The Myth of the Muse

Waiting for inspiration is not a strategy to win tenure, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

October 25, 2010

Several years ago, I met a young social scientist at a cocktail party here in Chicago (I’ll call him Joe). He had just finished his first semester on the tenure track, so I asked if he was making time for his writing. Like many new faculty, Joe told me that his first semester had flown by and he hadn't written a single word. I asked if he had ever tried daily writing and he looked at me as if I had suggested he try a daily colonic. Even after I argued that daily writing was an empirically documented strategy for success, he dismissed the idea as "impossible" because he was only able to write when he felt "inspired." His writing process involved being touched by The Muse, dropping everything in his life, and sinking into a multi-day writing frenzy. He assured me that this is how he got through graduate school and that he felt confident The Muse was right around the corner.

The Myth of the Muse

I have this same conversation with new faculty all the time. And each time, I am stunned that otherwise rational people -- who are on a ticking tenure clock -- feel comfortable waiting to be "touched by The Muse" in order to fulfill one the primary requirements of their job: research, writing, and publication.

Unfortunately, I received a crisis call from Joe three years later. After receiving a critical third year review, he realized that his writing-when-inspired plan was not going to win him tenure. While his department found his service and teaching exemplary, they made clear that his publication record was below expectations. Facing a narrow window of time until he would be reviewed for tenure and promotion, he realized he would have to make quick and dramatic changes in order to meet his institution's publication standards.

The writing strategies Joe used in graduate school were fine for that particular stage of his academic career. But as he moved from graduate student to professor, he encountered greater responsibilities, new pressures, and competing demands for his time. In other words, the reality of life on the tenure-track left him feeling exhausted far more often than he felt inspired. And because Joe was still relying on old assumptions and behaviors that were no longer functional, he came up short on the most important determinant of his institutional evaluation, his marketability, and his long-term reputation as a scholar. He (like most of us) had to consciously move from "hoping" that inspiration would strike, to doing the one thing that productive academic writers do: write every day.

YOU Control Your Writing

I think that some tenure-track faculty cling to the Myth of The Muse because they conceptualize writing as an externally-driven process that is beyond their individual control. When I hear new professors say they only write when they are "inspired" to do so, it signals to me that they have not yet internalized the fact that writing is their job. We don't wait to be "inspired" to teach our classes, and I've never heard anyone say they had to be touched by the Meeting Muse before they could attend a committee meeting. We just do these things as normal everyday professional activities.

This week, I want to encourage you to critically engage your core assumptions about the writing process and consider the idea that you control your writing. Academic writing doesn't just happen in sporadic fits of inspiration. Instead, articles and books get completed when ideas meet hard work over sustained periods of time. And as any daily writer knows, inspiration and creativity burst forth while you are actually writing. You have to show up at the designated time and get started, and then the flow of ideas is catalyzed by the physical act of writing. If you currently subscribe to the Myth of the Muse, that's perfectly fine. If it works for you and you're publishing prolifically, that's great! But if you're only writing when you feel inspired AND you aren't as productive as you need to be to meet your institution’s expectations, then I encourage you to gently and patiently ask yourself:

1. Is this working for me?

2. Where did I get this idea about writing?

3. Is it effective at this stage of my career?

4. Am I likely to meet the expectations for publication at my institution by relying on The Muse?

5. What would it take for me to consider writing as an everyday activity (just like grading papers or attending meetings)?

6. What's holding me back from being the writer, scholar, and intellectual I imagine myself to be?

For me, the best way to interrogate my assumptions about the writing process is to listen to (or read) successful writers reflect on their writing process. This week, I want to suggest my three favorite sources for such inspiration: 1) an amazing audio clip entitled A Conversation on the Writing Life, 2) bell hooks's insightful Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, and 3) one of my favorite books on writing, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Each is a great source of inspiration!

This Week's Challenge

If you are unhappy with your productivity, I challenge you to:

  • Take time at your Weekly Planning Meeting this week to consider why you perceive writing as an exceptional (instead of normal) activity in your professional life.
  • Write every day this week for 30-60 minutes.
  • Give yourself a treat for everyday that you meet your writing goal.

I hope that this week brings you the confidence to know that YOU control your writing, the strength to carve out time for writing each day, and the satisfaction of knowing that you are moving forward in your intellectual work!

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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