Showing posts with label T.S. Eliot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T.S. Eliot. Show all posts

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder


by Janice Law

Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.