The Writer’s Muse

My boyfriend and I go to Tom Shadyac’s class lectures at Pepperdine with a few friends every week. Although the class has about a 20-student limit, Tom’s lectures fill up so much the school has to give him an auditorium to fit the 200 or so people who visit each week. He has guest speakers each class talk about doing good in the world or about how best to inspire and take care of yourself. One week he showed us Touching the Void, which is about two climbers who decided on a whim to climb the insurmountable west face of the Siula Grande in the Andes because hey, why not? It’s a hard-to-watch film about human triumph in the face of all the terrible things that make me never want to go climbing. Seriously, I can barely stand to look out my second story bedroom window without getting vertigo.

Tom showed us the film because it has very clearly all the makings of good storytelling, mostly that part about where you’re supposed to make your characters suffer every step of their journey.

This past week though, I skipped out on Tom’s class to stay in and slam my head into the desk write. I’ve started working on the second draft. It makes me miss working on the first draft. I hadn’t expected rewrites to be so difficult. It’s like when you go on a road trip and the time’s flying by, you’re chatting it up with friends and singing to your favorite tunes… and then it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and suddenly you’re sick of all the music on your iPod and your friends’ voices grate your nerves. You’re tired, hungry, and sick of starring down the long stretch of road with God knows how many more miles to the next motel. I love my story, I know it’s something I have to write or forever be haunted by, but I’ve been going over the plot of the first draft over and over trying to fill the gaps and fleshing out my characters, but all I can feel is annoyed at the fact that I’ve only gone through and rewritten X amount of pages.

So this past week I decided to do a complete plot summary. I’m not the type to map things out, but I hit a brick wall around page 20 or so and figured it couldn’t hurt. It took 8 single-space pages to get the whole book summarized. I don’t think I could have done it before my first draft. I hate outlines and this is seriously the first time I’ve ever written one out on my own. But doing so helped me fill in a couple gaps and let me understand my villain better. I’m even considering writing a few chapters from his POV because I’m a bit taken by his personal journey.

While I was working on this summary though, Tom was showing the class a TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert, the writer of Eat, Pray, Love. She explains how some cultures believed artists were mediums through which the divine spoke, as though our art was not really our art at all. Her discussion about the muse however, I guess the Western version of the this whole divine-being-speaking-through-us-thing, was what really stuck with me.

She says Pulitzer prize winning poet Ruth Stone described her muse as a thunderous train of air, as though she could hear a poem barreling toward her. And that if she didn’t get to a pen and paper in time to catch it, it would pass through her and leave her uninspired until the next time it would find her. But if she caught it she says, she would have a new poem, as if poetry were a kind of thing to catch and wait for.

Her concept of the muse, this sort of being that passes through the plains and fills us with inspiration is beautiful but somewhat misleading. I’ve had moments where I want to write but can’t seem to think of anything good. I’ll attribute it to the absence of my muse. But it’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? To attribute our failures to something other than ourselves?

Elizabeth describes her writing as plowing. She compares herself to a mule and says the only way to find her muse is to cultivate it herself. I read once, and I wish I could remember where, that the only way we can find our muse is to work for it. We can’t be inspired unless we open ourselves to inspiration and make an effort to be inspired. Whether it’s lying in bed listening to music, watching movies in our favorite genre, reading or toiling away at our computer, our muse can’t visit us unless we leave the front door open. We can’t really sit around and wait for it to come to us. We have to work while we wait, lest the seconds pass by like hours and we lose the will to write. You might say the muse is like a friend who rarely shows up to the party.

But we can’t rely on it either. We can’t plan on it coming to visit. We have to be able to write and work without it because how can we communicate all the beautiful things the muse will show us if we don’t have the words or endurance to write it all down? I can’t really pinpoint the moment The Manifest was born. I remember lying in bed in Calabasas listening to The Killer’s “Goodnight, Travel Well,” and an idea which lead to another idea which lead to another idea which lead to The Manifest came to me.  But before that, I had been writing a lot and listening to music all the time locked up in my bedroom. And after that, I still had to work from point A to B to C on my own. The muse came to me but all that time I had been writing and working on different projects and still had to work to decipher whatever it was the muse brought me that night.

I still remember the scene, too: A boy and girl are making love in an abandoned train car beside a tree under the pale blue moon. The girl kisses the boy, who is pressed up against the open door, and she reaches out with her hand and penetrates his chest. He’s scared because he knows she’s taking something very precious from him but he’s excited, too. She pulls out a glinting gold key from inside him and presses it to her chest.

I don’t mean to sound like I know everything about writing, like I’m a success. But I know that yearning for an idea, for inspiration, and I know the satisfaction in finding a story I love. And even if all the work I’m doing is for something that will fail, I know I’ll still be happy to have found it.

And this is how I did it: I didn’t let myself believe the muse was ever coming.

We as writers can’t wait for something to hit us. We can’t wait for that moment when we feel ready to sit down and write. We have to stop ourselves from thinking something is coming to save us from ourselves, from whatever it is that ties us to our thoughts and keeps us from working. We have to do the dirty work so if the muse does come to us we’re ready to take it and work with it.

Writing is a painful farming where the soil changes from day to day. One day it can be fertile and flourishing and then dry and dead the next. We can work months on something, watching the stalks of our labor flourish and then, wake up one morning to find it all dead.

But we can’t quit. We’re writers after all, we’ll die without the art. But whether the muse exists or not, whether you choose to believe in it we can’t rely on it. We can’t wait for it. We have to learn to be artists without it by getting on our hands and knees to plant any seed we think will grow.

I think the muse makes everything too easy; it’s a cop-out for when we’re too lazy to just sit down and write. And when it does come to us it steals all the credit, like we didn’t spend all those hours trying to find a story we wanted to write. Yet it’s something beautiful, too. It gives me hope that at any moment I may struck by something beautiful. And it’s an antagonist when I can’t get the words down, like sometimes it’s evil and weighs down on me like a dark cloud. Sometimes I imagine it stitches knots into my shoulders or presses against my chest so I can’t breathe. It tells me I’m a terrible writer. But then other times it’s soft and sweet and will whisper beautiful characters and scenes into my ear.

And even if the muse exists, it’s still up to us to write, isn’t it? The muse needs us; it will die if we abandon our work. I think we’ve convinced ourselves to the contrary–that without the muse we’re hopeless. Or at least, that’s what I like to think.

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