Wooing the Muses

In the hours and days after I finish writing a piece of which I am proud I do my best to try to re-create the experience: I drink the same tea, I use the same pen, I listen to the same music.  But I cannot produce the same result.  It’s as if for those few hours, sitting in the same old chair at the same old desk, I was somehow not there at all but inhabiting another plane, where the Muses reside.  And I had absolutely no idea.  I should know by now what is happening, but these women whisper, they tiptoe, and the sound of their gossamer gowns in my untrained ears is still faint.  They sweep around my mind, pale as shadows, clearing my mind of dust, of cobwebs, of trite phrases that seem to tumble out of me like so much petty banter.  I only realize what has happened hours, days, later and I somehow have the peace of mind to say thank you, please come back, as I sweat out lousy, flimsy sentences.

These days, I am learning to be present in case they show up, but I am shocked by how ordinary the experience is, which must be why I think I can find it again.  Somewhere in my mind their dwelling place exists.  I know because I’ve seen the outlines of Moorish carvings, delicate as spiders’ webs, and heard the soft crunch of pea gravel underfoot in the Alhambra’s gardens, where the Muses of my imagination reside.  But I am not nearly as serene.  I skitter around, banging on doors, pleading with them and myself: if I could only focus, stop checking my email, put pen to paper dammit, I might make room for the whispering to begin again.  I have learned a few tricks to ignite their curiosity: the Muses will pull back the curtains when they see me reading, even peek their heads out when I do the hard work of showing not telling, or when I write about something that makes me smile, or laugh, or even quiver with anger.  But — there’s still no guarantee.

I know it’s the catchphrase of every creative endeavor, but it’s true: I have to show up.  I have to show up and write, mostly crap if that’s what it takes.  I endure the frustration of sitting down every day, for days on end, sometimes even weeks, to write junk.  I’m not perfect and I’m not happy about it.

I am paying people to watch my kids so I can write, and this is the garbage I come up with?  I’ve been working on this craft for five years and I still can’t do any better than this drivel?

Like I said, it’s demoralizing (but I believe in being honest about how difficult the creative process can be).  But it’s what you have to do, and I suppose this is what I signed up for.  Because when you get that little touch, that numinous moment, you know you would sit for years waiting for them to return.  Thankfully, the writing life is not that cruel.  The more you sit, the more they speak.


7 thoughts on “Wooing the Muses”

  1. Penny, I heard a fantastic lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert in April (actually her last public lecture on “Eat, Pray, Love” plus leading into her follow-up book “Committed”) about the pressure she put on herself to write the next book. Because really, how can you follow up such a remarkable success as “Eat, Pray, Love” was, especially since the vast majority of the success was, as she put it, accidental.

    She told us that the only thing she has been good at is writing, but years and years of hard work went into that with many more failures that successes, including that no one knows that she published two books before “Eat, Pray, Love.” But what drew me in to her story was that she had written 500 pages for her next book, and on the day of her deadline threw it all away. She wrote her editor and said that she had nothing to give him, that it wasn’t for a lack of effort, but she had 500 “pages of crap” and it wasn’t good enough for them to even consider.

    She talked about walking away from writing, the only thing that ever worked for her, for 6 months and simply gardened, and at some moment in the fall near the end of the harvest, “it” came back, and she raced inside and began writing again; the result was “Committed” (which I plan to read soon).

    I wish we all had the luxury of 6 months of not doing our craft, but despite that, I have similar notions when I’m doing something completely different than the inspiration returns, and I work like crazy to get it down. And that’s what keeps me going.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s good to read other examples.

    1. I love that, Tim. Especially that she gardened. And that she abandoned the harvest so she could harvest the interior fruit.

      I’ve also read that people do the dishes, or go for walks, or do something similarly physical that has a measurable result. It’s good to know it’s okay to leave the desk sometimes. Thanks for the reminder. And good luck on your writing!

      1. Not to plug Elizabeth Gilbert too much, but she had a fascinating TED talk on the idea of genius/inspiration. When you have 20 minutes or so, it’s worth the watch/listen. Cheers!

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