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Smell the Coffee: Musing on wrangling your muse

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "I should fire my muse," I grumbled as I stood before the open refrigerator, staring at the pitiful offerings.

"What's a muse?" my daughter asked.

"It's sort of a voice in your head," I said. "Like, if you're trying to come up with a story and something bizarre and intact suddenly occurs to you, out of nowhere. Or if you're typing and it feels like you're taking dictation rather than coming up with words on your own. The muse is who gives that to you."

"So it's kinda like your imaginary friend," Celeste said.

I shrugged. "Kinda."

"So are you thinking you're going to find her in there?" Celeste asked, with a nod toward the fridge. "Cause that seems like a rude place to store her. Or do muses get stale?"

Truth be told, my muse has gone stale. She's been doing this excessive absenteeism thing lately. Taken an unauthorized leave. Is likely off in the tropics re-evaluating her options. Whatever her excuse, she's a slacker these days.

Used to be that my muse was hyperactive, ferreting out column topics from most every conversation, rousting story ideas from nothing more than a glance into a stranger's shopping cart or a song on the radio. These days, she's surly, ill-tempered and repetitive.

I complained to a writer friend. "I need to figure out how to tickle my muse."

"Pickling it might be more effective," she said.

This writer friend, Ginger Hamilton, then sent me a link to a Ted Talks speech about muses by Elizabeth Gilbert, the charming author of "Eat, Pray, Love." Gilbert talked of how, in ancient Greece and Rome, people didn't believe that creativity came from humans, but rather that it came from a sort of spirit that entered into the person and guided them to create.

Said Gilbert, "If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it. Everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. But if your work bombed -- not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame."

Gilbert talked of an interview she once did with musician Tom Waits where the discussion rolled around to the subject of muses.

Waits said he was speeding down a Los Angeles freeway one day when he suddenly heard a little fragment of melody. It just popped into his head, "elusive and tantalizing, and he wanted it. It was gorgeous and he longed for it, but had no way to get it."

Waits didn't have paper or a pencil or a tape recorder, and he started to get anxious, thinking he was going to lose the song and then be haunted by it forever.

But instead of panicking, Waits looked up at the sky and said, "Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want that song to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today."

Gilbert was inspired by Waits and decided to take his muse handling to heart. Later, when she was attempting to work on a manuscript and nothing was coming, she began to feel overwhelmed by angst over the drivel she believed she was writing, so she looked up from her manuscript and spoke out loud to an empty corner of the room.

"Listen you ... thing," Gilbert said. "You and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant that it's not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this. I don't have any more than this.

"So if you want it to be better, then you've got to show up and do your part. But if you don't do that, you know what? The hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job."

Gilbert's book "Eat, Pray, Love" went on to become both a best-seller and a popular movie, so apparently, her muse listened.

My muse, however, did not.

I figure she's either stretched out on a beach somewhere.

Or tucked among crusty condiments at the back of the fridge.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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