Mississippi River. It can make me laugh at the preposterous situations Bertie Wooster gets himself into and make me wonder “what if.”

I am indebted to these authors who have shared parts of themselves on the page. Writing may seem like a solitary endeavor, but, every time I open my WIP, I’m connected with them. (See also: muse.)



How does your writing process work?

There are two sides to this question for me. One is the inspiration; the other is the routine. As for the routine, I wake at about 5 a.m. to write before work. Commuting by subway gives me the opportunity to review what I’ve written. I make my notes and edits by hand cuz I’m old school that way. Later that night I transcribe any notes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. While this process may sound disjointed, it works for me because I like being in touch with my WIP in some way throughout the day.

The most important thing I can tell you about inspiration is a furry muse. The best thing about him is that I never have to wait for him to visit. He’s always there, waiting patiently, sometimes dreaming, sometimes staring, but never demanding.


Are you done yet?

It’s exhausting being a muse.


It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. 


Thank you to Julia Monroe Martin for including me in this blogfest.  Next week, please visit the blogs of two wonderful authors: Cynthia Robertson and Sarah Allen. Cynthia and I share a love for historical fiction. Her book reviews are always spot on and insightful. Her review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry made me want to run to the bookstore immediately to pick up a copy. Sarah’s enthusiasm and joy are infectious. Whenever I read one of her posts, I am filled with excitement. I can’t wait to get back to my story. She writes about craft, the writing life and marketing. Check out her A-Z challenge of the writing life.

Up next week: my thoughts on attending Book Expo America. Stay tuned!

If you’re a writer, what is your writing process like? If you’re a reader, why do you read? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 






  1. Aw, Reggie… so cute 🙂

    Impressed with the early-morning-subway routine. I waste so much time instead of employing it creatively…

    Re. habits… I have to be wrapped in a blanket in order to write. I am, in fact, enveloped in one right now, and it’s 30 degrees (Celcuis!) out.


      1. If they still make Slankets, they’re much better quality — or they used to be. I bought a bunch of them for Christmas gifts one year. The following year Snuggies were all the rage. I haven’t heard of Slankets since. We love them, though.


  2. This is awesome, Jackie! Loved reading about your process and this: “By the very nature of my personal combination of experiences, my story is like my fingerprint—unique to me.” Love that most of all. So true and why I don’t worry if someone’s writing about something I am too. As you say, there are only seven plot lines. You’re WIP sounds fascinating and enough said about that! Thanks for taking the baton and I’m looking forward to next week, too!!


    1. A few years back a popular author of dozens of books published a story almost exactly like my first novel. I had a few moments of panic until I realized she had her way of telling the story and I had mine.
      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to think about my writing process. I learned a lot about myself!


  3. Oh, where to start? How about with your muse. I’ll bet George Clooney wishes he had a muse that adorable.

    There are those who would say Shakespeare was one to borrow the seven plot lines and would probably have not come up with that idea of seven on his own. 😉 A Georgia peach I knew said to me once, in response to something someone else had said that she and I both suspected to be drenched in fiction, “Well, there are only twelve stories in this world and we all know THAT one, don’t we?”

    I loved her Georgia peach-isms.

    About a year or so ago, I went on a Joseph Campbell-buying rampage at the Barnes & Noble and just recently got around to The Power of Myth,, which I’d always wanted to read since catching just pieces of the PBS show. What fabulous reading.

    I’ve wanted to write about an experience where I gave students a piece of music (sans lyrics) to listen to and , much to all our surprise, several of them wrote very similar stories or poems.

    End of seemingly disconnected thoughts. They somehow make more sense inside my head.

    I love this post.


    1. Wow! What an interesting development re: the writing exercise. Could it be the medium? Music in your case and visual art in my case produced very different results. That has sparked my curiosity. I wonder if we’re tapping into different parts of the brain and evoking different thoughts / feelings.

      I’ll click post before I start quoting Marshall McLuhan. 😛


  4. If I had a hound, he’d be the one writing on the computer and I’d be the one sacked out on the couch at 5 am! I am a nocturnal creature. I can write well past the midnight hour, up until sunrise. It’s highly unhealthy. This year, I have been consciously trying to reverse that course. If I were roused from a sound slumber in the wee hours of the morning to write, I would be so function-free the only writerly thing I could accomplish is signing my name … with a thumb print.


    1. As someone with a fabulous mattress, I would have expected you to get a solid 8 hours per night.

      PS — Reggie and you have a lot in common — he signs all his notable works with a paw print.


  5. Duuuuuuuuuude. 5 a.m. … I’m with Lame Adventurer on this one. I’m a totally night-life person. I think the only reason I’d get up that early is if the kids were sick or the place was on fire. I tried switching it over like LA but it never worked for me I was so exhausted … but staying up ’till 1 a.m. trying to catch up on all my AMC, FX and


    1. HBO shows didn’t help. But was long as we get it done right?

      P.S. Love that Maya Angelou quote 🙂 that plus your doggie’s pic are great jumping points to get your creative juices flowing.


      1. ….dude… as … I meant as … as long as we get it done. You see what going to bed at 1 a.m. gets you? Bags under your eyes and incoherent statements. Better bust out some chocolate to set me straight. 🙂


  6. What a great post, Jackie. Adorable pics of Reggie too!
    Whenever I’m doing something creative, I find it flows easier when I have music on. Good music.
    Really looking forward to the day your novel is published!


  7. It’s so important to have a routine in place so that you can stay motivated, isn’t it. Interesting to hear about your motivation to keep coming back. I need to be as disciplined with my painting.

    I like spending an afternoon multitasking “reading” with painting, by using audiobooks. It’s a cheater’s way to do it, but I find it stops me from feeling lonely, as painting alone can feel a bit isolated to me. I grow to genuinely care about the characters that are keeping me company, and get invested in their lives.


    1. It’s so interesting that you listen to audiobooks while you paint. I know a number of writers who also listen to something while they work — usually music. I can’t listen to anything else while I’m writing. I’m so engrossed in the work, I find music a distraction.


  8. I do enjoy your writing. I am an early riser as well. The morning is so very peaceful. Your friend has the cutest face!

    AJ Fikry was a very good read. I actually bought it. It’s a hot item at the library.

    I can’t wait to read your BEA experience. I went for the first time. It was a blast.


    1. It’s hard to look in his face and not be inspired — even at 5 am. 🙂

      I’m looking forward to comparing notes on BEA. Too bad we didn’t know in advance that we would both be there!


  9. I’ve been away (Sedona—a sweltering 100+, but fun nonetheless) or I would have commented sooner.
    Love the quote from M.A. – it’s perfectly true, isn’t it? She expressed it so well.
    I wrote the rough draft of my post last week after our email exchange, and it’s spooky how similar it is to yours, though not worded half so creatively. Your WIP has me intrigued; people traveling the river in France? What a lovely life THAT would be!
    Give that adorable Reggie a belly rub from me. 🙂


    1. I hope you had a wonderful time in Sedona. I visited once and absolutely loved it. Beautiful is an understatement.

      I’m so looking forward to reading your answers. I was honestly surprised by some of mine.

      Reggie sends Zeus a big woof. 🙂


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