The Essence of a Good Muse
The secret of good writing lies in two words: elbow
grease. Using elbow grease, an
archaic slang term from my youth, indicates hard work is being done. But what exactly is this lubricant that keeps the
elbow limber enough to keep the writing hand moving through thick and thin?
What is its chief ingredient? Is
it commitment? Intention? Starvation?
Seldom is it inspiration. Yet
at each of our writing workshops, at least one unpublished participant has
insisted, “That may be your way, but I write only when I am
Many of my friends are this way. They
write voluminous letters matching their
flowery journal entries -- when they feel like writing. When they feel like it, they are
geniuses at expressing themselves on the Internet, where they’re never at a
loss for words.
They do accumulate a great mass of words this way.
At some point, though, they become
overwhelmed by all these luscious words and cannot wean themselves away from a
single one. Then comes a wakeup
call -- usually a milestone birthday, sometimes
a change in health -- or imminent poverty.
It triggers the insight, “Say, I could be doing much more with these
gems. They should be published!”
This is a crucial time when self-discipline is needed.
Most authors maintain
momentum by writing on a daily basis. And
it is self-discipline, in my opinion, that keeps
our writing hands moving through thick and thin.
It is the main requirement for setting
down deft words in the first place, and for achieving the best results possible.
cases, it is also closely intertwined with the need to weed out words, to wean
them from an everloving parent. Self-discipline
is the essence of that lubricant called elbow grease.
Having lived with a noted author, I use him as an example of
practices. From the start of our
intimate twenty-five-year relationship, Frank Waters was an extremely
disciplined writer. Come hell, high water, or holidays, every morning he sat at
his beloved Olivetti typewriter and slowly sharpened his ebony pencil with a
while waiting for one of his muses to show up.
If she didn’t, he dug in alone. On
morning of our wedding, I bought my bridal bouquet and washed our laundry at the
laundromat. He wrote.
During this special writing time, which decreased in later years to
about two hours daily, Frank focused only on his work. Ruefully he observed, “When
finally looked up from my typewriter, all my wives were gone!”
After a fashion, this exodus eventually included me.
Our happy marriage endured.
But if I wasn’t teaching, I was often to be found writing in our guest room, a
habit that Frank did not appreciate. He
may occasionally have regretted setting such a
In London’s Guardian newspaper on July 9, 1999, Susan Greenhill
wrote that she
household and paying the bills.”
author’s creative output as dependent upon a supportive mate.
A mate like
herself, she implies, shoulders the couple’s everyday problems alone, “which
the writer to work unencumbered by the trivialities of life, such as organising
For this reason, if “a mate” chooses to become a writer, he or she
more self-discipline than the established writing partner. It requires added discipline to put menial chores on the back
burner as much as possible, or to delegate, which is the more
daunting task. Besides trying to
delegate a few chores to the writing partner, I’d advise hiring someone else
to type the partner’s manuscripts. Eliminating
this backbreaker will make a vast difference in the caliber of one’s
creativity. Such typing is often a
Frank’s sister, who died in 1969, had typed even more of his
manuscripts than I
did in the late
seventies and eighties. “Did
Naomi edit, too?” I asked. “Of
course not,” he said. “She
didn’t have a creative bone in her body.”
Never forget this discipline of weeding out unnecessary words during the
process. It took my breath away to
watch Frank blacken entire sentences -- even
paragraphs -- full of his golden words. Once
out of his creative right brain and back into
his logical left brain used for editing, he didn’t consider these words golden
Nevertheless, he saw most writers’ surviving words as magic, and as “golden
John Nichols helped to teach me the same weeding lesson that Waters and
Hemingway were hammering home. Frederick
Ramey, executive editor of MacMurray and Beck, felt that John’s fine foreword
to my book Celebrating the Coyote was a bit wordy in places.
Talk about blasphemy -- a famous author like Nichols too “wordy?”
“It’s like looking a gift horse in the mouth,” I gasped in
disbelief. “If you’re
dissatisfied, you tell him. I’m
grateful for what he’s done.”
After John had taken the suggestion and tightened his foreword, he wrote
“Editors no longer bother me. When
they’re good like this one, their suggestions always
improve a piece of writing.”
I learned from Frank to fight with editors for one’s own words.
Late in life, for
example, he revised The Woman at Otowi Crossing, in part to eliminate the
editorial meddling of others. To his everlasting regret, he had also let himself
be talked out
of titling his first book The Lizard Woman, which became Fever Pitch.
He never let this
happen again. And he saw to it that
its 1984 reprint bore his preferred title.
wanted to rename my own first book Mourning the Coyote. We stuck with my title, to
everyone’s eventual satisfaction. Nonetheless,
this publication process did teach me that
compromise works best.
