There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.
Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know (Stephen King, On Writing, p. 145).
I’ve met some exceptional people since starting this blog, and one of them inspired my muse this week. It seems that hers had gone missing, and I could just feel the butterflies of longing, sorrow, and a little fear as I read her blog.
I’m sympathetic. Quite sympathetic, having just come out of a dry place myself. With an irony that can’t be ignored, my Muse re-surfaced with this blog. Who’da thunk she would be out here in the blogosphere, blogging? I thought she might be interested in writing for money, perhaps using the 103-page manuscript I spent two years completing to jumpstart the next book. But, noooooo. She’s hogging my chair, bent over the keyboard and blogging like dogs in heat.
It’s painful when the Muse is silent. In one of my favorite books about writing, On Writing, prolific author Stephen King says, “For me, not working is the real work” (King 153). I’ve noticed that, in my own life, when the Muse is silent, the whole house is silent. That is, the Muse is AWOL and God seems to have gone with her. My spirit and my imagination are silent as a void moon. I also usually do not dream during these times, signifying that my unconscious is in on it, too. The deep well into which I lower the bucket and bring out living waters has gone dry. I can hear the bucket clanking against the bottom of the well. Ghosts rattling chains.
Several years ago I was finishing up a master’s degree in Literature. I nearly flew through the course work; the experience was exhilarating and all I’d hoped a degree could be–the best experience possible.
But then, just as my thesis proposal was accepted and I began to write, my daughter grew ill and died.
Her illness and death took about a year, and the grief took another year (or three). During that time I couldn’t write anything except journal entries. I wrote obsessively about how I felt and how other people behaved, and how their behavior made me feel. I wrote about my regrets, my guilt, and how I had become incapable of being myself. I wrote about my daughter’s beautiful eyes and her luminous smile, and recorded as many stories about her as I could remember.
But I was stuck on my thesis. I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t believe in my idea any more, and it didn’t compel me as it had before my daughter grew ill and died.
This is not to say that her death was the one thing that unhinged me and sent my Muse flying. No, her death was the catalyst that accelerated the changes that had already been occurring for the longest time. These were changes that had to occur and would have occurred no matter what else had happened.
But I was still void of course; it would be almost 18 months before I could finish my thesis. Why the silence of my writerly self? Why, indeed: the silence was a message. The silence was there to show me that there was something more important than the thesis happening, and that I had better sit up and pay attention to it. My world had changed substantially and unalterably, yet I was still cracking the whip over my Muse’s head and telling her and God what ought to happen. The two of them had better get busy and help me finish that thesis! Rather than spend my free hours thinking and pondering what had happened to me, and listening to what God and muses had to say, I decided it would be more worthwhile to work. And, by God, those two were going to help me! Crrrrack!
Becoming Boring. In their fascinating look at psychotherapy, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura discuss why much psychotherapy is useless (or worse) at helping people who are interested in transcending consciousness–becoming whole and alive. They say that the very process of therapy, the “processing” therapists are trained to demand, works against the numinous and esoteric self. Some stuff is not meant to be understood, translated, processed, categorized, or even transformed. Trying to manipulate it is counter-productive to getting it to work for you. Hillman explains:
“Either I can use it or I can get rid of it, but it’s fucking inefficient to have it around where it’s not usable but it’s still there.” This is what makes us, Americans, white Americans, psychological amateurs and innocents. We don’t have enough stuff in the psyche, we keep getting rid of the ore! We’re not psychologically sophisticated people.
I’d rather not say is it or isn’t it processing. I’d rather say, “What happens if you call it processing?” And you described what happens, you either try to get rid of it or make it useful. So it’s exploitative. The notion of transformation that dominates therapy: transform something useless into something useful (Hillman & Ventura 33).
Ventura agrees, “A consumer’s ideology. You’re consuming your psyche, as both a consumer and as a carnivore,” to which Hillman adds, “and also as an industrialist: you’re making a profit out of it” (Hillman & Ventura 33).
“And the psyche doesn’t like that,” Ventura says, “So what it says is, ‘Okay! I’ll make you boring‘” (Hillman & Ventura 34).
And this is how it happens that the Muse leaves us alone, and we become boring. It’s counter-cultural to be eccentric, erratic, whimsical, different. Our mothers said things like, “Get your head out of the clouds” and “make yourself useful,” and “find something else to do” other than that one thing we just had to obsessively do when we were children.
