Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Muse

The following is a book-inspired blog contribution to the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received the book from the publisher free-of-charge, however I was not compensated to write this entry. You can read what others had to say in reaction to the book here.

After reading Elizabeth Kostova’s absorbing novel, The Swan Thieves, I felt truly daunted about ever writing an accomplished work of fiction. When an author weaves together plot, literary allusion, lucid description and history with such facility that one is tempted to search fruitlessly for her fictitious characters (guilty) on Wikipedia, it fills the fellow author with admiration.

Literature has long served as a source of inspiration for me. Reading a turn of phrase that is particularly well-crafted, a character who is coaxed into being, an observation that is at once new and has always been true, inevitably leads to writing. (Not unlike how the art of others inspires—sometimes to obsession—the artist-protagonists of The Swan Thieves).

But these writings are rarely sustained and exist mostly in journals...thoughts tucked away. Many are never revisited until it is time to move them to a new place…and then I pour over them, marveling that I once thought this or said that…only to return them to obscurity.

For much of my life I have lacked a muse. Oh, there is inspiration everywhere. This I believe. But a muse compels you to write. She picks up your hand and suddenly the words flow out onto the page as fast as you can conceive of them. She is your reason and your source. Without her, you are trite, flat, uninspired.

In college, my writing was, at best, mediocre. I didn’t know how to be honest. I tried to write clever little stories. I tried to write from life.

Ultimately, I allowed myself to be crushed when, fresh from Latvia with several hundred pages of my experiences, I sat before my senior project committee and was told (by a bitter woman who hadn’t wanted me to go to Latvia in the first place, but to stay and write feminist literary criticism of Shakepeare as her apprentice) that my writing was sophomoric. That peppering it with Latvian words did not give it a historical context. That I better settle for a passing “P” over a “D” that was sure to diminish my GPA. (Never mind that my current advisor had never said a word of this to me in the five months we worked together.)

I set down my pen for almost 20 years.

I’m being melodramatic. I did write a dissertation. And a number of volumes of prevention curricula…but all of it was strictly professional.

Until Sophia. It was shortly after her birth that a friend, who knew I once wrote, encouraged me to join her at a story slam. Each writer had to generate a few pages on a theme and read them to an audience in a bar.

The theme was Cabin Fever. Having just given birth, I knew cabin fever. I sat down and felt Sophia, my muse work through me. The words came, without labor, without self-consciousness. That night, a glorious night when I was reminded that I could write, I went home with $17 dollars in winnings nestled in my wallet.

And now, I have faithfully continued to write at least one piece each week for the past three years. I may never write a great work of fiction, but my muse has led me back to a writing life. Every day she is there, fueling my desire to create, to articulate my experience, to capture and connect with whoever cares to read.


Emily said...

Ms. Kostova's writing also left me feeling that I was a first-grader trying to write a paragraph! I too looked up Robert Oliver and my son is definitely my number one muse!

Emily said...

I really enjoyed reading your reflections on your writing journey. In much the same vein, I often think about how my children have reconnected me to my joy of music, specifically the act of singing. This lost passion reemerged when I took my first child to a children's Music Together class and I rediscovered the joy of making music with others and myself. It was also a profound inspiration to see how effortlessly children make music. Although it sounds cliche, I find that being a parent continually challenges me to "find my voice" (musical and otherwise!) in many realms of my life.

Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

Please follow your true passion and keep writing! That woman was a dream stealer, only thinking about herself!

Bay said...

LOL Yes! I totally looked up Beatrice de Clerval just to see if she existed ;o)

Brenda Bartella Peterson said...

Thank you for a thoughtful post, Melissa. So glad you have a muse and please keep writing. You have much to say and it needs saying!

Brenda Bartella Peterson said...

P.S. I turned to the web to look up SEVERAL bits of art history. This book was thick in more ways than pages!

Elaine said...

Wow! Yay you for going to the story slam. What a great opportunity to start your writing up again.

Michelle said...

That is great! I love how we find our muses in the .. most unexpected places. But the advisor there? Bah. Ick.