The Way of the Muse – A Feast of Honey-dew?

On her truly magical Mythic Arts blog The Drawing Board, writer, artist and editor, Terri Windling has offered up a delicious word-feast in which she explores artistic inspiration, the Muse, differing approaches to artistic creation (whether by planning or intuition, or both) – and the edgy, fine line that can hover between madness, and the otherworld of the artist/ writer/ poet as shaman. Her post was inspired by the equally wonderful discussion ‘Around the Table’ between Brian and Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn over on the John Barleycorn Must Die blog. I highly recommend a visit to the discussion – Part One and Part Two - it’s like attending a magical word-weave of the very web and fabric of creativity and our relationship to the land (why don’t such wonderful discussions ever happen around my kitchen table? If I had a kitchen table… but you know what I mean…)

The poet as shaman made me think of Ted Hughes (but that needs a whole other post to itself, I think!) It also led my thoughts to the incantation and invocation of tipping-edge inspiration in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan - where we glimpse visions brought to us by the precariously balanced seer, enclosed within his magic circle:

‘That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.’

Terri’s post was partly intended as a spark for a Moveable Feast; and additional delicious dishes have since been passed from blog to blog across the world, each serving up their unique and expansive insights and experiences to add to the table.

Feeling daunted and not quite up to the job – but nevertheless unable to ignore the persistent pestering of my muse to serve up something too – here’s my very slow-cooked offering for the after dinner platter:

(The illustrations are the produce of my fifteen year old daughter’s own muse, which is in wonderful, glorious, intuitive flight. They are all part of her work in progress, and are included here by her kind permission. Some are unfinished – all are characters from the current series of fantasy novels she’s creating).

As I’ve spoken about before, my own muse has only just begun to re-awaken after being asleep for a long time; too long. To tell the truth, I find it uncomfortable to talk about the reasons – mainly because it’s a story that doesn’t belong to me alone. I don’t want those reasons to sound like a negation of the whole story’s amazing positives. It’s just life – happening. As it will…

But, to give some sense of context, perhaps I need to do a little filling in. Eleven years ago, my son was born four months too early (at 24 weeks gestation) – right at the very edge of what doctors call “viability.” He was the most fragile and tiniest of human beings (weighing 1 lb. 11 ounces) but his spirit was as huge as the hills. I learnt something truly profound when I watched that spirit overwhelm the limits of the incubator; witnessed my son immediately react, with recognition, to the voices he’d heard in the womb (mine, his dad’s, his sister’s) and reach out to life and love, binding to us with an iron will. Over the months, his determination was stretched, again and again, beyond what seemed possible to endure. Constantly we were told to expect the worst. Every day, every minute…

In the long-term, such things take their toll. In the short-term, with no focus on anything but coping, the whole world shrinks to the size of a plastic box and a ventilator - the universe of the precious scrap of life they support. You fear he will never get out of there. You fear he’ll never feel the sun or see the wide sky, or be touched by the waves of the sea.

Though the glorious day comes when you can lift that baby to the sky, place his feet gently in the sea – watch his gaze as it expands to the wide horizon, and see the wonder in his eyes – all is still not well. Concerns crowd as you realise the childhood milestones are slipping by – and doctors frown and send you to endless consultations. Then the diagnoses pile in – cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a following list of stuff you have to look up, and stuff you don’t want to look up.

Life becomes family and surviving – nothing else matters. Deep-ingrained creativity still did its work, feeding into making sure the children flourished and were nourished by what’s important - but, for a long while, if I thought about personal creative expression at all, it was to realise that it had been shocked into silence, mangled by crisis; sent into hiding by lack of opportunity and energy, and by lost faith in life. As time went on, the Muse woke briefly for intermittent periods – but usually became overwhelmed by the need to just get what had to be done, done. Time came back into my grasp eventually, but mind-space and energy for creating fiction eluded; doubts and slammed-shut doorways of the brain rusted over. Moments when the Muse came back were wonderful, healing. But the fear of opening them up, only to have them slammed shut again, painted a more terrible prospect than not opening them at all, so the safer option seemed preferable.

But it wasn’t the safer option. It was the most self-destructive. For anyone who feels the creative urge, that tug to follow the Muse brings glimpses of an edge of doubts and peril – but I’ve learnt that to not follow leaves you closer to the falling-edge behind you. Only by answering that forward tug, can you get to the edge where you can fly. Sometimes you have to drag yourself there, crawling inch by inch. Sometimes, you can fling open a door, and a following wind lifts you through and hurries you forward, opening the wide sea ahead of you. Sometimes it seems very far away indeed, glimpsed through a keyhole. The Muse changes her mind – gets cross at interruptions. Retreats until ‘the readiness is all.’

But it wasn’t just circumstances that held me back – it was me. When I was a child I would write, write, write – sitting on my bed, notebook on my knees, scribble, scribble. Messy, almost indecipherable words would spill across the page, my aching hand trying to keep up with characters who rushed ahead on their story-paths, beckoning me on as they revealed their tales. I would enter the dreamtime, follow where it took me. But somewhere along the line, I read – and most importantly took far too much to heart – one too many writing guidance books full of market advice and a million and ones things to research and consider. Every time I got into a tangle with my plots, themes, characters – and anyone who writes, will always get into tangles (I know that now) – I would shrink back into those doubts and check lists. What was I doing wrong? What steps did I need to take – 1,2,3? I should have planned more! Wasn’t this or that element floating too wide of the mark of what was required? I began to slip out of engaging with the work itself – and instead, focussed on some kind of outwardly imposed framework that I was trying to hang it on. I got things the wrong way round.

I needed patience, not brow beating. I needed diligence and faith to keep going – and to allow myself to wait for things to unfold out of that deep valley between the two worlds we tread when we create. Stepping away from creativity – and wholly into the world of must-do, daily coping - protects the self only for so long. Getting stuck there withers something. I’ve never discovered what it’s like to step too far into the otherworld – to have dined too much on honeydew and drunk ‘the milk of Paradise,’ to become like Coleridge’s shamanic poet figure. I suspect I never will. I think that requires a level of talent I don’t possess. But I do recognise, to a certain extent, the state Zadie Smith describes in a quote Terri highlights:

‘…a kind of magical thinking takes over….. you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post – I mean there’s nothing in the world except your book…… The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time changes.’

In my twenties, when I made my first adult-years attempt to write what my heart most wants to create – a children’s fantasy novel, I was back in my happy place; the intuitive dreamtime, learning about writing in the best way possible – by doing it every day. Like everything, it has its flipsides – and during that time, I experienced that protracted feeling of not fully returning to this world, or not always paying proper attention to what was said to me – because the phantoms of my characters and story-visions were floating somewhere in between what might be and what is. I understand the Ancient Mariner’s ‘glittering eye’ – his scary, burning need to tell his story.

When I was commissioned by a big magazine publishing company to write children’s short stories for their syndicate sales abroad, I was right in the middle of becoming a mother for the first time. Of course I know now, this was one of the worst times I could have put so much extra pressure on myself. I must have been mad. I remember taking a call from an editor, my new-born daughter draped across my shoulder, trying to take down plot notes, whilst her tiny body hurled colicky howls down the phone line. I’d had a few other pieces of work accepted before, but this was my first chance to fulfil a dream of regular, paid writing work – and I was desperate to grab it whilst it was on offer. I kept on going, writing story after story – following guidelines and formulas the editors supplied. Sometimes the plot lines were theirs. Sometimes they were my own. Sometimes the Muse could stretch and feel fulfilled. Sometimes, my ideas broke out of the required mould – and had to be shaped and pared down beyond recognition. Sometimes the results were an improvement. Sometimes I felt that market requirement limits were shrinking something of integrity to a one size fits all. Some of the reader expectations the editors told me to play to dismayed me. What a shame, I remember thinking, if that’s really what those kids want, or have been taught to want. I wanted to give my young readers something that leapt in many directions; something expansive.

