Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I think it was 2003 when I went to London with my family. On one of our Sundays, we went to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. This is the place where anyone can come and try to attract an audience to listen to what they have to say. Those who want to take a stab at it bring something to stand on--a little step stool or some such--as it helps attract attention.
All kinds of people come, and they talk about all kinds of things. Some people dress up a little, to help attract attention. Some people are kind of marginal or nutty and talk about things like why we should all use olive oil. Other people make heavy-duty political arguments. It seems enormously democratic--the idea of having a voice if you want to use it. It actually reminds me a little of blogging. Each of us in our little space, saying what we like, hoping someone will listen.

My family and I were fascinated, and we stayed for a long time, listening to a lot of people. Some people seemed to be regulars, and have a regular audience. It's interesting to think about why some people get the bigger audiences. Same with bloggers. Some people put up a post and get hundreds of responses. Others get zero. Oh well.

As you might be able to imagine, in 2003, we heard lots of speakers dissing George W. Bush and America. One fellow, who seemed to be a regular and who attracted a good crowd, said that Bush was a demonic terrorist. Also, this speaker made several claims and generalizations about America or Americans. My family and I were standing in the crowd, and let me tell you, it was awkward and uncomfortable to feel lumped together with George Bush and US policy in this way.
     Near me were several African men. They had light scarring on their cheeks, which I recognized as African. Something about me must have been recognizable as American because one man reached over, gently placed his hand on my arm and said, "We know the difference between a country's policy and its people."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Occasion of Finally Understanding the Muse

The past few weeks, I have been waaaaaaay deep into revising my new novel--hoping that this is my last pass through the manuscript. If it is, off it then goes to the agent and from there, if the agent thinks it's ready, to an array of editors and a range of fates too numerous to mention. Once it leaves my hands, I have little if any control over it. But while it's in my hands, I am the lord and the master. Authors sometimes talk about the characters "taking over" and so forth (I know you've heard this), but Nabokov once said something along the lines of "No way. This is the one place in the world where I am fully in charge." No way anyone was going to boss him around.
     The thing is that with this kind of authority also comes responsibility--something wimpy types like myself may waffle over. It might sound good to be the decider, and I might not like the idea of others making decisions for me, but when I'm the decider, I have to decide. And stand by those decisions. Take responsibility. 
     Writing a novel, or creating anything, involves a practically infinite number of decisions--from the very small (where a comma will go, whether a verb will be in the past or present tense, what color a person's dress will be) to the medium size (how to describe a particular thought or emotion, to really get at its essence; how long to spend doing that; whether the character will say yes or no to the offer from the handsome stranger) to the large (will the character live or die?). And so on. This is where the Muse comes in. Or my new understanding of the concept.
The picture at the top of the post features the nine muses. Just above is a closeup of three of them. In many images of the muses, they are either very involved with each other (as in the top picture) or somewhat self-involved, as I think they are in this one. Maybe a better way to say it is that they have their own preoccupations. They are not necessarily thinking about ME.
     Sometimes when I am writing, the work flows in a way that I can only describe in mystical terms--as if guided by something outside me. Perhaps this is what people mean about characters taking over. But in my case, it's not a particular character but a whole rush of a scene or its meaning or its emotional core. When this is happening to me, it is not a matter of making decisions. Even the word "decisions" doesn't seem to fit. Too analytical. Too cold. The feeling is very warm and floaty. To me, this is the presence of the Muse. Someone or something both outside and inside and all around that is guiding the enterprise, lifting the weight and the agony of all those decisions from my shoulders. I do not need to wonder whether I have made the right choice. It is simply there before me. Oh, fickle Muse, why don't you visit more often?
    Muses come in many forms. I have talked about this on the blog before. Once I wrote about my mother--in pincurls, sitting at an old manual typewriter, a cigarette in an ashtray beside her--as my muse.

Every summer, Patry and I write about blueberries and bake blueberry pies for our muse(s). And one year, I came to think of the magnificent Sal as my muse. Now there's a muse who looks you right in the eye, even if she does wander off at crucial moments.