Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Byl: No Muse is Good Muse*

“I only write when I am inspired. And I make sure I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.”

            --attributed to William Faulkner

I've never been a big fan of the Muse. I know this sounds sacrilegious (writers are supposed to worship her, after all, or suffer the dry-brain consequences), but waiting around for a visit from a writing dominatrix has never appealed to me. We're all entitled to our own muses; one friend of mine's is a 1793 Antonio Canova sculpture of Cupid and Psyche. Unfortunately, the one that inhabits my imagination is a persona blending Marilyn Monroe's innocent vixen wiles with Nurse Ratched's hostile disciplinary streak, and a visit from her reads like a role-play lifted from a Victorian novel. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Victorian novels, but I don't need to be in one.

The history of the Muses is too complex to cover exhaustively here, but the short version goes like this. The three (or nine, depending on the historical moment) daughters of Mnemosyne--Goddess of memory--and Zeus--God of everything--were deemed by the Greeks the mysterious source of inspiration, the impetus behind creativity in the arts, sciences, dance, and music. The history of writers (especially straight male writers) is thick with homage to Lady Muse. Lord Byron is a famously over-the-top example, "she walks in beauty like the night" inspired by Erato (the Greek muse of lyric poetry) and the various women he fell in love with. The Romantic era scripts the pageant that runs through my mind when I think Muse: Coleridge or Wordsworth in a laudanum haze stumbling to the door of the writing chamber, flinging it open to find a curvy floozy (Marilyn's soft d├ęcolletage or Ratched's starched bosom, equal parts wet dream and worst nightmare.) Samuel grabs her by the front of her peasant blouse and hauls her inside. "Where've you been, wench?" he snarls, impatient and resentful at the weeks, months, she's waited before returning. She whispers incantatory lyrics into his ears and, pacified by her attention, William falls into his chair, scrawls in a fury, and then collapses to his bed, spent (a literary climax) while she tidies the pages in a neat pile, leaves them on his desk, and slips out while he sleeps. Make that a dominatrix secretary.

I'm sure much of my trouble with this whole scene is feminist in nature, a deep discomfort with roles for women that are limited to helpmeet or heartthrob with little middle ground. That issue is worthy of a dissertation, a task for another time. But aside from the philosophical gripe, the Muse just rubs me wrong. It's the passivity of the whole thing that bugs me. Even as a child, I had trouble with imaginary figures that waltzed in to deliver some bounty or punishment with little connection to my actual self. The Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Santa, even My Heavenly Father--all I could do was wait for them, their approval or dismay, and hope for the best: a nickel, a bike, a chance at heaven? Bah. Small wonder the Muse doesn't suit me. I've never been patient and I don't like my fortunes tied to someone else's nebulous discretion. The Calvinist in me wants to work for something, even if I know it doesn't guarantee salvation (or a book.)

Though the Muses will probably always retain their hold on creative culture (damn, those Greeks have some traction!), I have discovered more and more writers who share my discomfort with inspiration. Faulkner's quote at the top of this post is one of my favorites, in part because it reminds me how wonderfully wry he could be. Another favorite I discovered when rereading an old post Sherry Simpson wrote for this blog: "But keep in mind, as I do, painter Chuck Close’s words: 'Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.' " Now that's more like it.

The best metaphor I know for replacing inspiration with perspiration came from Linda McCarriston, a terrific poet and a teacher of mine in grad school. When answering a question about the origin of those delightfully easy, unsought drafts where everything falls into place, the ones you'd be tempted to assign to the Muse, Linda told my class, "you've already put in your time for those." She described the font of creativity as a checking account. You make a deposit every time you sit down at your desk, whether you want to or not. Every time you read a book with pen in hand, underlining. Deposits accrue in the form of rotten drafts you rip up immediately, revisions that get better, and input from trusted readers who help point a way forward. All of this work accrues, just like a ledger balance. And one day, you get an easy poem, a gift story, like a wad of cash shot out an ATM slot into your hot little hand. That weird alchemy that happens when you give an idea reign and it moves itself forward, as if a story or poem contained its own engine--it's better than cash. But it isn't free. You paid for it with work, and it's yours.

Poor thing, you might be thinking. Creativity as a checkbook? How pedestrian! She's obviously never experienced the mystical transporting that happens when you access a fluid writing mind. But I have, I have, and I love it! I want it all the time, could become addicted to it, a writer's heroin, a spendthrift's twenty bucks. When I get one of those stories or afternoons, I understand why people believe in the Muse. I am tempted to pin that triumph on something I could pray to or call up again, even someone who'll drop by on her own time. Anything more glamorous than just accumulated effort. But when I push the feeling to its limits, I find something even better. It isn't an extrasensory persona leading me forward. It's sentences. It's the story itself. When I hear the Muse's knuckles rapping at my chamber door, wanting to take credit for a moment that I know is a convergence of banked work and pure grace, I tune her out. I turn back to the page. After all, it's story I've been waiting for, story I've been working at, and story--with its narrative twists, its lyric curves, the taut sinew of syntax--I will follow any day of the week.

* * * * *
 quick PS to my last post on apprenticeship. I came across this quote from George Saunders in an interview last week: "That’s the beautiful thing about writing—it’s a lineage. Nobody ever creates himself or herself as a writer. The craft gets passed down from one generation to the next. We’re all on this big writing team." This is extra resonant for me because Saunders is definitely one of my pillars. I've learned so much from reading him. The whole interview, in Portland Monthly, is worth a read.)
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press, 2013). Her prose has appeared in GlimmerTrain Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other magazines and anthologies. Byl lives in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She runs a small trail-design and construction business. When she isn't working in the field or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Visit her on Facebook while her website makes its slow way to the world.

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