All this was such a valuable education, though. Those experience-wise editors, and those writing challenges, gifted me a lot of learning. But the practical Real World and the Muse World were beginning to collide in a way that was mutually detrimental. Muse World was no longer a healing dreamtime – but a snatched must-time. I was at home all day, fully focussed on the children, and when my husband returned from work to take over the childcare, I’d reluctantly drag myself off to write, painfully trying to switch my brain to otherworld whilst all my thoughts clung to Real World. Those times ate into our precious chances to all be together; whilst deadlines meant that, when a plot problem was knotted in my mind, I became irritable – tugged in different directions by the demands of the two worlds. In a last-gasp fit of madness, I tried to keep that writing opportunity afloat during all the difficult challenges of my son’s early years – but it led to burn out. In the end, wanting to be fully present for my family – plus changes in the children’s magazine market – flung me well and truly back into “Real” World.

Since then, there have been several attempts to get back to the otherworld – but too many hang ups about markets and requirements lingered on, prodding me mercilessly with doubts about my ideas and whether I was up to the mark.

Now I’ve decided that I don’t care if I never see another piece of my work published. I want to write for me; because it’s what I have to do to be me. I want to give myself the chance to achieve the dream I’ve held since I was a child – to write a long, sustained piece of work; to go back to that children’s fantasy novel – and to actually finish it. To know that I can do it. And because the characters are calling me back, insistent that they tell their story.

Then, I will print it off, stick it in a file – and it will be there for my daughter to read. I will have allowed something out that needs to take shape, and will have reached my most important reader. If it’s rubbish, then it’ll be part of an upward learning curve. If I decide it’s worth a punt to send it off for consideration for publication, then I will take that chance. But I won’t have that hanging over me anymore. I won’t let it. It’s like a sword of Damocles ready to descend and destroy something before it’s had a chance to come into being. I want the work to be the best I can do, because I love it; because I’ve engaged fully with the work, and what I expect of me and of it. I’m a tough task master – but the routes in my own brain are navigable in the way that some imposed routes from outside are not. If I don’t identify with the template, I’m never going to make the pattern fit. I can’t do stultifying second-guessing anymore. I need to submit to a more natural flow.

I can feel my muse smiling. She approves. She prefers the dreamtime. She loves the challenge of crafting-time and hard, creative demands too – but only after she’s laid a trail of magic; conjured the material to work with. Reading Terri’s wise and visionary post – and the inspirational comments and linked feasts that follow (so many words of deep insight and experience) – I realised more than ever that it’s okay to work the way I prefer. Okay to work intuitively. Okay to let the crafting be the follower and facilitator of inspiration, not its dictator, warder or potential executioner. And if I drink too much honeydew, sup too much of the ‘milk of Paradise’ (which, quite frankly, is unlikely – I think that’s the preserve of artists who reach a higher plane beyond my capabilities) maybe I’ll taste the other side of the perils of the Muse, and learn from that too. I’ve had enough of the perils of locking her out – and it involved too many draughts of something stagnant. A bitter brew that was not at all like honeydew.

My son has taught me much about life – its realities, its difficulties; the deep value of its smallest joys. He’s taught me to embrace and relax into what is, instead of fretting too much about what will never be. He’s my hero. Like all lessons worth learning, it didn’t come easy – and is on-going. Sometimes, without darkness, riches will never be revealed. Darkness can shed light on things in unforeseeable and unexpected ways. The Muse is a mistress of flipsides too – she’s taught me acceptance of her gifts, via the fears and difficulties. Waking her up, and benefitting from her healing, is getting easier, the more I recognise that.

Reading Terri’s post, the John Barleycorn blog discussions and the various moveable feasts, has prompted in me inspiration and crucial realisations. I realise I’m not alone, but on a shared path, full of turns that are familiar to many. I’m so thankful for that help. And I hope, in putting this out there, I can give something that will, in turn, resonate for others. Perhaps these lessons learnt may echo a journey someone out there needs to know can be resolved. And maybe too, those lessons might help my daughter, should she ever need them as guideposts on her creative path one day…

In the meantime, I’m weaving many, many wishes that her beautiful, intuitive muse will forever fly…