In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver compares the artist courting her muse to Romeo and Juliet when she writes:
If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet–one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere–there would have been no romance, no passion, no drama for which we remember and celebrate them.
(I can just picture Romeo hunched over his phone, thumbing through tweet after meaningless tweet–and then, “Holy shit! What time is it!”)
If we commit to sitting down to write each morning, and then more often than not we find ourselves watching just one more TikTok of that tame prairie dog taking a ride in a car or encountering a pumpkin for the first time, and before we know it, the light has changed from dusk to dawn and it’s time to get the kids off to school…the muse, as Oliver writes, “will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”
I find this to be true, not only with the creative process, but with all of life, really.
If I say I’m going to set a boundary with my uncle, and then more often than not I find myself taking his calls even when I’m exhausted…before I know it, years have expired and I’m just as resentful and frustrated as I’ve always been, and boundary setting feels every bit as impossible.
If I say I’m going to journal my dreams in the morning, and then more often than not I find myself emptying the dishwasher and getting a little head start on some laundry and checking my email, just real quick…before I know it, those nighttime messages, laden with soul clues, recede in the darkness until it’s hard to recall more than hazy, disjointed snatches.
It wasn’t that Romeo and Juliet had finally developed the perfect three-step protocol, guaranteeing their success.
“Leave your room precisely at 11:56, pause by the fountain for 3.5 seconds–not 3, not 4–before rounding the corner, and voilà–see you at midnight, lover.”
No, every time they crept out of their rooms, breath held as they eased the door shut, pleasepleaseplease don’t creak, heart thudding loud enough to rouse the neighbors, unsure if the other would appear or if, this time, Lord Capulet would be standing in the moonlight instead, waiting, quaking fists clenched with fury, they were risking it all.
Creativity is like that. So is life.
We don’t know what will happen, not really. Sure, sometimes things go according to plan, and the ego uses this to puff up our sense of certainty in its predictions, but if we’re being honest, who really knows?
When I sit down to write, there are so many things I don’t know.
- How long will it take to finish? Will I finish?
- Will it be anything like what I set out to write?
- How will I write that one part with the complicated time shift?
- Are the sex scenes awkward AF? Do I just think I’m good at writing them but really they’re shit?
- Is the tone I’ve adopted right for the story or do I sound like a pretentious tool?
- Will anyone like it?
- Will I like it?
- Will it sell?
- Will it get good reviews? Terrible reviews?
And that’s just the abbreviated list, my friend.
I’ve found that the times when I am least successful, at writing and at life…
…is when I expect things to be entirely frictionless (even though I can’t actually recall a time when that’s ever been true), and I blindly barrel forward, clutching this fantasy like a talisman.
At the very first obstacle, everything falls apart, because I can’t believe this is happening. Again.
But when I know, “Right, okay, not everything’s gonna go the way I expect, and in fact, there’s this place, right here, where I tend to get stuck…” I can use my ego to problem solve, which is something it’s actually quite good at (as opposed to controlling the future, which unfortunately it mostly sucks at).
If I know that I can get trapped when I’m writing a description of a place I haven’t been to, my tendency being to google the location, scrolling through endless photos, skimming Wikipedia, oh wait, this travel blog is actually quite good, here’s a photo of the spooky crypt in the basement that my characters will never go into, but it’s an interesting bit of backstory, don’t you think, and maybe, you know what, I could send them down there, and add a monster or…
Knowing that this is a habitually sticky spot allows me to brainstorm workarounds. When I hit a description in the narrative and I’m drawing a giant blank, I can simply write XXXX, and skip to the next part.
Later, when I’m not in the flow of my writing, I can google away. But not now. Not when I’ve already done the hardest part, which is sitting down and actually committing words to screen. That deserves my protection–my devotion.
And then maybe I experiment with extrapolating this to stuckness elsewhere in my life. Do I sometimes need to keep moving, not allowing myself to falter, stall out, perhaps never to begin again? Maintain momentum; I can circle back later.
Or perhaps in other situations, a pause is in order. Slooooow down, don’t try to zip past this. There’s no rush.
There might not be a one-size protocol, but every experience is a chance to refine my senses, tuning in: “This feels like a time to push through. ” Or, “Hmmm, you know what? I need to take a break.”
Over time, with practice, it gets easier to tell the difference. But I have to be willing to watch, to see what actually happens when I do x, not merely what I think should happen or what I wish would’ve happened.
And what if we were to connect all of this to magic?
How do we cast a powerful spell or craft an effective ritual given that life is uncertain, and doubly so with magic, because we can never truly know precisely how the magic will unfold?
Well, we learn to become keen observers of our own behavior, our own thought processes, our own sticky spots.
And then, instead of crossing our fingers and willing reality to be what we wish it to be, we work with reality as it is.
This is the paradox of magic.
Far from being a, well, magic wand that we wave around in order to swap reality with something better, magic invites us to be so in tune with the present moment, so keenly aware of reality as it is that the hidden threads of connection become visible, and we can tug them, a little bit here, a bit more over there.
Contrast a money spell to scrape together rent this month versus a spell crafted after carefully observing the tides of your spending, noticing that, predictably, when you’re stressed you spend, and there goes the rent.
What if, instead, you cast a spell to help you manage your stress at its root, and lo and behold, not only does your money situation improve, but your physical health and your relationships, your creativity skyrockets, and suddenly you’re inspired to apply for a higher-paying job.
And you get it.
A web of hidden threads made visible, positive change rippling far beyond the original intention.
We can’t do this–we can’t see and reweave these intricate connections–if we’re forever future tripping to where we’d like to be instead.
Here’s a wonderful passage from an essay by Maggie Shipstead in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Creative Process:
…But I still catch myself thinking, as if this were perfectly plausible, that maybe this time I’ll just sit down and unspool one perfect first (and last) draft. My brain presents this fantasy to me as though avoiding the prolonged, tedious, swampy struggle of writing might only be a question of willpower, or luck.
As soon as I write the first word of a novel or story and realize that the process, again, will not be enchanted and effortless, I start longing to write the first word of a different novel or story, one that will come with breathtaking ease and speed and is only a mirage, of course. A mirage of fiction–nothing could be less real.
The pragmatism of knowing that it will be difficult at times–tedious and swampy, even–yet sitting down to do the work just the same, has a very Capricorn feel to it.
Whether this is the work of writing a story, setting that boundary with your uncle, getting some sleep instead of binging another episode, there will be times–perhaps many–when it feels easier to throw in the towel.
But observing and mapping our patterns, experimenting with something new when we hit that predictable friction point, trying someone else next time around if that one didn’t quite work…this is how we build our personal power and become the magician of our own fate.
This is how we see what others overlook, how we reclaim misspent stores of energy, how we gather and combine wisdom and experience, creating the Great Work of our life.
Happy New Moon.