Writing, Procrastination, and the Muse: Thoughts from a Millennial

by Lillian Augspurger

Lillian Augspurger

In the moment of writing this, less than twenty-four hours before a deadline, I remember distinctly a story my French professor told us about one of France’s greatest literary minds, Honoré de Balzac. In an era when making a living as an author often entailed writing a chapter or two a week to be printed in the newspapers, Balzac suffered from a deplorable case of procrastination and perfectionism. It was common for Balzac to rush in early in the morning that the papers were to be printed with a hastily-penned chapter, to the sighs of relief of the press.

“For God’s sakes,” the poor printer would say as he tried to read the chicken-scratch and set the blocks on the press. “Why couldn’t you have given this to us last night?”

As a college student working a part-time job washing dishes in addition to an internship, I could create innumerable excuses if I were in Balzac’s position, including but not limited to:

1)    “I had to read two hundred pages of Madame Bovary in two days; I’m a slow reader and I didn’t want to use Spark Notes on this one. It’s one of the formative realist novels, after all.”
2)    “The restaurant closes at nine, right? So this guy walks in at eight fifty-five and orders a sit-down meal…do you know how much that messes up the closing schedule for the dish pit? [Insert thirty-minute rant here]”
3)    “Listen, editing when you constantly have to look up when to use commas versus semi-colons, despite being an English speaker, is so time-consuming. Yes, I know this is the profession I want to pursue. No, I don’t care. I still love it.”

And, possibly my favorite:

4)    “I just wasn’t feeling it. The Muse wasn’t there.”

Ah, the ever-dreaded muse. That inexplicable flash of inspiration that decides to strike at the least convenient times. Ideas occur while scrubbing sauté pans and vanish as soon as I walk in my apartment. Halfway through a lecture on Romanticism I decide to switch the opera in my novel from Lucia di Lammermoor to Faust; I forget for nearly a month. Thankfully it’s a feeling I share with my fellow writers. Whenever my friends and I talk about our writing, the conversation usually always starts, “Well, I haven’t actually written anything in about two months, but I have lots of ideas.”

Divine inspiration aside, I do have a reliable muse: my partner, Kinsey, also a writer. On a twelve-hour car ride to New York, Kinsey noticed I’d stopped writing in my notebook after about five nearly-illegible sentences. I told her I’d been struck with an urge to get back into my almost abandoned novel, but that I had too many ideas and even half of them couldn’t logically work together.

“Ok,” she said. “Why don’t we work through it?”

Two hours later, a nebulous mass of ideas had transformed into a decent plot outline for a murder mystery, complete with red herrings and character development. Who knew that talking about a plot with another writer could actually solve so many problems?

It’s probably safe to say that ninety-nine out of one hundred writers would love to talk to anyone who would listen about their works—poems, short stories, novels, plays. I’m particularly lucky in the fact that I live with another writer. I get to hear brilliant ideas even before they’re written down; I get to watch the process of outlining and writing and revising and revising and revising. I get to talk about my own work and receive feedback that’s more than just, “That’s wonderful!” (Which, while always nice to hear, isn’t always helpful.) I read her work and am inspired to write more. I’m reminded of why I’ve devoted my life to a field that takes so much energy, courage, and dedication.

Writers are each other’s muses. Who else knows the heartbreak of rejection better than a fellow writer? Who else knows how crushing it is to go for months without writing anything for yourself? Community has always been central to writing; it’s literally the sharing of ideas through the written word. If a writer asks if they can talk about their work with you, don’t you dare say no. Even if they’re writing a thousand-page dissertation on the importance of micro bacteria in deep sea trenches and that bores you to tears, listen to them. Watch how excited they get. That alone should be worth the forty-five minutes. If they really trust you, it’ll be close to two hours.

Supposedly, Balzac wrote at ridiculously early hours of the morning, living only on strong coffee and the pressure of knowing that his work had to be in its final form in a few short hours. I can relate. I’m sure other workers and students know the pressure of trying to write just one more chapter before heading off to the six-o’clock shift or that early morning stats class. It’s all-too-tempting to just say, “I’d rather have thirty more minutes of sleep than a few hundred more words of this book that’s going nowhere.” (Read: This is something I’ve done several times.)

Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about my writing though, it makes those thirty minutes of lost sleep worth it. I’m reminded of how much it all means to me, and I tell myself that even if the novel “goes nowhere,” I’ll be able to say that I finally finished it.

So writers, especially those who are balancing writing with jobs, school, and/or family: be each others’ muses, look out for each other, and whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

Lillian Augspurger has been thrilled to serve as the UNC Asheville intern to The Great Smokies Review for the past year. Born in Raleigh and currently residing in Asheville, she often finds herself reading and writing about nineteenth-century Paris. She is majoring in Creative Writing and French, and hopes to pursue a career in editing. [See her novel excerpt, this issue.]