Stepping Out of the Small Craft. And so we grow up in families and cultures that, for the most part, train us to fit in, get along, and stop causing waves. Everything is designed to get us to stop causing any waves, and to absolutely avoid getting out onto the waves of the unconscious. We know for sure that if we throw caution to the wind and become impetuous Peters, we will see the Spirit when we step out of the boat and onto the mighty, powerful, boisterous waves that absolutely terrifying us! (Matthew 14:23-29). Here, it is interesting to note that phantasma, the Greek word for the spirit the disciples supposed Jesus to be [φάντασμα], is rooted in phantazo [φαντάζω], another Greek word that means “to make apparent.” Only when we conquer our fear and step outside our little, protective craft will everything become apparent.
Knowing all this, I don’t blame my Muse for leaving me when she does. I abandon her all the time. At times, I’ve treated my Muse with the utmost contempt. I deserve her ill treatment because I know what is going on; I forget and go unconscious or get uppity, and she can’t tolerate that. It is this balancing of the scales of justice that the Muse does by leaving me that, finally, I am beginning to understand. The fact of the matter is that, although I like to think–and arrogantly persist in thinking–that I am the one in charge here, I am not. She is. I had been guilty for years of doing what Jungian writer James Hillman calls using “psychology against the soul” (88). This act of objectifying the Muse is a stance against it. It only drives her back to her dark places and makes me boring.
In his marvelous book, Healing Fiction, Hillman recounts the dialogue between one of his clients, a writer, and the writer’s Muse or “soul figure,” named Agatha. This writer, William, “had been a successful journalist who had more intelligence and talents than his work had yet showed. . . His writing was utterly cramped and he was ruled by moods, sprees, and hypochondria. In this condition he began his letters to his soul” (Hillman 89). William asks Agatha, his soul figure, “tell me what you want” (Hillman 90). To this, Agatha responds:
Dear William, You ask what I want. I need your companionship as you need mine. I want your love and devotion. You must dedicate your life to me and in return I will give myself to you. But you must discover how to come closer to me. I can’t tell you that. You must make the decision yourself. This is also how you can find out about your vocation which has been so troubling you lately.
Since I’ve seen what you have been doing today, will you permit me to comment on it? You have a good idea to write about, but do it from within. Put soul into your writing. Why not let your imagination run wild again. What you were writing is trash because you don’t care about it. It doesn’t have value to you. I’ll help you. Love, Agatha (Hillman 90).
William continued the correspondence with this part of himself for some time. Agatha answered his questions in good faith and with great affection; William persisted in psychologizing his own soul and calling it his “anima.” Like most of us, William needed the soul (or Muse, or inspiration, or creativity), but he wanted her needs to remain secondary to those of his ego. William insisted on being superior, and finally, in exasperation, Agatha exclaims, “I’ve had enough of what you think, what you need, and what you feel. I’m going back into my jungle and my nature until you come up with a more important question for me.”
Exit Muse, stage left.
There is another way to grieve the Muse besides being uppity and trying to strongarm her into doing things my way: ignoring the Muse. As I noted before, my Muse was largely silent for almost 18 months because I thought it was more important to write my thesis than to listen to what God was trying to say to me. One’s creative self is directly tied into the creative root of the universe, so ignoring God essentially has the same effect as ignoring the Muse. They’re in it together; don’t kid yourself on that point.
What I’ve ignored from time to time is my pain. It doesn’t matter so much whether the pain is deep and agonizing or momentary and fleeting: pain is pain. In an effort to avoid pain, I see that I sometimes merely submerge it, a sort of psychological identification with Andrea Yates. If that doesn’t make you shudder, it should.
It’s a commonly accepted truism that mental illness, neurosis, complexes, personality disorders, and all sorts of human ills grow out of the compulsion to avoid suffering. James Hillman says that, when we recognize pain we cry out, “‘This hurts, goddammit, this hurts!’ and the first move away from the hurt is, ‘What do I do about it? What do I take for it?’ . . . But until one has been in the hurt, explored the hurt, you don’t know anything about it. You don’t know why it’s there. Why did the psyche put it there?” (Hillman & Ventura 31-32).
