Genre Trouble: (Mis) Use of the Muse

This post is dedicated to my colleague E. E. Ottoman, who raised the question in this Twitter conversation. The glory of Twitter is that you can have conversations with friends and colleagues, then come back to them later.

This exchange began with a retweeted comment from Sasha Devlin about writers invoking the idea of the Muse, and merely being a conduit for the story and characters, in answer to charges of racism. Ottoman added transphobia to the list, and I chimed in that the “Muse excuse” is as repellent as the “swept away” conceit for bad behavior of all kinds. (See also “drunk at the time.”)

Artistic work, creative work of any kind (including problem-solving in the sciences), has a conscious and an unconscious component. My mentors were fond of cooking and farming metaphors: you plant the seed, but it grows on its own; you mix the ingredients of the cake, apply heat — but the process of glop-becoming-cake is independent of your effort. (In fact, if it’s a soufflé, you’re well advised not to stomp around while it’s in process.)

A part of the mind that chews on problems when we’re not consciously attending to them, even when we’re asleep. I’ve had coherent dreams about problems I was chewing on in real life, as various as Russian grammar (in a dream about crocodiles infesting cars on the Paris Metro) and coordinate description of conic sections. More than once I’ve turned my back on a a problem, gone for a walk, and returned to find it solved. And even the most casual practitioner of mindfulness has caught themselves thinking thoughts they had no idea were going through their head, whether it’s the enumeration of the grocery list or the daydream/nightmare of what could go wrong (next).

Theater has a lot of lessons for us writer-types. I was mentored by a writer/performer who trained extensively in the Method, which is nothing less than a protocol for possession. We learn the sensory experiences of our characters and put them on while drawing on our own experiences and emotions. Actors, like writers, apply both emotion and intellect to their artistic work, and run some of the same spiritual and psychological risks: to believe (too much) in our own hype, to be taken over by ideas not our own, to invite Presences into our head-space who may not act as we wish.  We must balance emotion, and formal rigor, which includes intellectual awareness, historic context. Conscientious actors do TONS of research for their roles.

Writers do their first apprenticeship as readers. We absorb the forms we love; novel-readers eat novels and turn them into plot-bones; poets drink verse forms and rhythms, learning them as a jazz musician learns standards. I’ve joked on more than one occasion that writers are vectors for stories. The “muse” invoked above is the product of our decades of reading. In the course of our conversation on Twitter, Ottoman expressed irritation at the notion that all you had to do to be “marketable” was to be sufficiently “inspired.” Now, “what sells’ is a function of the industry’s search for The Next Sure Thing, but to some extent those “inspired” writers replicating old tropes are like well-rehearsed actors; they have learned those forms, internalized them so that (for better or worse) they come as naturally as breathing.

Of course, the sure thing is a chimera. Publishing, like all artistic ventures, is a crapshoot. The media love “overnight success” stories. The reality: decades of discipline, training, practice, then lucky break. Those decades of practice, for a writer, include our reading.

Doctors take an oath to “first do no harm.” We underestimate our power as writers if we don’t have a similar resolution. The “Mere Entertainer” pose does not take the role of artist/writer seriously. I live in fear of Getting It Wrong, and inevitably do so, as a fallible human being. I am so glad that none of my teenage efforts Full of Fail are published – not because of vanity, but out of desire not to hurt readers. I believe it is our ethical and intellectual duty to examine critically the ideas we receive from the culture, to listen to other voices, and strive to do no harm.

I know that Fail lurks in my current work. My culture is itself Full of Fail (racism, sexism, *ism) and I am a product of it. I grew up inside it. I’m constantly finding its thoughts stuck to the inside of my head, otherwise known as the Flypaper Theory of Internalized Fail.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m excused from paying attention, or that the content of my work is outside my conscious will.

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