On Writing

“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

-Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet I, 1591

I came across the above line while researching my novel on Anne Shakespeare. To me, it embodies everything there is to say about the art and craft of writing and the divine insanity of pursuing it as your life’s work.


Being a writer of fiction is an unpredictable and often discouraging journey that no one in their right mind should undertake. You will subject yourself to constant and sometimes hurtful rejections. You will pay a lot of dues and not take home a lot of paychecks. Most frustrating of all, you may write all day and still have only one good paragraph to show for it.

Why write then?

Because the creative process is tremendously exhilarating.

Because one life isn’t enough; like an actor you can live a thousand lives through the characters you create.

Because writing has the power to move people to think and feel something they may never have experienced before.

Because a novel is a wonderful thing.

Because you can’t help it.

Fortunately, writers—and true artists of any sort—are not in their right mind. They firmly believe that what they are writing is so wondrous, vital and unique that the world will stop, astounded, and gape at the beauty and wisdom leaping from each page. It is a delusion, but what a delightful one. The day you don’t feel this way about your art is the day you should quit.

Said my Muse to me

For anyone pursuing a passion, there seems to come a moment where something other than our conscious mind takes over and leads the way. I have heard other writers refer to it as “channeling.” Athletes speak of being “in the zone.” Yoda would call it “The Force.” It’s like being lifted up and carried on a flying carpet, and when it happens you gladly give yourself up to the ride.

I believe in listening to your muse. At first, it may be just a whisper in your ear urging you to put pen to paper, brush to canvas, fingers to the piano keys. To refuse the call because it’s impractical and unlikely to earn you a living is no excuse; there are plenty of other ways to make money and still heed the muse. To shy away because you’re unsure you possess the necessary talent is easily resolved; you’ll find out soon enough. To plead that you have no time is unacceptable; stop reading my website now and go write.

Because if you don’t listen to your muse, if you don’t try, you’ll never get on that magic carpet for the most exciting ride of your life.

Look in thy heart

Years ago, when I started writing fiction, I subscribed to a monthly writers’ magazine and for a solid year I read it cover to cover. I studied the advice for outlining a story, creating memorable characters and structuring a dynamic plot. Many of these expert tips made perfectly good sense.

Yet when an idea grabbed me and I sat down to write, everything I had read vanished from my brain in a puff. All I cared about was the story spilling onto the paper, the characters talking in my head, the tumult of emotions as they lived out their tales.

That same magazine would have told me, following the publication of my first novel, to immediately write a second historical to build a reputation in that genre. Instead, I wrote a contemporary novel about birders and artists, then the wedding novel, then the Shakespeare historical.

In pursuing this zigzag path, I was listening to my muse but even more to my own heart. I don’t ever want to write—or read—the same thing twice. I am interested in only one genre—good writing—and would still love to write a sci fi or fantasy novel, a highbrow literary and a rip-roaring adventure tale. I need, above all, to be challenged and to grow by what I write.

This is extremely selfish, and I definitely don’t recommend it as a road to commercial success.

But for me, it’s honest, and I can’t think of any good book that’s not.

And write

This is what it comes down to, when the first blush of inspiration has passed, and you are forced to make the book work. You write and rewrite. You research. You add, delete and redefine characters. You dissect and reassemble the plot. You solicit and wrestle with feedback. You rearrange paragraphs, shift sentences, strike out verbiage. Then you do it again. And again. And again.

This is what separates the serious writers from the amateurs, where everything we know about our craft gets summoned up and put to the test. I believe a writer should be a professional down to the last period on the last page. Learn the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Check and double-check every fact. You will still make mistakes. But if you don’t love this enough to do your utmost to get it right, how can you take pride in your work?

So, Fool, listen to your muse, look in your heart and get on with it.

And don’t worry that your ego will over-inflate. The critics will take care of that.