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.


Anonymous said...

If my memory serves - which is questionable - I seem to remember that one of Ms. Muse's appearances comes after you bake blueberry pies.

Susan Messer said...

well, in a sense. The blueberry pies are baked to summon the Muse. This does not mean that she always appears.

Jim Poznak said...

I know you don't want to take all the credit, and the notion of a beneficent, powerful outside guide is appealing, but perhaps you are really your own Muse, making all the decisions, the great and the small.

Susan Messer said...

well, I suppose it does always come down to that. You know those acknowledgment sections in books when the author thanks everyone but ends by saying, "but of course any errors or weaknesses are entirely my responsibility." Anyway, the work is so hard sometimes. It's hard to believe it could all come from inside.

Margaret P. said...

Doesn't the concept of "flow" let one take credit for the work of one's muse? Or is "flow" also supposed to be something outside oneself?

Susan Messer said...

Hmmmm. Not sure about this. I think it's described that ways these things always are--in some semi-mystical way. And whenever we're in the territory of the semi-mystical, it seems it's always some combo of inner and outer and all around. Maybe it's that the inner becomes the outer and vice-versa. No boundaries or distinctions at all.

Patry Francis said...

Sometimes it feels like those classic dreams in which someone is chasing you and you're filled with various kinds of terror and dread, and then just before they catch you, you start to fly.

At least, that's how my recent edits went. After a month of wandering in the dark, I woke up in a bright room with wings on my back. Is that light the presence of the muse or something more prosaic--or both?

Meanwhile, as I grappled with the manuscript and myself, the blueberries I bought for our pie rotted in the fridge--an epic sin given their cost and wonderfulness. But I haven't given up.

This year I won't make a pie to summon the muses, but to honor them--both yours and mine. It seems that you have come a long way since we were in touch last.

Susan Messer said...

Oh, Patry. I've been wondering how it's going. would love to hear more soon. Glad the light and wings showed up. It's such an amazing process. Very painful at times. But then there's so much percolating outside our consciousness. And sometimes it breaks through. I attribute the breakthroughs to the "muse" and something more prosaic--hard work, discipline, concentration, fear, sheer wanting--if you can call those things prosaic.