Rebirth of the Muse

I’m convinced that everyone has a muse. Every person has that spark, that divine inspiration that allows us to seek creative release in whatever form suits us–painting, music, gardening, or, in my case, writing. Most of us, however, have starved our muse, have neglected it like an unwanted mongrel dog, chained and penned and forgotten in the backyards of our minds. The hectic modern lives we lead leave us no time to enjoy the simplest pleasures of engaging in the act of creation or the therapy we could find from them.

I believe most of us imprison our muses at about the same time. Thanks to our educational system, we are taught that some forms of creation are good, others are bad, and that we must all follow certain rules to be accepted by the grade-giving gods of the English department. Throughout high school and college, we are conditioned to speak a certain way, write a certain way, and think a certain way, yet a study of the true geniuses of the literary world tells us that these iron-clad rules are negotiable. Hemingway’s sentences are structured barely beyond what my seven-year old reads for her first grade class. Faulkner, on the other hand, could not end some sentences, letting them run and ramble like hyper-caffeinated toddlers. More recently, Cormac McCarthy, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Road, apparently cannot find the apostrophe or quotation marks on his keyboard. While these authors are literary giants, and rightfully so, any student or unknown wishing to emulate their various rule-breaking styles would be pounced upon by most English teachers who so rarely see true talent in their lives that, should it arrive, they might not be able to see it amidst their desire for ordered sentences and clean punctuation. Any originality we wish to show gets bent, changed, disguised to produce work we think we’ll please our “wardens of words” instead of coming forth proudly in our own original style.

I fell victim to this as well. For years, I was told to study Hemingway and Faulkner and so many others who bent the rules as they saw fit to enhance their storytelling, while being told to structure my own writing so tightly that a quarter would bounce off it without regard to what I was writing. To put it another way, the way I wrote became more important that what I wrote. To me, this was a tragedy and, by the end of my college days, I was burned out on writing. For several years, after being somewhat prodigious throughout my school years and gaining much praise from my teachers and peers for the quality of my writing, I left the art behind. I took my muse to an abandoned corner of the yard and chained it there with no food, no water, and no hope.

The years passed. I got married, had kids, got divorced, got remarried, had more kids. I worked my way up in retail management with various companies, but never truly loved what I was doing. Some element was missing, regardless of how much money I put to the bottom line or how much my staff enjoyed working for me, or how high an opinion my bosses had of me. I felt incomplete. Then, one day in 2000, that all changed.

I was working with an office supply chain and had volunteered to go to St. Louis to help out a store there with some much needed inventory management. I spent two days there, working third shift to revamp the store, and on my way home I stopped at a bookstore in Fairview Heights just on the Illinois side of the river. While browsing the shelves, I came across a new work by Stephen King–On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft–and was immediately intrigued. I had been a casual fan of King’s work, had followed the news of his near-fatal automobile incident in the papers and online, and knew I needed this book. I purchased the audio version and listened to it on the long ride home to Kentucky, hearing how King developed into the writer he became and his general advice on the writing life. When I returned home, I listened to On Writing over and over–while cleaning house, while mowing the lawn, during my hour commute to work–until I could nearly recite every line and my wife grew very weary of King’s odd voice. All the while, I was preparing myself for a recovery mission, a quest to retrieve that part of me that was lost amidst the term papers and writing portfolios required to complete my education. Finally, in the summer of 2005, I had enough King-driven confidence and the sudden flash of insight I needed.

I was discussing with a coworker, who also bore an interest in writing, various story ideas that we had both thought of over the years and this discussion led to talk of imaginary friends. That’s when the lightning of inspiration struck. It was there all at once, like a mountain appearing from nowhere, and I knew that my muse was breaking free of the bonds I had set upon it. What if, I said to myself, a person received a letter from their imaginary friend? When I got home late that evening, I sat down at the computer and wrote a few hundred words. It was a taxing three hours that produced very little for my effort. I went to bed exhausted, but happy, because I, despite my difficulty, was creating.

The next night, I repeated the ritual. In his book, King urges the new writer to set a goal and suggests that 1000 words a day is a good place to start and so I adopted this goal. He suggests writing every day so the story does not go cold in the author’s mind, but I disregarded his advice. I wrote every day, for it seemed that my muse-unchained had no desire to return to its isolated corner. There were times, due to other requirements of my time, that I was forced to put off my 1000 words, though very little would interfere with my output. Some nights, after working my full time jobs as manager, parent, and husband, I would simply collapse without setting down the next installment of my story, those these days were thankfully few. At first the going was slow and painful, much like a runner starting from their couch to train for a marathon, but as the nights passed, the story came easier and easier. My three hours shrank to an hour on many nights, some nights less, and I would often get down 2000 or more words before stopping. I developed an instinct for knowing when to leave off so as to not risk my fatigue negatively influencing the story. After three months, I had 120, 000 words and, in my opinion, a pretty good fantasy novel. A FINISHED fantasy novel.

In the two years since I began writing again, I am happy to say that the art has filled that missing piece of my identity that plagued me before I found my way back to the blank page. I still stick to my 1000 word a night rule, though I’ve had extended periods recently where that was not possible. During these droughts, I do not sleep well and feel disoriented, which only serves to strengthen my commitment to my muse. In addition to the first novel, I have written several short stories, have completed about half of another fantasy novel, and have begun what I believe will be my best work yet–a semi-horror novel that I am eager to complete. When I write, I use no notes, no outlines, no diagrams. I sit down and write what I see and that seeing has grown easier the more I have done it. Just like King said it would.

I owe a great deal to Stephen King. Besides setting the standard to which every would-be popular novelist aspires, his memoir gave me the push I needed to realize that I CAN write–no, that I SHOULD write–and the simple, but direct, vote of confidence that I needed to understand that the stories I have to tell are good and worth telling. Kings says that writing a novel “is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub–there’s plenty of room for doubt.” That is true, but there’s always less doubt with someone else–in my case, Stephen King–to help you row the tub along.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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