I called a friend of mine last week to see if she were going to come out to the Open Mike, as she had said she would.
“Oh, no,” she said to me, “the Muse has struck, I have to write, I can’t do anything else. Sorry. Call me next time.”
Of course I was polite about it, but when I hung up, I felt distinctly disappointed. One reason was that she wouldn’t be at the open mike, because she’s a pretty good storyteller. But the other reason was this whole “the muse has struck and my life goes on hold”.
I distrust the concept of “being in the mood” to commit art. I don’t mean that there’s no such thing as being in the mood and the muse striking – quite the contrary. I’ve been in those places myself. It’s great to be on a hot streak with the muse pushing the pen, but it’s not the whole of the writing life.
I’ve also noticed that these moods never seem to strike a person, or at least strike irresistibly, when she’s in the middle of her job as an office administrator or court clerk. Can you see it? “Oooooh, sorry, Your Honour, the Muse calls – I have to go write!” I also don’t recall ever hearing one of these people say “I worked all day on that chapter and I’m ready to tear my hair out!” No, they write “in the mood” and the writing “just flows”. And that’s the only time they write, and everything stops for it, and the rest of the time they don’t write at all.
Here’s the truth of it, as I’ve learned it. Sometimes the muse is with you, and sometimes the muse is not. Very occasionally lightning strikes, and the words or images pour, and it’s all right, the first time, right there on the page. That’s about one per cent of the time. The other ninety-nine percent is work. It’s good work, it’s work we love, work we want to do, but it’s work.
Yes, I have times when I say “The muse is with me”. I have many more times when the muse is not, and all I have is my own ideas, and the technical skills I’ve acquired, and the compost heap in my brain that pushes up weird stuff. It is then that I know I’m a writer, because I sit and – dammit – write. And maybe I’ll have to throw everything I write that day out, or maybe there’ll be a gem in it I can use.
Stravinsky said, “Just as appetite comes from eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.” This is a great comfort to me, especially on days when the writing does not flow, and I’m not in the mood.
This is the difference between a writer and a want-to-be writer, this willingness to put the butt in the chair and the pointy end of the pencil on the paper even when – maybe especially when – you’re not in the mood.