Sitting With It. I’ve learned to ask myself what fear is keeping me in my small craft, and what suffering has me looking for a cure rather than meaning. I need to be willing to sit in my suffering, if need me. I need to be willing to throw myself out of the small craft, if need be. I need to be able to know what’s required of me, and I can’t know that in my head. I can only know it in my gut. What is it telling me?
I imagine myself like some Jack Horner, sitting in the corner with a pie, just sitting. Or, sometimes I am like the Hebrew children, wandering the wilderness for 40 years, grumbling, stinking, needing a shower, doing dances around fires and with golden calves. Watching myself be desperate and wicked and out-of-control. I will do just about anything, sometimes, to avoid the feeling of absolute boredom that occurs when I’m in the deep silence of the absence of God and Muse.
But, there are things that can be done. First, I have to pay attention to the Muse and offer some gift. Ditto for God. I say to them, “Look, I see now that something’s up. I don’t know what it is, because I’m dense, and you know how dense I can be. So I brought you these flowers, and I’m lighting this candle for you, and I’m just going to putter around and wait on you, because you know, I can’t live without you. It’s not life when I’m not with you. So I’ll be busying myself with the mundane and all the things I need to do, but my heart will be with you like a lover. My eyes will constantly be lifted toward you. And I’ll be going to your well often and leaning over, breathing in the smell of the moss and peering into the deepest reflection to see if I can catch sight of you.”
Then, I work. I work as if I have dues to pay. I like the way Stephen King wrote about it:
Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic (King 157).
I also like what journalist, editor, and writing teacher Brenda Ueland said about being self-disciplined about not only writing, but also about writing truthfully:
Now get to writing the truth . . .[and] if you do not know what this means now, write . . . a true, careless, slovenly, impulsive, honest diary every day of your life, and you will. And you must in time learn to write from your true self not only in your letters and diary, but in fiction (Ueland 135).
Le jeune peintre. As a human, spiritual being and a writer, I hope to become practiced at honoring my Muse. Ueland said, “He knows himself greatly who never opposes his genius” (Ueland 158). While I’m not there yet, I’m getting better at being still and looking into my resistance rather than using it to oppose my Muse.
James Hillman tells the most wonderful story about Pablo Picasso, a story that illustrates so well what it looks like to get to the end of one’s life and to have honored and worked with one’s Muse. Picasso is one of many geniuses who were able to demonstrate this type of psychological and spiritual partnership with the sublime by the end of their lives; I’m always moved when I read another story about this sort of fidelity. Hillman writes:
There is a painting by Picasso done when he was ninety-one, the year before he died. It is titled Le Jeune peintre (the young painter). It is a freely drawn, broad-brushed sketch in oils–whites, grays, slate blues, and black–of a dark-, sharp-, and hollow-eyed, small, boyish face, a little impish, staring out at you under a wide floppy hat, a palette board and brush in hand. The white on white gives it the feeling of a ghost, of a clown, of an angel, and also of an innocent, though lively and intensely concentrated, observer, whose mercurial alertness has just been caught by the painter. [. . .]
Here is the invisible Picasso caught on the canvas, a self-portrait of the daimon that inhabited him all his life. At the end, it emerges and shows itself. “Here,” it says, “this is who you are, Picasso, you are me, the ever-young painter. I am the clown, the innocent, fresh eye, the dark eye, the quick-moving Mercurius, the sentimental, bluish melancholy, the little boy. I am your ghost. Now you see who drives you, what has kept you fresh and eager, and now you can die.” It was as if Picasso had been realizing and actualizing and individuating this figure all his life, ever since he was an exceptionally talented, teenage painter–even before Paris and his youth of the blue and rose periods, when he was le jeune peintre. Here was a portrait of the acorn painted by the oak. Picasso’s image confirms . . . that it is not my individuation but the individuation of the angel that is the main task: the materialization with paint, brush, and canvas of Picasso’s daimon (Hillman & Ventura 61-62).
Even people who attend to their Muses rather than bridling them like work horses will, being human, go astray from time to time. Like me, they’ll forget who’s the boss and they’ll become arrogant or neglectful. Thankfully, one day we wake up and realize we’re boring. Every inner voice is silent. There is nothing to say. We are in Dante’s seventh circle of hell.
As Winston Churchill said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.”
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1983.
Hillman, James and Michael Ventura. We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1993.
King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.
Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write. St. Paul, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 1987.