Monday, April 16, 2012

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone? Part 3, Allow Your Writing a Life of Its Own

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention…”

I still get a few shivers when I read that cry for a muse at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s play Henry V. “A Muse of Fire”—I love it! That’s the opposite of cliché language, to take the muses, spirits of the water, and turn them into flame.
But I’m not suggesting that you begin your works with an address to the muse. That is the very last thing I would ever suggest.
What’s most interesting to me about the ancient concept of the muse is that it seems like a fairly accurate description of the creative process when it reaches a certain speed or intensity—in other words, when it works best. When we are writing at our most inspired, it does feel as if the work is flowing from a spring beyond our personal consciousness. Even if we are writing about our most intimate memories or hopes, a moment can occur where we feel as if we are taking dictation, or as if the work is pouring through us, rather than from us.
This reminds me of that famous moment in literary history when the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was walking by himself on the ramparts of Duino Castle by the Adriatic Sea, at the very edge of the European landmass and at the extreme moment of his personal despair. Rilke looked at the waves dynamiting against the rocks and the bunched-up storm and heard the first words of the Duino Elegies come to him as if out of a dark cloud: “Even if I cried out loud, who would hear me in the ranks of the angels?” It’s a strange and fascinating question: why does he need the angels to hear him? That kind of line in Rilke’s poetry is so intriguing and maddening. It’s what makes me come back to his work over and over.
What does this mean for us as writers, that we seem to reach our greatest personal triumphs when we are least personally in control of our writing? It’s a humbling truth, one that should keep us from getting too swell-headed about our work. But beyond that, can we use the idea of the muse, or of an external inspiration, in practice? Can this idea help us as writers and as critical editors of our own creations?
To try to persuade you why this is important, I’m going to approach this subject by means of a metaphor: the parent and the child. There is a sense in which we are the parents of our writing, not its owners, any more than a father or a mother owns a child. Parents always want certain things for their children—those wishes may be a father or mother’s deepest hopes, in fact. But parents who insist on their children being just like them or parents who demand that their kids fulfill their frustrated dreams are missing one of the great mysteries of parenting. The greater challenge, for the parent and for the writer, is to witness the child or the work forming itself on its own, so closely related to the parent, but independent and with its own hopes and desires and weaknesses. Similarly, when we see our own writing most clearly is when we are no longer thinking of what we want for the work. We begin to think of what is best for the work. We start to let our writing tell us what it wants us to do for it, not what we want for it.

In my next blog I’ll discuss how this need for the work to exist on its own played out in the writing of one of my favorite novels, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5