Think of Your Muse as a Puppy

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

One of the difficult things about being a writer is having those days when you’re lacking inspiration, the words aren’t flowing, and you feel stuck. Pile enough days like that on top of one another and pretty soon you have the dreaded writer’s block. Ugh.

But that never has to happen to you…because you can train your muse to perform on command. The secret is to think of it like a puppy. You know — cute, rambunctious, frustrating and surprisingly teachable. Like a puppy, your muse only seems unmanageable. Here are some tips on how to get your creativity to show up when you need it.

5 Puppy-Training Basics for a Muse That Behaves

1. Develop desirable habits.

The secret to puppy training is getting your adorable fluffy friend to develop routine behaviors he can perform without even thinking. To help him develop good habits, repetition is key—doing the same thing over and over again. That’s the number one way to train your muse, too. Keep to a schedule; have a routine that works for you. Have certain “cues” that signal to your muse that it’s time to work: sit in a certain place, turn on certain music, get your favorite drink, whatever you need to do. Schedule + repetition = habit.

2. Have fun with it—make it a game.

Like a puppy, your muse loves to play. Throw your creativity a ball now and then by following writing prompts  (find new ones regularly here at Writers Digest). Take a break from your manuscript and entertain your muse by putting your main character in a completely different situation (outside your book) and writing their response. These kinds of activities are especially helpful on those “blah” days when your muse seems to have called in sick. It might show up if gets to play!


3. Be liberal with encouragement and rewards.

Punishment and harsh correction don’t work with puppies, and they won’t work with your creativity either. Be kind to yourself. Don’t berate yourself for unproductive days or crappy drafts. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to your puppy—in soothing tones. Give yourself little rewards for accomplishments. If you write a thousand words, treat yourself to a walk in the spring sunshine. Your muse might be  more motivated to appear if there’s the possibility of  a treat.

4. Keep training sessions short.

Puppies respond best to brief periods of training at regular times of day. You certainly can’t expect to keep their attention for several hours at a stretch. Similarly, don’t expect to sit down and write for eight hours at a time. Break it up into blocks, separated by other activities (like the above-mentioned rewards) for maximum productivity.

5. Expect mistakes

Your precious puppy is going to mess up sometimes, but rubbing his nose in it isn’t the answer. Similarly, you’ll have some unproductive work days, you’ll write some pages you have to throw away, you’ll get distracted reading blogs and waste your entire allotted writing time. It’s gonna happen. When it does, refer to #3 above and be kind to yourself. Then go back to #1 above and get back to your habit and routine. Don’t sweat it—tomorrow’s another day and you’ll get another chance. Ruminating on a bad day will only make it more likely to happen again.

How do you puppy-train your muse to behave?

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43 Responses

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  1. Excellent advice! As Dogfather to 27 (sigh) I can relate very, very well.

    I would add two suggestions –

    First, there are times when you have to be firm. A ‘mouthy’ puppy is cute, but a rebellious adult dog is not. A dog trained into self-discipline is happy and secure – a loose-cannon-canine is ultimately frustrated.

    If your muse rebels – say, against putting in the hours to develop craft – you have to take a stand, and be firm until the point’s made and the directive accepted – and then happily made a part of writing life.

    Second, puppies love pals. Having 27 dogs is a bit much, but most dog owners would agree that having two dogs gives canines the chance to relate on their own level.

    Likewise the muse – try to incorporate a second area of creativity in your life, one that’s pursued as a hobby. It could be creating awful sculptures or playing the violin in a way that engenders feline suicide, but having that second outlet will give your muse room to breathe – and to grow in ways that you never imagined.

  2. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Thanks Rachelle.

  3. Rachelle, Not being able to find a suitable flavored dog biscuit, I”m rewarding myself after every scene with Girl Scout cookies instead. (The Dulce de Leche ones are especially good). Thanks for some good advice.

  4. Kerith Stull says:

    Be consistent! Nothing works better than a routine and following consistent expectations!

  5. Joe Snoe says:

    Excellent advice. I need to follow it.(On reflection, I have done that instinctively on work-related projects; and on my manuscript during summers; but not so much when I have to juggle work and writing.)

  6. I loved this Rachelle. Very fun.

    I puppy train my muse to behave by showing up daily and working on something writing related. If my story isn’t flowing, I look for another aspect of my writing that I can work on and encourage my muse to get on board.

    When I’m really stuck, I brainstorm with a friend. This usually helps my muse to figure out the direction to go.

  7. Chapin Garner says:

    #1 is right on target. Like exercise…repetition and familiar rhythm can be the key to productivity and growth, providing the habits are truly helpful. As one who has to take care of all the kids pets at home, a puppy image for the writing craft doesn’t do it for me just now. It would be nice for someone else to clean up the mess every once in a while. 🙂 But good advice is always welcome. Thanks, Rachelle!

  8. If I carry the dog analogy further, I must go to the bathroom after every writing session. Or after every nap, playtime, feeding time, and walk. When we trained our puppy we always took them outside after every activity.
    Thankfully I can use our bathroom and I don’t have to go outside on the lawn.

