I’d just come home from a wedding in Chicago when my friend, about to give birth to her eighth baby, sent me a message that she had contractions pretty regularly. If I wanted to be there to photograph the birth, I might want to come hang out.
There were a million reasons not to go. I’d already been up late at the reception the night before. We’d just rescued a one pound kitten off the highway. Leaving meant my husband and children were saddled with the responsibility of our new ward. I let the excuses swim around in my head a bit and then texted her back:
“I’m on my way.”
The truth is, my biggest reservation was fear. While I’d had my own natural childbirths, one in the water with the assistance of a midwife, they were both in the hospital where I was left alone unless emergency assistance was needed. None of that would be present at my friend’s house. Saying yes meant setting aside my own fear to give her the space she needed to bring a life into this world.
The birth took place in her back yard on a cool summer night inside a pagoda lined with delicate fairy lights and lanterns. Most of the ground inside was taken up with a large pool that her oldest daughter filled with pots of warm water. She carried these pots one by one to her mother, and I couldn’t help thinking of her as a kind of initiate in her own labor. Her husband sat beside the water and rubbed her back when she needed it. Her mother stood at the entrance, her eyes looking up at the sky. She said she’d heard the Northern Lights might be visible.
A little after two in the morning, I watched the moment of birth build to a crescendo. There was blood. The low, primal sounds from my friend as she confronted the doorway of creation with a pain that only belonged to her. She reached down into the crimson water. She threw back her head, arched her back and announced, “The baby is here.”
A mother in full control of the most definitive and fundamental act of creation.
I won’t ever deliver my own baby in the literal sense, but what I witnessed has challenged me to ask myself if I have truly taken my creative actions into my own hands.
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.