Sunday, January 3, 2016
Nurturing the Muse
Fontanka--the buildings along the Neva River in St.Petersburg, Russia, and in the old Sheremeteva Palace (Fountain House) on this bank, Anna Akhmatova lived much of her life. I'll be teaching her poetry beginning January 11, by Skype.
Photo from Vera Belikh
A Few Words on the Muse and Other Subjects for writers I care about very much from Judy Hogan [from the mid-1980s]
As some of you know, I’ve boiled good writing technique down to a few simple principles:
1. You can break every rule in the book if you can get away with it. This is Prometheus logic. It’s a big if.
2. There’s a madness in my method, i.e., I trust the sources of creative work, the “gift” more than most people–that which seems to work on its own once we’ve jiggled it into motion. I now have a book which says it, besides Homer, who was my main authority before: The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Here’s a quote to entice you:
We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D.H. Lawrence. Not all artists emphasize the “gift’ phase of their creations to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.
As many of you know, I believe your best work at any stage tends to “flow out.” It will have qualities you can’t “think” into it directly: wholeness (integrity), authority, and authenticity, that are hard to get any other way. It may not be perfect. It may need editing–excisions, additions, etc. It also won’t be “perfect” in the sense of flawless. Good china, the real stuff, often has flaws. Tom Jones has some lovely words on how the people we love and value, like good china, have flaws baked into them. So will your best work. Don’t worry about it.
Worry instead about your access to your creative source. Give it a name, a shape, build a myth about it. The Muse lives in a corner of my kitchen and sometimes leaps up on my refrigerator and meows piteously to get my attention. Sometimes I feed her cream, and sometimes I throw her out the back door. What I’d like you to do for awhile–say, three months--is to feed your Muse cream. Or whatever is the equivalent in your myth. Keep a diary, if you don’t already, and ask yourself what your muse will be like. Describe your relationship to her. Does she wake you at 3 A.M. demanding to be fed? Do lines come to you in the grocery store? Two women in their 80s at the Methodist Retirement Home, told me the Muse had waked them up and made them write things down at 3 A.M.
The moral of the story is: give her regular attention. If you have other responsibilities and things you must do, okay, but as Jesus said about the poor, “They will always be with us.” So will your responsibilities–in one form or another. Don’t fall into the Betty Friedan trap (the one she described in The Feminine Mystique, of letting housework (or whatever) expand to fill the time available. Try it for twelve weeks. A bargain struck with your Muse. For twelve weeks, oh, Muse, you get regular food, to stay in the house, to listen and talk to me, and to be flattered and petted. What muse doesn’t like to be spoiled?
Try to discover what your particular Muse likes. What stimulates her? Mine likes me to have long, leisurely mornings, even if I have to start at 5:15, and unlike Trollope, I have no manservant to wake me up and bring me coffee, and make sure I don’t fall back to sleep after I turn off the alarm. Mine also likes me to walk, think, and observe in beautiful places. Mine likes certain books, and a balanced rhythm: introspection and a tuning in to my inner life, balanced by being an active small press editor/teacher, and doing more extrovert things.
At times it likes me to do something–with people–or, say, reading detective fiction, that quite takes my mind off my thoughts. It’s a kind of shutting down of the effort to think and create consciously, and allows, as Virginia Woolf puts it, “the mind to celebrate its nuptials in peace.” Then I, in effect, “watch the swans float down the river.” It likes me to consult my feelings, to give it (her) an important place in my life. The more I am “together” and “clear” the more I resolve my problems and can look out at the world through a cleaner, more focused lens, the better she likes it.
She doesn’t like interruptions, but she’ll tolerate them if I do. She likes a relatively controlled, safe environment, with good defenses. A secure time and place, an answering machine or unplugging the phone, turning off the ringer–help her relax and do her work. She likes regular attention and not to be manipulated or artificially stimulated past a point (e.g., by drugs or alcohol). A few rituals–coffee, a glass of wine, turning clocks around--are okay. She’s not a machine. She “works” but not by turning an ignition switch. She is more easily coaxed than coerced. She loves it when I fall in love or have any intense experience.
She’s shy, but if the company assembled is seriously and respectfully interested, she will speak, even in company. She can learn, too. She doesn’t like to be insulted or taunted, but if you point out to her what isn’t working well, she’ll accept that. She absorbs everything that’s interesting and important to her like a sponge. She loves the language of the older writers–words like discover. “I will discover your wickedness to the world.” She also likes new words and idioms when they are apt. Language is both fun and serious for her. Her ear is offended by a misuse of words: e.g., privatize. She feels like someone has made the chalk screech against the blackboard. She loves language that sings, that evokes, that feels powerful. She’s very “into” power. My Muse is very modern but a not too distant cousin of Hesiod’s nine, who dance on top of Mt. Helicon, around a spring.
Let us begin our singing/from the Helikonian Muses
who possess the great and holy mountain/of Helikon
and dance there on soft feet/by the dark blue water
of the spring, and by the altar/of the powerful son of Kronos;
who wash their tender bodies in the waters/of Permessos
or Hippokrene, spring of the Horse,/or holy Olmeios,
and on the high places of Helikon/ have ordered their dances/
which are handsome and beguiling,/and light are the feet they move on. From there they rise, and put a veiling/ of deep mist upon them
and walk in the night, singing/in sweet voices, and celebrating.
So that’s one thing I hope you’ll do, and continue doing: feed your creative source. Only by following your Muse can you achieve Helicon. Cheers and love, Judy Hogan