I’ve been neglecting this blog, I know. But between the new day job and the editing/reviewing projects that have, of course, waited until I’m strapped for time and energy to grace me with their long overdue presence–not to mention, you know, working on my own novel–there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, nor brain cells in my head, to accomplish half of what I’d like. I have an idea for a post on the idea of introspection, which I hope to get to some time this week (key word being “hope”). But for now, I’m going to do something a bit easier, something that allows me to pilfer from other writers.
Let’s talk about the muse. Mine has not been kind to me for quite some time. A few weeks ago, I got to thinking about the olden days, when poems, especially epic poems, began with a summoning of the Muse, capital “M”–that capricious god who had to smile down upon the helpless, hapless writer in order for him to produce anything worth mentioning. Take the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid:
Arms and the man I sing, the first who came,
Compelled by fate, an exile out of Troy,
To Italy and the Lavinian coast,
Much buffeted on land and on the deep
By violence of the gods, through that long rage,
That lasting hate, of Juno’s. And he suffered
Much, also, in war, till he should build his town
And bring his gods to Latium, whence, in time,
The Latin race, the Alban fathers, rose
And the great walls of everlasting Rome.
Help me, O Muse, recall the reasons: why,
Why did the queen of heaven drive a man
So known for goodness, for devotion, through
So many toils and perils? Was there slight,
Affront, or outrage? Is vindictiveness
An attribute of the celestial mind?
“Is vindictiveness / An attribute of the celestial mind?” When dealing with muses, one begins to wonder. Thousands of years later, Milton begins his epic poem, Paradise Lost, with a request similar to Virgil’s, except Milton doesn’t so much demand of the Muse as give Him a choice:
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe
With loss of Eden till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning, how the heav’ns and earth
Rose out of chaos. Or if Sion hill
Delight thee more and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure
Instruct me, for thou know’st, thou from the first
Wast present and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st pregnant. What in me is dark
Ilumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men.
I’ve tried both Virgil and Milton’s strategies: first, telling the muse what to help me write, and when that doesn’t pan out, asking him to help me write whatever he wants. While both have worked in the past, neither has worked lately. And after seriously considering throwing in the towel altogether, I then thought of the TED talk Elizabeth Gilbert gave, called, “A new way to think about creativity,” which you can listen to here (and I would highly recommend doing so). Near the end, she says that, after slaving day after day over a book that didn’t seem like it would ever get anywhere, she turned to her muse and told him, “Listen, you thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? ‘Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this. You know? I don’t have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you gotta show up and do your part of the deal, okay? 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.”
For now at least, that seems to be the philosophy I have to espouse–that, if my muse isn’t going to cooperate, I’m going to write anyway. It’s no longer about whether the writing is good or bad, published or not. In the end, I can’t control any of that. Sure, I can control if my writing is “technically” good or not, but I can’t control whether the heavenly muses sing over my words. All I can control is whether or not I choose to sit down at the desk and write, and some days, that in itself is a tremendous accomplishment. But you know what? Writers write, so on I go.
Because despite what my paycheck says, despite the way my bio reads on my book reviews, and despite the amount of time I spend editing other people’s writing, at the end of the day, the title that resounds deepest in my core is “writer.” That’s my job, and jobs, I am quickly learning, are not dependent on whether you feel like doing them are not. You show up, and you do your work. And if the muses–be they of fax machines or filing cabinets, epic poems or unfinished novels–decide to smile down upon you, well, consider that your bonus.