In Defense of the Muse

The Kiss of the Muse by Paul Cezanne
The Kiss of the Muse by Paul Cezanne

 

A few days ago, Freshly Pressed shared a fantastic post by a writer named L.C. Spoering which began “let’s talk about muses…Or not. Because that’s just stupid.”

You can read it here.

I read her post several times, not only for the topic, but the quality of the prose. How I wish I could write so concisely. I can’t. And I’m here today to do the stupid. I am here to defend the muse.

The concept of the muse and what it means to art (and storytelling in particular) is one of the most important conversations we can have about how the craft of creating stories has been passed down to us through the ages.  We should be careful not to throw the muse out with the proverbial bathwater just because we believe ourselves more logical than our forefathers. What would we be without the historical significance the muse has had on the act of making stories?  We would have no Odyssey, no Divine Comedy, no Annie Hall. Not to be biased against my own sex, Virginia Woolf fought this erotic but safely heterosexual bond between poet and muse. She denounced women who wished to write being told they must have male muses to torment and intimidate them. She called instead for female writers to look back to the women who mothered them both in life and literature.

In my defense of the muse (and therefor inspiration) and the inextricable link to the craft of telling stories, I venture to disagree even with Virginia Woolf. The muse is sexless sex. The muse turns you on by being everything you never knew you wanted. The muse strips you down, forces you to stand naked and makes you write your own shame into a story you started working on because you think you like dogs.  The muse knows the best words you will ever string together are the ones you hope your mother and your ex never read. The muse never touches any artist who sits and waits for inspiration to strike. The muse only uses pack animals unafraid to strap all the luggage on their backs and show up to climb the mountain every day. The muse is the path and the guide to the top, where you either find a majestic view or another mountain to climb.

In other words, I would argue that it isn’t inspiration VERSUS sit down and work. It’s sit down and work FOR inspiration. The second will never happen without the first.

Is it divine? No, not the wear your Sunday best kind of divine. It is the zone of an athlete, the Ole of a dancer, the intuition of a mother. It is Lois Lowry transforming her father’s dementia into The Giver, Dante expressing unrequited love in The Inferno, Shakespeare having the audacity to invent words we now take for granted because he saw what others did not…that there was a way to say it better.

I was once at a writing conference and the prolific Jane Yolen was stationed at the table next to me. A young author lamented that she was afraid to think outside the analogy box because she wasn’t sure she was as yet artistically worthy of knowing when she had gone too far.

“That’s the imposter complex,” Jane Yolen responded. “We all have it. If I’d listened to mine, I’d never have likened snow to a bowl of milk in Owl Moon.”

The muse is not a waifish, half clad woman who whimsically whispers creativity into the ears of worthy men, but if it helps you to see it that way, if it needs to be personified for you to get to work, have at it! The muse is a psychological safety net beneath our sense of self when we step into our imaginations. It is a way to navigate the mental chatter of our own brains. The chatter that hisses, “Imposter, how could you write that? How dare you?”

The act of stringing words together in a way that shifts a world from our own heads into someone else’s is a very, very hard job. It can feel like a sacrifice at the altar of all we consider sane in modern western society. Internationally bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert has pointed out that creating stories has killed some of our most talented minds. We should look at that, and we should not be ok with it. Ms. Gilbert sees the muse as a “psychological construct…a safe distance between me as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be…”

Is it dangerous to see the process of creating something out of nothing as evolved and elevated? Hell yes! People don’t open books to immerse their minds in someone else’s safely lived life. May it always be dangerous. Destructive to the status quo. A revolution against the easy and complacent. That is the job of writing. But may it not be destructive to you the pack animal who toiled away day in and day out for one glimpse of the view. May the muse wait at the door, and hang onto your wild, gypsy self when it is time to return to the real world where the dishes did not get done and your family will be eating sandwiches for dinner the third day in a row because you lost track of the time.

Inspiration is not a religious experience. It is the grail within the quest. Sit down and write every day is the religious experience. It requires faith that this time spent trying to share something that only exists inside of us…the toil and the doubt and the rejection and the perseverance…somehow it will matter. We are not the guy who sent the flood, but we are the guy who smelled rain and built the boat.

I leave you with one more quote by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, ‘Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. OK? But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

All the best to you in your silent toil. All the best to your inspiration. Now sit down and write.

Watch Elizabeth Gilbert: your elusive, creative genius on TED 

 

 

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The Center for Fiction

The Center for Fiction 17 East 47 Street, New York, NY
The Center for Fiction 17 East 47 Street, New York, NY

On my last day in New York City, I decided to make a pilgrimage to a bookstore I visited last year. I walked until my feet were blistered, but I could not retrace my steps back to that little bit of nostalgia. I wandered off in a different direction instead. It started to rain. The wind pressed against me, but I’m not one to let weather ruin a chance to wander through any city.