To my surprise Fred insisted that the book was mostly about me.
This upset me
since it had been written as a tribute to Frank and for me to feel close
to him again.
Wherever he could, Fred wanted to cut out parts about Frank in order to focus on
The biggest challenge occurred in my middle three chapters, which were
Frank, his family, and his 1966 Ford Galaxie -- an extension of himself, he’d
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with these,” Fred commented.
just get rid of them entirely.”
Instantly, from God knows where, the solution sprang to my lips.
getting rid of them entirely,” I said. “What
I will do is consolidate the three into one ten-
page biographical chapter set within a visit I made to Frank’s hometown a year
This chapter, “Troops,” turned out to be one of the best-written in
the book, and
ended up happy -- including Frank’s spirit, I’m sure.
Fred now had me as
the focus of action; and I got to include Frank’s background, written
concisely and more
Never would I have the audacity to try writing a “companion book” to
books. A local reviewer more than
once has mistakenly pinpointed this as one of
my purposes for writing Celebrating the Coyote. MacMurray and Beck, not I, made
companions of our books.
I did have several purposes -- too many purposes, in fact --
for writing my book.
Whatever may be
wrong with it stems from having so many purposes: to honor Frank; to
publicize his work; to provide accurate information for a future, authorized
him; to help myself and others through the grieving process; to describe our
landscape in Arroyo Seco.
Just as writing a companion book to Frank’s last book, Of Time and
never my intent, neither Frank nor I intended to write a memoir.
When mine was
later than his, it was meant to be mainly about him.
He had included too
little of himself for his book truly to be called a memoir, as it now is
had thought that this book of essays would be published long before his death,
while I was
on a different book.
Instead, in 1997 MacMurray acquired our two manuscripts together, termed
both “memoirs,” and gave our books matching covers.
This approach seemed to work
best for them, and I had little say in this part of the process.
When it comes to publishers
and editors, if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em.
When it comes to reviewers, beware!
As Frank did, ignore them as much as
You need thick armor to repel their subtle and not-so-subtle slings and
arrows. Their complimentary reviews
can be ego-inflating. And they’re
things screwed up. What you learn
about most is them.
These arduous editing and post-editing processes take much of the
of getting a
book published. In retrospect, and
despite the hard work, it’s the actual
writing of a book that gives one the most satisfaction. The beginning of this process,
Frank thought, was having “something to write about.” In my opinion, the first step is
writing about what you know.
Frank’s reversal of these two precepts caused him some dissatisfaction
age twenty-two he left Colorado Springs, his hometown, to escape the poverty of
his family and to find “something to write about.”
He found it in the California desert near the border of
Mexico. And so he wrote Fever
Pitch, or The Lizard Woman, about this stunning desert.
He was never satisfied with his first book, however; he didn’t really
know the desert and its inhabitants. He
then began a novel about a bordertown similar to Mexicali, which he was coming
to know; some years later he finished this book, naming it The Yogi of
In the meantime, he had realized at last that what he really knew
Springs and his
family. Before finishing Yogi, he
returned to Colorado and wrote a series
of books about
his family. This thinly disguised
autobiography, in the form of three
novels, satisfied him and anchored him to writing as a lifetime career.
Much later he
consolidated his trilogy into one novel called Pike’s Peak.
Write to please yourself, not others, when you’re writing about those
You never will please all of them. “Be
kind,” advises a local author. I’d
amend that to
“Be as kind as possible, considering you’re not writing to please others.”
You never can
be kind enough to suit all those about whom you write. It took one friend two months to
get past the
fourth page of my book. Although I
was describing the tragic death of my
husband on this page, all she cared about was my dazed flashback to when her
chipped the Indian bowl that would contain his ashes.
A sculptor friend was unhappy
edited out his age and the working challenges he faced while carving Frank’s
memorial stone. An ex-friend became
“outraged” and “enraged” when I disagreed in print with her mistaken
belief that she is in part the woman at Otowi Crossing. I had thought she was pleased enough with imagining herself
as Frank’s first wife in China during another lifetime.
Factions gave Frank similar problems after he wrote The Book of the
Killed the Deer, and The Woman at Otowi Crossing. In the first instance,
faction revered the book; another constantly denigrated it.
Similarly, two Taos
formed opposite opinions of Deer, just as two Anglo factions in Taos
formed opposite opinions about Otowi.
Its woman protagonist bore some resemblance
to a real woman
given an entirely different fictionalized dimension by Frank than that
idealized by her actual friends. Writers
need shoulders broad enough to row upstream
against the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in order to cope with all these
friends, fans, factions, relatives, reviewers, editors, publicists, publishers,
distributors, and booksellers.
As Mario Vargas Llosa has observed, “What’s certain is that
literature does not
solve problems --instead it creates them -- and rather than happy, it makes
apt to be unhappy.”
