COURTING THE MUSE … lessons from P.L. Travers, John Steinbeck and others of note

ravers in the role of Titania in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, c. 1924

Travers in the role of Titania in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1924


Some of us say we write from the heart, some from spirit. P. L. Travers, OBE (1899-1996, Australian national, British citizen),  actress, poet and the conjuror of Mary Poppins, wrote in a Parabola* article that

I sit down inside my abdomen and brood and brood until I figure out how I feel about it.”

E1tZzQ4WVeS._SL250_FMpng_I noted the quotation, but I don’t remember the exact context of the piece. I think that was Tavers’ way of talking about the exploration of a painful childhood, one out of which she created a children’s classic. She once told a friend that the people and the objects of her early life were like a spindle around which she wove the threads of her imagination. That worked for her as a writer and for us as readers. In using her childhood to create characters and stories, she gave us a gift that ranks with those given to us by J.M. Barrie, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll.

Of course art-making isn’t therapy, but I often think artists don’t need to be quite so loath to admit some relationship between art-making and therapy.” Short-story writer, Deborah Eisenberg, Paris Review Interview #218, 2016

Travers’ why of writing was – at least in part – to heal and to imagine the childhood she would have liked.

Ultimately, we write for many reasons: to heal, to find closure or completion, to find meaning and understanding and to cherish the gifts of life. I like to relish life through writing. When I write a poem about an experience or observation, it’s often a way to savor it, prolong or relive the pleasure. It’s a way to live hugely. On the other hand, sometimes I use fiction to reframe experience. I think most people would agree that we also write to have our say and – in the spirit of Joseph Conrad – to help the reader see. That may sound to some like colossal chutzpah, but we all have something to say. We all have a perspective to share.

No matter where our writing comes from or why we write, we have to get the job done. For many of us the muse is a fairly consistent companion. For others it’s a struggle to connect. Either way, we develop habits, disciplines, and rituals to court the muse. It is often as though there is a sort of magical thinking or personal superstition in play. We must sit in this chair at this desk or at this cafe or we simply can’t write. Perhaps that’s why well-known and prolific writers are always being asked how, when and where they write, just another way of saying, “How do you court the muse?”  The answers writers give can reveal demons, superstitions, irritation with the question, or even a tongue firmly in cheek. The “tips” or “rules” can be wise, cool, pragmatic, quirky, absurd or disagreeable. You may end up feeling affirmed, acquiring a useful tool or finding yourself entertained.

Yesterday I posted Henry Miller, A Writer’s Writer, which included his rules. One of his rules was clearly applicable only to him and only to writing Black Spring. Some readers will disagree with Miller’s policy of working on one project at a time. So do I. I think many of us find one activity feeds another, that our multiple projects or different artistic outlets form a rich diet for the muse and make us more productive. I have a writer friend who says, “suum cuique” . . . to each his own  . . . though to the old Romans that phrase was about justice (may each get their due), not writing rituals. But the point is made.

200px-Journal-of-a-novel_cover-smallJohn Steinbeck’s tips are pragmatic, born of a long, intense and consistent experience. In the fall of 1968, Steinbeck was actually too ill for a standard interview and one was pieced together from the East of Eden diaries (Journal of a Novel) and from some letters, which were later collected and published in one book. The tips have been widely published and were also included in Steinbeck’s Paris Review, The Art of Fiction** interview.

“1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”.
Jack Kerouac’s famous thirty tips are … well, they’re Jack … quirky … but useful  … You can check them out HERE on the Gotham Writers’ Workshop site.

Jack Kerouac by Palumbo

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), American poet and novelist

For poets, the best tip I ever got was to “listen to and feel, see and smell the world around you.” Poetry is everywhere. It’s in the air and its scents, in the conversations you overhear, in your self-talk and memories, in the arguments with your spouse and the aroma of dinner cooking. It’s in the coo of the mourning dove, in the feel of your child’s hand in yours, in your own hopes and dreams and the life experiences and observations others share with you. It’s in the news and in history. Be open to everything without exception. Nora Ephron constantly reminded those around her that everything “is copy.” We might say that everything is potential poetry.

Some of my best lessons came from my high school English teacher, Sister Francis of Assisi, C.S.J. who encouraged my early writing. Sometimes I imagine her leaning over my desk and I hear her whispering  …

What is it you really want to say?
Is this word appropriate? It is accurate?
What is your theme?
Does this really have to rhyme? Be cautious of rhyming.
Is this artfully dramatic or is it bad melodrama?
Is that lyrical or flowery?”

Read and read some more:
What poets do you enjoy most? Why? What can you learn from reading their work?
What poems do you dislike? Why? What can you learn from your reaction?

Reorder and rename the everyday. In truth the ordinary is often extraordinary and it’s your job to recognise and illustrate this.

Practically speaking, the muse is probably most responsive to the simple act of gluing the seats of our pants to our chairs and staying there until the job is done. Perhaps the muse is not fickle. Perhaps to be constant she requires our constancy.

Tips, tricks and rules are helpful and can be inspiring, but take them under advisement. In the end, the best magic for courting the muse is the magic that works for you ….

Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand”. Henry Miller

* Parabola is a magazine of The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. P.L. Travers was one of the founders.
** The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction interviews from 1953 through 2016 are posted online.

© 2016, essay, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; Photo credits ~ P.L. Travers via Wikipedia, uploaded there by Rossiter and in the Australian public domain. The book cover art likely belongs to the publisher or estate and is courtesy of Bookworm  (Mary Poppins) and Wikipedia (Journal of a Novel), Jack Kerouac by Palarmo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic