Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Chasing the muse of inspiration

I was in tears over a paper last week. Stupid, isn’t it? For half a week, I mulled over a five-page Microsoft Word document. It was a Don Snow nature essay, a reflection on rock collecting. I couldn’t escape that paper, because every ounce of my mental energy went toward telling the story. I was… my thoughts were… my story was… everything. I tried to weave it all into an essay.

“You have to cork the Muse. She’s very fickle.” Poet Tess Gallagher finished her reading in Kimball Theatre last Thursday with a question and answer session. What everyone wanted to know, of course, was “How do you get your ideas?” Everyone goes to poetry readings to steal ideas: the audience’s pens hovered over notebooks. Gallagher says writers have muses and angels: the Muse gives us images to inspire the craft; the Angel, a structure to frame them.

You can tell that this woman thinks in images: she describes the difference between two of her published works: The first “is like someone playing cello under the moon. The second is “like an orchestra.”

She is wise about her craft. I have heard Irv Hashimoto say it’s worthless talking to writers about writing. “They never tell you what they’re really doing. They don’t know.” Better just to observe their work. I disagree. When writers can articulate what exactly they do, it’s better material to steal than style tips. Gallagher’s stories could never be mine, but her Muse and Angel metaphor put into words my writing agony. My fickle Muse brought me ideas: plenty: but my Angel eluded me. For centuries people have blamed the muse. They think they need to seek inspiration. Here’s Don Snow’s advice about essay topics: “Go out and mow the lawn. Think about it.” Hell, Thoreau spent months staring at a pond. Maybe these people are onto something. Maybe our biggest problem is the amount of stuff that comes filtering through our brains. Maybe we’d all be better writers if we processed the world in single portions.

We can’t. Modern-day writing requires weaving: linking knowledge from multiple sources to bring a point into focus. Linking science with art; narratives with cultural phenomena; psychology with street scenes; Shakespeare with slam poetry. We can’t write straight-up Wordsworth any more, because people won’t stomach it. People crave new angles and metaphors: we’re cross-disciplinary multi-taskers. The Muse is showing up all over the place, in every sort of discipline.

Stop chasing the Muse, because what you’re really looking for is the Angel. Take good notes, and learn to weed them.

Contact Emma Wood at
[email protected]

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    FloApr 26, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Sometimes the Muses are so impish, playing by their contrast to tease the Angel. They become hard to catch, profiting of their plenty. And you start to look for the Angel, with fluster, impatience and silliness. To muscle towards aspiration and inspiration become a game of hide-and-seek where you would stay too much the seeker. It’s so irritating. So stop you, don’t cry, don’t run. And behind trees, behind walls, look up and look at them, the Muses lift and come back with you. They present themselves to you, leaving their heave behind them, and the Angel is among them. Suddenly so majestic. He has always been there to frame you, but quiet when he was confronted with the Muses’ sharp swirl.