On that elusive muse

Ah, the muse. A topic so many artists of all media have contemplated over the years. Since in Greek mythology, the Muses were actual embodiments of knowledge and the arts, some poets have considered themselves to simply be conduits of art between the Muses and the public. Others believe they can’t produce without inspiration from their muse. There has been plenty of discourses about muses throughout the centuries, including a joke in Dogma and a wonderful novel by my friend Rachel Waxman, so I’m not really going to add to that. But I have had some thoughts about the artist and the muse of late.

Nowadays, I hear a lot from writers (and most of them are beginners)  about letting the muse  tell them what will happen next; many will even defend a poor writing choice as something the muse told them to do. This is an impulse I know well. I used to also believe in letting the story go where it would take me. The only problem is that when I went back to revise, the stories didn’t make any sense because I had been writing out of panic–I don’t know what’s going to happen next so this is going to happen–rather than out of art. When I was reading the slush pile, I discovered that readers can tell when that happens. And when I edit, I’ve discovered that writers can barely ever defend these weakest parts of the novels, and that when we brainstorm how to revise them, we always come up with a better solution.

As a result, I’ve developed a bit of a (healthy) disdain for the idea that there is a force–internal or external–that affects an author’s writing more than their own, conscious choices.

In my new life here in New York City, I have been doing a lot of writing. I have been dipping between two manuscripts at near-finished stage and one that I’m happily drafting. Doing this has given me some insight into my own writer identity, which is that my voice changes with each project.

In some ways, you would expect this: several of my projects are in first person, and since that first person is not the same character in both projects, the voice should change. It’s more than that, though. Somehow, each book has ended up with its own pace, tempo, and flavor. In my newest one, scenes spew out much longer than in my other projects; in another, emotions are conveyed very differently from in its sisters. Now, I’m not saying this to toot my horn (and probably the next time I look at my writing, I’ll realize I’m completely wrong and that in fact everything sounds stale and awful, because that’s the way the artist psyche works), but more because I’m amazed this happened. It’s not something I intended to happen; while language is something I want to pay attention to and know I should pay attention to, more often than not, it’s what I leave for tweaking later. Even when I do tweak it, I’m not thinking on a macro level of the overall tone of the book. I just try to choose what sounds best in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

So the fact that each book can turn out to sound so unique, so much like I did it on purpose, makes me think of the muse. Is this unique voice evidence of a muse? Is it proof that there is something working through me to make my writing fuller and more inspired?

I think it is more a symptom of knowing my work well enough to make each sentence count. It is a result of combing through every sentence to make sure it says what it can best say. It isn’t sitting around, hoping something will turn my work great, but real thought and work (which has hopefully resulted in greatness). The muse exists because something is happening I didn’t do purposefully, but the muse is not some elusive, fairy tale creature. The muse is me. Luckily for me, I’m hard to get rid of.

Just like these gals:

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