Structure is another important element of writing.
I have chosen a chronological
basically, and interwoven it with flashbacks.
This allows me and my subject
matter to be fragmented -- grasping at any straw -- during the first third of my
happens during the grief process. During
the next third, certain energies -- such as happy
memories -- work to pull me and the book’s content back together into some
order. And in the final third,
nature’s cosmic energies transform everything into a greater,
whole. Essentially, mine is not a
book about grieving, but that metaphor did
help to establish overall structure.
“Style is the man himself,” it has been said.
What is your preferred writing style?
Is it you?
Frank advised, “Keep it simple.
And if he writes honestly from the heart, [an
work will eventually come to light. An
invisible and inaudible communication
between the written lines will be
established with the reader. This
is the mysterious secret
of all art.” Ernest Hemingway
strove for simple words used in the “right combination.”
strive for the simple, combined with a natural and spontaneous effect rooted in
and spiced with wry humor. It
surprises me that most reviewers have commented on my
writing. To Frank, honesty was a
basic tenet of writing, as it is to many other
authors, including myself. My
friend Mary Courter says, “I feel as if you’re right here
with me when I’m reading your book. It
sounds exactly like you, Barbara.”
Frank used to say, “I wish I could write like that!
So natural-sounding and easy-
going.” Of course, he never said
anything negative about anyone’s writing, so his
comments weren’t as helpful to me as the personal example he set.
Sounding natural in
tightened language is not easy. Somewhat
like doing a jigsaw puzzle, all writing is a
matter of moving the right words around until they fit the right places suiting
purpose. Some puzzles are harder
than others. I’d rank the natural
effect as medium-hard to achieve, since you gravitate toward what you do best.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry
influenced me toward this natural-sounding style where action, description,
dialogue, and hidden introspection are equal, while nature balances and
purifies. I have
taught Twain’s novel many times; it stands up to each rereading.
that all great modern American literature stems from this one book.
Nature, the cosmic, the unconscious, and silence are my muses, as they
Frank. A book could be written on
these four. To paraphrase myself,
contact with certain
hot spots of energy in nature expands one’s writing energy.
For me, one of these spaces
lies next to our house in the Sacred Aspen Grove containing Frank’s memorial
-- a granite
boulder and chair. Contact with
other masses of healthy trees usually produces similar
results, as does contact with good water, especially the ocean.
Or the earth in general.
Frank specifically initiated reciprocal energy with the sun.
I prefer the moon.
energies with the universe, the infinite, is the point here.
Silence leads one
into the universe as well as into the unconscious.
Tuning in to the infinite results in
renewal of all sorts and a truer perspective of our finite, everyday selves.
takes solitude and a certain degree of near primitive silence.
Too few of us allow ourselves
the luxury of lonely communion when “our inner mind hears the choir of
invisible forces,” as sculptor Malvina Hoffman expressed it. Snowy days, in particular,
make this happen for me. I am not a
cafe writer. Being snowed in gives
uninterrupted writing days when “invisible forces” can be heard as clearly
as is allowed.
We organized the Frank Waters Foundation in 1993 to preserve our bit of
wilderness land so others might share the strong spirit of place that Frank and
The motto of our nonprofiit organization is
“Sheltering the Creative
Spirit.” We do this literally by
encouraging creative persons to work on projects here
for two months
at a time from April through October. Inspirational writing, art, and
music workshops further this creative process during the summer and fall, as
Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award.
The majority of residents have tuned into the “invisible forces” and
work. Our only disappointments have
been one flatlander, one social butterfly, and a poet
allergic to the erotic aroma of New Mexico’s pungent sage. It is said by oldtimers that
Taos Sacred Mountain across from us spits out those who are not “pure of
attuned to this area’s heightened vibrations.
Here vibrations are discernibly higher than
those we sensed in Tucson, for instance. Dedicated
writers can practice their craft almost
anywhere, but some places impart more of a jump-start to creativity than do
may have been inspired by just such a piece of land as our fifteen acres
when he wrote that saved land is valuable no matter how few people come to know
year. “We simply need that wild
country available to us, even if we never do more than
drive to its edge and look in.”
Besides making contact with the deeper collective unconscious through
nature, before going to sleep at night one can alert other levels of the
unconscious to one’s
writing needs and intent for the next day.
Frank’s The Man Who Killed the Deer almost
wrote itself from the unconscious in this fashion, he said. Writers usually do not receive
such clear-cut assistance. If
sought out, though, the assistance is there, particularly if
grasped soon after waking when that cosmic “choir” still is whispering.
A bonus connected with this inner contact and growing awareness is
simultaneous outer contact
with matching happenings that enrich one’s writing.
