“But I can only write what the muse allows me to write.
I cannot choose, I can only do what I am given, and I feel pleased
when I feel close to concrete poetry – still.”
Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)
Scottish poet, writer, artist and gardener
When I was in high school I was what you might call a prolific writer. Words flowed like water. The muse would often visit while I was lounging in a hot bathtub (I’ll tell you about one such visit later), or just sitting still. Complete poems, song verses, or story plots would come into my mind as if injected there during some kind of creativity-transplant operation. The quote above pretty much sums up my “process” during that time. If I didn’t feel inspired to write, I didn’t. Except for school assignments, I never took pen to paper just to see what would happen. I usually ran in search of a pen to capture some wisp of smoky perfection before it spiraled upward out of my reach, forgotten.
Many years ago I went to see author Anne Lamott speak in San Francisco. I had read several of her books and was a fan of her work. I was eager to hear more about what this quirky, honest, often emotionally raw writer, had to say about how she approached her craft. When asked about her writing process she claimed to always carry around a pen and paper with her wherever she went. Lamott joked that if an idea came to her and she wasn’t able to capture it, well, then God would just give it away to somebody else. And to prevent that from happening she had to be prepared. At. All. Times.
I had seen her during a period in my twenties when I wasn’t writing often. Her words stuck with me. I remember being scared that the reason for my dry spell was because I was always unprepared. But then I remembered how the muse came to me in high school, rushing in without warning. I can still remember being fifteen years old, running from the bathtub, down the hall, dripping wet to write down these words:
A Sure Sign
A couple to be wedded
To each other, they were betrothed,
Out for a day of courting,
Set off in carriage down the road.
They stopped just near a path,
Beside a wooded grove,
To rest a while in the shade,
For they had grown weary as they drove.
The first tree they came upon
could be no shade for them,
for all its fruit had fallen down;
every apple, every stem.
They looked down at their feet
the fruit was all around them,
The woman picked an apple up,
that was lying on the ground then.
She looked sweetly at the apple,
and at the man for whom she was smitten,
then offered him the fruit to eat, BUT
it had already been bitten.
The apple had a hole clean through
and was occupied by not one worm—but two!
The man suggested they leave the grove
but the woman stood her ground.
She examined every apple,
and in every one, a worm was found.
She hung her head in shame, and said
“This cannot be again.
For every single worm I’ve found
I’ve found a rotten man.
So, you see, my love of late,
I cannot marry thee,
for every man I’ve loved thus far,
I’ve found a worm in he.”
And they came out more or less like that. Fully formed. No need to think on the perfect word; I merely transcribed what the muse gave me. At forty-two, I still have no idea how those words got into my head. Why would a 15-year-old in a bathtub in New Jersey feel compelled to write about a turn-of-the-century couple courting in a carriage?
It’s been years (dare I say, decades, plural?) since I’ve had an experience like that one. Lately I’ve been wondering why that might be. Churning out these daily posts hasn’t been without struggle. Finishing my screenplays hasn’t been without struggle. Oh wait, that’s right, ’cause I haven’t finished them yet. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately. Even when I’m not actively working on one of my projects, I’m always thinking about my characters, stitching together pieces of their lives in my mind, stashing away bits I can call upon later when I am, in fact, in a position to use them. And maybe that’s what summons the muse: writing. Or, at least, being in a writing state of mind.
Because after all these years, she finally paid me a visit last week, at 1:15 in the morning. I was asleep at 1:15 in the morning. One could argue I don’t have the world’s most convenient muse. One could; I won’t, though, because when she came she whispered this:
Mrs. Hubbard advanced toward Amelia in a stealthy, almost feline manner. From the neck down, her body expressed little emotion. Her eyes, however, grew wide with a predatory glee and her head teetered from the left and then to the right, sizing up her captive as the distance between them dissolved. Indeed, if Mrs Hubbard had had a tail, it would be gesticulating wildly in anticipation.
As for Amelia, her body expressed the emotion opposite that of the advancing maid’s. With each of Mrs. Hubbard’s steps forward, Amelia retreated two. Until—at last—her hands, which had been clenched behind her back, felt the smooth cool comfort of the kitchen wall. As they flattened against the surface, the silver spoon in her grip betrayed her by releasing itself and clanging to the floor at her feet. Amelia dared not tear her eyes from Mrs. Hubbard’s, nor to move even a fiber in order to conceal it. Fear immobilized her.
As the maid quickened her pace, Amelia knew she was cornered. Having no where else to go, she cowered, raising her shoulders up to her ears in what looked like an attempt to swallow herself whole. She had been caught red-handed. And now she was a tasty morsel discovered in the corner, waiting to be licked into oblivion by the sandpaper tongue of a hungry cat.
Again, no idea where this came from. It’s not related to anything I’m currently working on. And it’s only one little vignette. It would take years (at my pace, anyhow) to flesh this out to something usable.
And yet, my muse woke me up in the middle of the night to give it to me. Maybe she’s trying to send me a message of some kind. Like “Write more, watch a little less Downton Abbey.” Beats me. In any case, I’ll file it away for future use. After all, I wouldn’t want to offend. Lord knows what I’ll be doing the next time she comes calling.