Years ago, before the advent of computers and electronic organizers, I kept a manila file folder filled with clippings. I tucked away poems I found especially moving. I kept funny cartoons, interesting speeches reprinted in the newspaper, book reviews and critical essays torn from magazines. As years of reading and re-reading passed, I unfolded those fragile pages ever more carefully, watching the paper brown with age and begin to grow fragile. The file became a touchstone of sorts, and it always was close at hand.
Eventually, I lost the file. Where or when it happened is a mystery. I simply reached for it, and it was gone. Since that day, I’ve spent years searching for a half-remembered poem about a dog, a poinsettia, and loss, not to mention a commencement speech about climbing a mountain. I’ve not much hope of finding either, because I remember only a few words from each and have no idea of their original source.
On the other hand, I do remember some of the cartoons. One of my favorites showed a disheveled Graeco-Roman woman standing outside a cafe filled with patrons engrossed in books or bent over coffee cups, writing in notebooks. Barefooted, dressed in a flowing robe and sporting a laurel wreath in her hair, she clutched a sign that said, “Will inspire for residuals”.
I didn’t do a lick of writing at the time, but I knew enough to laugh. The thought of a down-on-her-luck Muse soliciting business outside a cafe is humorous because it’s so absurd. The Muses don’t need to solicit anything. They’re strong, in control, and as busy as they want to be. The Muses don’t need residuals. The Muses are sitting on a pile of capital. They give what they please and take whatever they want from their hapless or hopeless supplicants – then laugh all the way to the cultural bank.
Five of the Nine Muses ~ Cyrene, Libya
Or that’s how it seems, on this side of the Great Inspirational Divide. Ask any writer about the nature of the Muse, and you’re heading straight into the heart of one of the most interesting phenomena in the world. However they envision their Muse, writers clearly have relationships with them, and speak of them with a combination of wry humor and utter exasperation. To hear writers talk, Muses can be as frustrating as recalcitrant children, as arbitrary and rigid as the most old-fashioned pedagogue, and as delightfully intimate as the best lover or friend. When they decide to breeze into the library, pour themselves a drink and pour torrents of words into the writer’s listening ear, life is pure delight. When they choose to absent themselves, it’s a different matter.
From the earliest days, Muses were known to be capricious and arbitrary, given to fits of pique and willing to grant or withdraw their favors at a moment’s notice. Pondering the creative process a few months ago, I fretted, “There’s simply no assurance the Muses won’t read a work, grow dispirited and pack their bags, heading off to Paris, or Poughkeepsie or Phuket in search of more interesting challenges.” When the Muses go missing, reactions range from panic to resignation, and the sense of abandonment is real. It’s an issue every writer faces – no less a talent than John Updike said, with a certain wistfulness, “I would especially like to re-court the Muse of Poetry, who ran off with the mailman four years ago, and drops me only a scribbled postcard from time to time.”
Given the difficulties of creation and the unpredictable nature of inspiration, obsession with the presence or absence of The Muse probably is unavoidable, and may explain why so many essays have been written about the elusive creatures. One of my favorite descriptions of the Muse/writer dynamic turns the source of inspiration into a deadbeat Dad:
“Oh, he loves me all right, he’s just not what you’d call, you know, reliable. He’ll disappear without a trace for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Not a call, not a postcard, nothing.
Then suddenly, just when I’m trying to actually picture the make and model of the truck that has surely mown him down, he’ll show up on my doorstep—with a wily smile, a fistful of candy bars, and a lot of promises which are mostly variations of, “I’ll never stay away that long again.” I’m not sure I believe him, of course, but he’s a charmer, my muse, so I let him in… And for that time, all is forgiven. His presence is a gift.
But then… I hear that screen door slam and he is gone again. I run to the window and I see him, just the outline of him, really, practically jogging now, down the front path into the twilight … his hands stuffed in his pockets…his steps swift. Sometimes he’ll call over his shoulder, “Just going to grab a pack of smokes, honey…be back in an hour!” But we both know he’s lying. He’ll be back when he’s damned good and ready. And not a moment before.”
It’s a delightful image that speaks volumes about our modern understanding of the Muse. We speak of having “a Muse”, of being “abandoned by my Muse”, or of “cultivating a Muse” as though Muse is always singular. In fact, Calliope, Terpsichore, Erato and the rest of the crew were a Graeco-Roman version of BFFs. The nine ancient Muses who presided over the Arts were understood to share responsibilities, often “teaming up” with one another to inspire poets and artists. According to Hesiod, they not only worked together, they were “all of one mind, their hearts set upon song and their spirit free from care.”
This corporate view of Musedom was recognized even by the Buddha ( (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, 563-483 B.C.) who noted that “The virtues, like the Muses, always are seen in groups.” Even today, when the Muses are invoked in popular culture, as in the Krewe of Muses parade during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, all nine are present. In modern art and sculpture, their form may have changed, but their number has not. Something, it seems, is important about that group.
When Greeks and Romans envisioned the Muses as nine females - giving them names and histories, allowing them to live with the gods and interact with humanity, it was not the precise number which was important, but what it represented about the nature of the creative spark.The Muses weren’t ethereal solitaries wafting in from a wholly other world to speak directly to an artist’s soul in some disembodied way. Each Muse was part of a community, embedded there as the perfect embodiment of vital and creative forces roaming unfettered through the universe.
When a Muse speaks her word of inspiration, she speaks through the created order: the natural world in which we live, the communities which nurture us, the imagination, curiosity and thought which characterize human life. The Muse may speak through the fragrance of the night, the lilt of the bird or the grace of grasses bending in the breeze, but she just as surely speaks from that deadbeat Dad, the echoes of war or the passion and pain of relationship lost.
Becca picks up on this reality in her last Write on Wednesday prompt. “If you have a moment to write during these next days,” she says, ” you might share your thoughts on the people who have inspired you in your writing journey.” She understands that the muse can – and often does – speak through those who surround us, and she suggests teachers and parents, children, authors and friends as sources of inspiration.
Pondering her list, I realized that, if I hope to catch a glimpse of my Muse, I look first to my readers. It’s my readers who most dependably challenge and confront, console and encourage. Their words help to clarify my thoughts and sensitize my spirit. Above all, they read and respond in such prolific variety that, if I clipped and saved every interesting or worthwhile comment, they’d fill a hundred manila folders.
In ancient times, the Muses wore gowns and laurel, carrying lyres, tablets or globes as their tokens. Modern Muses are more likely to be running the country in tee shirts and jeans, carrying a Blackberry Bold and doing the ipod shuffle. Sometimes they’re found surfing through blogsites, scattering comments like laurel leaves. If you look closely, you can even see a Muse or two wearing the Nike swoosh, with its famous legend, Just do It. That’s a Muse who understands reality, and I’d be happy to be on her team.
We are a team, my readers and I, and I’ve known it for months. In fact, I’ve become so convinced of this strange reality I’ve wanted to find a way to honor its existence. Becca gave me a shove with her prompt, and so is born Team Muse – a way to acknowledge, one by one, those who are making my writing possible .
Each week or two, or now and then, or when Inspiration strikes, I’ll add to the tee-shirt the name of a reader who’s stirred me to creative thought, and the title of the poem or essay that resulted. When your turn comes, you not only get a bit of recognition for your insight and commentary, you’ll get a virtual tee-shirt to show off to your friends and a place on my Team Muse page.
Musing over the concept these past weeks, I’ve found it amuses me terrifically. Even more, it reminds me to honor the fact that we’re all in this together, readers and writers alike. Like the sisterhood of the Nine Muses, we need one another to do our work. Like the Nine Muses, we’ve been granted that gift by the gods.