Jung termed this phenomenon
“synchronicity.” It is neither
mere “coincidence” nor “New Age belief,” as a reviewer of
my book stated. To broaden
sales potential, in their catalog MacMurray and Beck
classified Celebrating the Coyote under four categories, which included
From my aged vantage point, being thought of as a “New Age” believer is
amusing as it is annoying.
Hemingway was right about journalism teaching one the discipline of
By meeting deadlines, writers are forced to put aside the luxury of writer’s
get to work. I keep one jump ahead
of the monster by getting up earlier than it does and
having a journalism degree. The
house needs to be in order -- not necessarily clean, the
animals and myself fed, the woodstoves fired up.
Then I jump into the writing quagmire,
often as not still in my granny nightgown and bare feet. When I emerge, the dogs
yapping for more food, the cat crying piteously, the horses neighing, my feet
fires out, and the house looking like a paper cyclone has struck.
First, I write by hand at Frank’s big rough-hewn writing table with a
view of our
aspens and a popular birdfeeder. Later
I turn to a laptop computer -- a godsend for
revision work -- with no view. Sometimes
I write snuggled close to the kitchen
woodstove, whose acrid-sweet perfume soon fires up all my senses.
Frank, too, did his writing immediately after a good breakfast, but fully
Poor eyesight forced him to sit at his writing table with his back to the light
Unlike many writers, he did not require a stimulating view to inspire him.
winter of 1976 when he rented an apartment in Tucson where I taught, it startled
find him typing before a blank wall each day.
Originally, he had written only by hand with
a red Parker fountain pen. His
sister burned all those handwritten manuscripts except one.
In 1956 he bought his Olivetti portable typewriter and used it ever after.
himself to type with two fingers of each hand and had a heavy touch, which the
demanded. His hands were
surprisingly clumsy and impatient when it came to repairs and
mundane matters. The computer and
Frank would never have become compadres, had he
ever deigned to look at one.
It is difficult to pull away from the siren song of writing.
It ensnares the mind and holds one captive, away from other
responsibilities. Proofreading and
light editing help to ease a writer from the depths of the creative right brain,
but it takes strenuous physical activity to break its stranglehold.
Woodchopping frees me the fastest, as it did Frank.
Horseback riding and outdoor sports help.
Waxing floors, washing windows, and shoveling manure can be resorted to,
if necessary. Socializing does it for some, perhaps in
more moderation than Hemingway chose.
“When socializing after writing,” Frank advised, “keep it to
yourself. Spill all your
story and it loses its energy. Back
at the typewriter you have no story.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” John Nichols argues.
“At an eastern college I
attended, wherever he went this guy named Alex ran off at the mouth about the
fantastic epic he was going to write. On and
on he’d go, detail after detail about this great family saga he was working on. It wore you
out listening to him. Well, to
one day he finished it. He called
All writers I’ve known or read about do agree upon one fact: they need
up the well” again after a draining day of writing. Socializing and just plain living help to
refill this psychic well. Traditionally,
reading the renewing words of others has refilled
the most wells. Frank was a great reader, as am I. We’ve never had television in our
Taos home, which helps. And we both
read widely from childhood onward. Frank’s
father, who died when his son was twelve, had given the boy a small leather
which to record titles of all the books he read.
His grandfather owned an extensive
metaphysical library that fascinated the thirteen-year-old after he moved into
grandparents’ home. These
important resources helped to develop Frank’s innate writing
ability, which was impacted by his desire to become someone other than a poor
from the wrong side of the tracks. He
did this by playing to his greatest strength: writing.
To relax his mind in later life, he consumed mysteries. He decided that Agatha Christie,
though dated, was the best mystery writer after all due to her adroit plots and
development, her rich descriptions and settings.
Frank said he wasn’t “clever enough” to write a mystery himself.
For reading more books than any of my peers during fall semester, at age
I got to hang the most paper ornaments on the Christmas tree of our public
Brookfield, Illinois. Each bore my
name beneath the title of a book I’d read.
It was a
heady honor. Nowdays, I habitually
read four or five books at once on every subject.
Seldom are they mysteries, which bring out a lack of character in me: one of the
things I do is peek at their endings.
Save heavy left-brain editing and rewriting for rainy days when your
brain is a sieve. If it is
congenitally that way, take up rafting instead.
Writing is a lot more
work, and not half so thrilling -- unless you develop writermaniacus, an
acute condition. It
is best then to kiss the Blarney Stone; impale your rejection slips on a
five-foot silver spike
as Jack London did; and ceaselessly chant the writer’s mystic mantra, “elbow
grease.” Such devotion has
its reward. St. Peter is sure to
at the golden gate with a red Parker fountain pen and a fervent plea for that
price, your autograph.
article first appeared in The Salt Journal, January/February, 2000,
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