I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Nestled amongst a nondescript row of office buildings, a burgundy banner waved in the wind heralding  The Center for Fiction, located at 17 East 47 Street. Whether you are a writer or passionate about the written word, here is a warm and welcoming place for all lovers of story.

I was wet and cold and the word fiction makes my heart beat faster. The combination of warmth and a center dedicated to my favorite word was more than I could resist. I was not disappointed. The Center for Fiction is not large, but it manages to be at once a library, a bookstore, a quiet space for authors to work, and a location of great literary events. So good to find a little corner of the world still celebrating, maintaining and supporting the advancement of the art of telling stories.

The Center for Fiction

The staff was very friendly. The girl working behind the desk chatted with me for a long time about their section dedicated to translations of European authors who are still relatively unknown, at least in the States (and most especially to me). I ended up walking away with a lovely gem of a book, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. I might never have discovered such a good read on my own. That in itself was worth getting lost in the rain, but I also managed to walk away with a pile of used books that came to a total of $10.

The Center for Fiction is open to the public, but it is also one of the few membership libraries still in operation in the United States. The benefits of membership include attendance at events with free or discount admission, reading discussion groups, access to their lending library of over 85,000 titles as well as discounts at their bookstore. Above all, membership supports an independent, not for profit organization dedicated to keeping the written word alive and well.

If you find yourself in mid-town Manhattan, leave your friends at the souvenir shop and stop by The Center for Fiction for a gift of good books and memories that are just as much a part of the city as another tiny replica of the Empire State Building (and yes, I bought my children tiny replicas of the Empire State Building too).

For more information on The Center for Fiction, visit their website: www.centerforfiction.org

The Old Italian Woman

The Old Italian Woman, Edgar Degas, 1857
The Old Italian Woman, Edgar Degas, 1857

What became these days
Here behind frosted glass
Here where patience still won’t answer
And my children echo on yellow walls
This living down to threadbare rugs
This hope to tease despair
To turn a longing into song
There was the smell of sun warmed grass
There was a drink of sea worn tears
The flavor of a kiss I never tasted
Those broken words
Those nightingales turned to larks
Old letters turned to an old man’s scars
What stumbling
What chance breath
Became these days

 

Angie Flanagan

The Annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference in New York

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The day before I left home for the SCBWI Winter Conference, I was touched by a little bit of literary magic. Finding myself with a free afternoon, I went to browse my favorite little bookstore. On one of the shelves, What I Was by Meg Rosoff caught my eye. I didn’t know much about this book, but the quality of the prose caught me immediately. So I bought it.

My actual voyage to New York happened in fits of flights and delays and hours waiting on cold, dark tarmacs. I doubt anyone has had a more dehumanizing, bumpy, travel sick trip to New York since my peasant ancestors landed on Ellis Island by tall ship.

When I finally settled in at the hotel, I opened up my conference schedule and discovered that one of the main speakers at the Friday Novel Intensive was none other than Meg Rosoff. This was the moment I took to be a spark literary magic, a bit of serendipity, a promise that the long haul to get there would soon be rewarded. I was not disappointed.

If you love the writing, telling or reading of stories and you ever have the chance to hear Meg Rosoff speak, do not miss it. She is brilliant, warm and giving. She spoke about the challenges of plot. It might seem obvious that if three people were given the same plot and asked to write about it, three very different stories would emerge from the assignment. What Meg got me thinking about more deeply is that I am, at heart, all of my characters. Not just the obvious protagonist. The other supporting characters, the ones I think are based on the girl I hated in third grade or the boy I loved at twenty are all my projections of myself. My unique experiences. That’s my plot. As I write it now, it sounds more Freudian than when Meg Rosoff was speaking. Read her books. Read about her. She is an inspiration.

“What is the difference between an artist and a craftsman?” Mo Willems asked during his closing keynote address. I think this question sums up the lessons on craft that I took with me from the conference this year. Mathew Kirby planting the seed of inciting events both internally and externally, coming to a climax and then meeting to find resolution. Margaret Peterson Haddix shaping and reshaping a story through research. And of course, the legendary Jane Yolen with her infectious joy of language.  She not only opened up my understanding of landscape as a living, breathing character, but how it can be molded and shaped to affect the rhythm, texture and emotion of my stories.

The highlights of my weekend were Shaun Tan and 2002 Newberry Award Winner Linda Sue Park. Both of these authors tell stories lyrically but concisely, and in the case of Shaun Tan with hardly any words at all. Shaun Tan weaves images of ordinary life into the surreal. His pages are full of pictures, but he makes it as simple as possible so the reader can take their own journey. Linda Sue Park uses nouns sparingly and makes certain that they are woven throughout her story, never appearing just once.

I’ve come home revitalized and ready to write, as I always do from SCBWI events. This organization has brought such value to my work. To learn more about the SCBWI, visit their website: http://www.scbwi.org/

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