Learn How to Jam

Mastering the Mud & Muck of the Writing Adventure


No. 156 | By Christine Carron

One of my favorite poems is To Be of Use by Marge Piercy*. The poem starts with a simple declaration—The people I love the best / jump into work head first. The poem pays homage to the very human yearning for work “that is real.” 

I’ve always found the imagery in the second stanza striking.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, 

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, 

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

Most writers I meet are of this ilk, absolutely willing to do what it takes to move their writing dreams forward. What I’ve found, however, is that same group of committed writers—me included—often carry romantic notions about what constitutes “real” writerly work. 

Those definitions, though delicious and inspiring, can end up making it harder for us to make the progress we want to make on the writing adventure. That means we end up pulling and straining more than is actually necessary, unable to effectively tackle the more mundane aspects of the writing life.

A Romantic Version of “Real” Writerly Work

What is your romantic notion of what it means to be a real writer? Mine has serious Little Women vibes. I’m a modern day facsimile of Jo March. I write in a charming garret, a tufted quilt around my shoulders, ink stains on my fingers. 

Books are scattered here and there in charming abandon and fill the bookshelves around me. A fire crackles off to the side. Outside the dormer window in front of my desk, snow perpetually falls over a quaint Concord-esque landscape. 

My tea is always hot and fresh. Occasionally I stop—pausing the flow of gorgeous sentences that effortlessly spring from my head and heart—to wrap my hands around that cup of steaming warmth and ponder how blessed I am to live such a life of harmonious and unhindered creative flow.

Oh, that vision is so yummy, I just want to give it some space to breathe. 

. . .     . . .      . . .

I suspect your version of the perfect writing life brings you the same sense of wonder and inspiration. These visions are deeply precious. And I mean that in the real sense of the word, not some warped Golem “My Precious” weirdness. 

We must cherish these images. They absolutely fuel us and help us stay the course.

We also, however, have to balance them with a healthy dose of reality. We have to be willing to tackle—and learn how to tackle effectively—the mundanities of the writing adventure. Or more poetically, to borrow Piercy’s language, we have to manage the “mud and muck” work of the writing adventure, too.

Defining the Mud and Muck 

My Little Women inspired dream writerly life has serious reality flaws. Who is tending the fire? Why is it snowing even in summer? Who is making the tea? What happened to my inner critic? Or the creative doubts and worries that I definitely have to manage in the real world.

Do I ever eat? Sleep? Plan my novels? I just seem to be constantly producing in my dream writing world, which actually feels a bit stressful. When do I get to slow down and think about what I want to write? Daydream? Imagine? 

How are competing priorities handled? What if a friend needs help or work gets chaotic? How do I make money from this snow-bound garret?

Do I ever go to a writing conference? Meet with other writers to share critiques or create camaraderie? How about organizing my files? Or managing my research? Or taking my laptop to get serviced? And even Jo March had to go pitch her novels. My brain conveniently edited out the entire business side of the writing adventure in my dream world.

The “mud and muck” of the writing adventure is all that and more. Anything from taking care of your health and well-being, to keeping yourself and your writing organized, to knowing how to plan and manage your work, to creating community, to having funds to pay the bills, to figuring out how to get your work out into the world and into the hands of your readers . . . . The list could go on.

If we do not embrace such work as real writerly work and do what needs to be done to manage it, we absolutely end up making the writing adventure harder. 

The whole reason I started Goodjelly was to help writers jam with the full scope of real writerly work, including all these “mud and muck” bits. Why?

Because mastering the mud and muck is the path to steady creative flow. 

The Mud and Muck: Dana’s Experience

Dana Cattani was the very first writer to say yes to learning how to jam with her writing Goodjelly-style. (Wahoo, Dana!) Here is her description of the power of mastering the mud and muck:

“Writing seems like an elegant act. I imagine a writer sitting at a comfortable desk with a gracious pen or typing full-blown sentences into a sleek computer in a coffee house. The elegance includes silence and deep thoughts and the precise order and words that will rock the world.

For me, the mud and muck of writing is not like that. It’s post-it notes, sit-in-chair time, word counts, schedules, and calendars. It’s making room for my inner critic and also giving her boundaries. It’s small tasks and frequent celebrations. It’s kindness.

These things are to writing what clean dish towels and measuring spoons and a backup box of baking soda are to cooking: the tools that let you move forward with as much grace and ease as possible. By the time the dinner guests arrive, the towels will be in the laundry basket and the spoons in the dishwasher. The baking soda will be back at its post in the spice cupboard, whether used this time or not. The soufflé or soup or cookies will appear on the table as if by magic. From nowhere. Without effort.

Like a book on a shelf.”

Magic Out Of Nowhere

Managing the mud and muck work of your writing adventure is how you create flow that feels like "magic out of nowhere." You shift from railing against the mundane aspects of your writing work to rocking them. When that happens, your writing adventure aligns in a felt sense with what I believe is beneath every dream version of a writing life: greater ease, flow, confidence and delight. 

(No perpetual snow or tufted quilts required.)

The full poem: To Be of Use by Marge Piercy. 

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