My muse has been unpredictable lately as we ride this roller coaster with E.
Some days, it awakens as soon as I summon it, eager to make suggestions as I re-vision my work-in-progress. Some nights, it awakens me from sleep, eager for me to find a pen. Other times--more often than I'd like to admit, my muse refuses to surface, and I wonder whether or not I'll ever find the words I need to make sense of the world.
To understand my process (and come to terms with it), I've turned to a number of craft books. Some are rereads. Some are new reads. Most all were purchased during one Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children Residency or another based on recommendations by friends and faculty. They are:
bird by bird by Anne Lamott
Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
I'm particularly fond of an essay called "Write Anyplace," from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg launches the piece with a long list of excuses and reasons why we don't write, why we can't write, why we won't write.
"Okay," Goldberg says in the opening paragraph. "Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can't find his shoes, your car won't start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of the nuclear holocaust..." And so on and so on.
The litany of excuses rings true on so many different levels. Lately, instead of writing, I give in to the siren's call of laundry and dishes and clutter clean-up, answer the phone instead of letting the machine pick up, surf from one blog to another--just one more--instead of focusing on my work-in-progress, and I mull over E's health files and reports as if I will find a miracle solution the doctor has overlooked.
I reread Goldberg's list, nodding all the while. I've been there. Done that. I've made lists. If I put them end to end they'd fill an entire chapter of her book, if not the entire book.
Goldberg doesn't end the essay with her list. She throws the litany down on the page like a gauntlet, then utters the following challenge:
"In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definite act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write."
I closed the book, pushed away from the sofa, paced from the living room to the dining room and back again. Stared out the picture window. Watched the snow drifting to the ground, felt the chill pane beneath my hand, heard the click of our golden retriever nails on the hardwood floor. Buffy's warm body leaned against mine. Her cold nose nudged my hand.
"In the center of the chaos...Just write. Just write. Just write."
I combed my fingers through Buffy's ruff. All this time I've believed my muse the problem child. All this time, I've believed it uncooperative.
Goldberg's essay suggests my muse hasn't been the problem. Following her logic, my muse has been waiting and willing all along. All it's ever wanted is to write. To make sense of the chaos. To claim it by making "one positive step (...) one definite act."
All this time, I've been puttering at my keyboard, giving in to my guilt over not writing more, comparing my process to others. Granting my inner critic too much power.
I'm reminded of Jane Resh Thomas' advice for taming the inner critic.
* Write a list of all your fears and regrets.
* Burn the list and collect the ashes.
* Take note of how little space they take. Remember how little they weigh as they pour down from your hand.
The semester I had Jane for an advisor, she gave each of us a tiny enamel box crafted in the shape of a butterfly. The box fit into the palm of my hand. Store your fears in the box, she said, so you no longer need to carry them.
My fears never overflowed that box when I used it. Despite the lists I made, the butterfly was always big enough to hold the ashes.
Time to write my list. Time to write it and burn it and summon my muse.