  9. Jerry Seinfeld had a calendar that he marked with a big red X every day that he sat down and wrote. That visual cue of a chain of red x’s became important to him and he didn’t want to break the chain.
    Your red x might be based on thirty minutes, a thousand words, or a completed blog post. But it helps you to develop that habit of persistence. That along with patience and prayer = published.
    His habit fits right in with your “puppy training” principles. And look how it worked for him.

  10. Bev says:

    Great advice, as usual. As a newbie myself, I can so relate to the learning curve for the puppy. After watching The Puppy Love ad for Bud numerous times, I would ad – be curious, experience new adventures and have love to support and hold you if necessary.

  11. J.D. Maloy says:

    #3 has kept me sane. My reward is a dark chocolate and a walk while listening to music and then more dark chocolate since I exercised. #4 is key. I work briefly in the morning and then take a break for mommy duties and then work again at night when the dudes are sleeping. That routine has been working out beautifully for years now. Taking a break from our work is friggin’ helpful.

    Rachelle, I didn’t get to respond to your Monday’s post, but an online site I’m apart of is reading Lamott’s bird by bird together, and we just got done discussing chapter 3 last week. While you both chose different words in your title about the subject (hehe) you both are honest and correct. We writers need to give ourselves permission to write crapy/bad first drafts in order to find the good stuff.

    P.S– thin mints absolutely rock.

  12. Sue Harrison says:

    You are so creative, Rachelle. Thank you for these great tips in a post that made me laugh out loud!!

  13. Ron Estrada says:

    Cute. My muse thinks it’s time to play at 2am, so I have to be stern. I can’t remember who said it, but one of my favorite quotes is: “I only write when the muse hits me. And I make sure the muse hits me every morning at 8am.”

  14. Elissa says:

    I love this post! This analogy’s a perfect fit for me. Now I’ve got to go and reinforce some good habits in my muse. Then I’ll give her a treat and take her for a walk.

  15. We also have to pick up and discard the -er- excrement.

  16. Jessica Berg says:

    I love the puppy analogy. My problem isn’t my puppy muses, it’s my human puppies, 6, 3, and 6 months, that bark and whine for my time. If only I could train them as well as my muses!

    • Maria Polson Veres says:

      I know I’m jumping in late, but as another mom, I want to say that you’re doing a great thing for yourself AND your kids by taking time to write while they’re young. Your example will show them that creative work is important and necessary. When their own muses come calling, they’ll know how to honor that call. And having an outlet like writing will help keep you happy and sane through the frazzled-mom years! I started keeping a regular writing schedule when my daughter was 3. It was one of the best choices I ever made.

  17. Mark Noldy says:

    I think my puppy muse is still chewing the furniture and going potty on the floor… Thanks for the good advice.

  18. John Fields says:

    Puppies are somewhat unpredictable. I find it helpful to talk to myself kindly and firmly when distractions or disruptions occur–minimizing the reaction. The Psalmists did a bunch of self-talk. Sometimes, we can’t control the externals so we have to control ourselves.

  19. Puppy training can be, er, frustrating. Muse training too!

  20. This was great, Rachelle. Thank you! For #3, I pay myself a dollar every day that I write. Yes, it’s not much, but it goes toward a future writing conference and makes it more affordable when the time comes.

  21. Thank you, I needed this! Although my excuse for not writing lately is that I have been reading some books on writing craft that were suggested by an editor at a conference I attended last Spring. Those sources have helped tremendously and I am nearly ready to put pen to paper again. I’m sure your suggestions will help!

  22. Jessica Engle says:

    Thank you so much for your blog and advice, Rachelle! I can’t tell you how many times it is helped with whatever creative issue I am currently having. This one today especially since I tend to beat myself up while editing when I should also work on positive behavior. I love your advice!!!

  23. Sarah Grimm says:

    Awesome advice. As a writer and a professional dog trainer, I LOVE the analogy!

  24. Earlene Luke says:

    I am already an avid reader of your posts but I wanted to comment on the “puppy training for writing” and not surprised by it, but a little embarrassed as I’ve been a dog owner/lover/exhibitor/trainer since the age of six and am now 82 and never once thought of Ms Muse(who lives in the cellar among stacks of boxes filled with unfinished MSs)as being in need of “puppy training”! But I’ll be darned if it doesn’t make sense!!

  25. Jerusha says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Rachelle! What an encouraging and fun way to look at the dreaded writer’s block. I really needed this one right now. I’m good at being patient with puppies, but not so much my lack of creativity. I’ll try using more positive reinforcement and less harsh berating. Thanks!

  26. Tracey Giffin says:

    I agree with Andrew’s point about finding another creative outlet in which to play. Many writers are completely right brain-people. Maybe it’s music, sketching, painting, or gardening- some passion. Creating something else often fuels my muse. Digging in dirt for hours in the morning and planting, weeding, or mulching gives my brain time to ruminate. And what better place to do so but surrounded by nature in all her glory. Dew drenched spider webs, the smell of an iris or early rose, the sounds of birds and insects, and the feel of the sun on my face all serve as inspiration. After a shower and a glass of iced tea, my muse and I gather up the laptop and two cuddly dogs and unleash all those ideas that had been forming that morning.

  27. Love these tips! What a great way to put everything. Having trained a couple of pups myself, I get exactly what you mean by not overworking or over punishing. Now to find some treats…