Tuesday, January 31, 2012

That Damn Muse

When I was a young whippersnapper, one day in some English class, we had a discussion about writing novels and stories.

Crafted, the teacher said. Created with an outline. Every word chosen with care, knowing the significance of each and every nuance.

If an author puts in a work that it's a sailboat, not a steamboat, or that the sailor's eyes are yellow, there's a reason for that, said she.

What if they just want the eyes to be yellow? asked the whippersnapper.

No, they never just want them to be anything without it meaning something, said the teacher. If they want them to be yellow, it's to convey sickness or jealousy or some other emotion that we might connect with that color.

I think not, said the whippersnapper, whispering to herself.

Because I thought that stories were magic.

They sprang whole from the brains of the writer like Athena from the brain of Zeus, or a hobbit from the ground.

Sound. Complete. Finished. And most likely, they didn't realize half the time that when they made someone's eyes yellow, they meant for it to be dissected in an English class. They just meant for the eyes to be yellow, and if someone thought that meant the person was sick, well, so be it.

Sometime thereafter I learned about first, second, and third drafts, but that didn't sway me. Sure, they had to make changes. Nobody gets the commas right! Sometimes you get in a hurry when you're typing and you put a preposition at the end. You have to fix that stuff.

I believed in the call of the muse, I did. The whippersnapper thought the words danced around in the writer's head like music, each note a chime in the ear, a tickle on the brain, a taste of thyme on the tongue.

Just listen to that voice, thought the whippersnapper, and the words will flow.

And sometimes, that is how it happens. Sometimes the words do come falling out of the ether, tumbling into the mind like fluffy snowflakes from gray skies. Sometimes words just pour out like the waters of the Amazon, still one minute, rapid the next. It might wear you out to try to catch them.

But just as often, maybe more so, it's the craft that pulls the story along, not the waters flowing from the invisible fountain. It's the sitting and staring at the paper, ink pen at the ready, scribbling hither and yon, testing this word and that. Why not purple eyes, or blue? But then yellow ... no, that word is the best.

The whippersnapper and teacher both were right, I think. The muse speaks ... the craft guides the hand. The two work in tandem, one pushing the other.

But I lean too much on the muse. I wait too long for the whisper. I forget to steer the craft.

Because the darned boat will sink if I'm not careful, while I'm sitting there waiting on the muse to take up the oars.


  1. Good essay, Anita. Especially like those last two paragraphs.

  2. This is great! I especially liked, "The whippersnapper and teacher both were right, I think. The muse speaks ... the craft guides the hand. The two work in tandem, one pushing the other."

    I read an Ernest Hemingway quote on Goodreads, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

  3. Terrific and thoughtful post Anita! I've been needing to stop thinking and take up the oars to my blog all week! :)


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