Lose Your Muse?

muse

by Ed Davis on October 16, 2012

“How Could You Write Such a Book?”

My wife didn’t come right out and say the above words, but she strongly implied them. The day it happened, I felt a terrifying, liberating mixture of emotions. I’d always wanted my personal muse to tell me what isn’t working well or what’s even broken in my writing—but I mostly wanted her to believe in the work, to believe in me. However, I’ve recently discovered that expecting someone to be your muse can be asking way too much; it’s an insight that has led me to face something perhaps you, if you’re a writer, will face, too, if you haven’t already. It could save your marriage or a good friendship.

What’s a Muse?

Writers and artists often speak of their muse with quasi-mystical reverence, but what does the term mean, anyway? My muse has always been my wife, the first person to whom I show a draft of a new work in order to get her valuable feedback, certainly, but to receive some other indefinable something as well. I’ve usually sought the opinions of my fellow writers only after she bestows her blessing. But lately it became uncomfortable, even impossible, for this process to continue. Something would have to change.

Expectations

Last spring, I completed a draft of a novel I was pretty sure my muse would like. Set in southern Ohio, with a female protagonist, nature themes and environmental conflicts, even a footwashing at a Primitive Baptist Church, the book seemed sure to appeal to her Appalachian roots. My writer-critics might give me hell for my flaws, but I expected her to be sympathetic, her basic approval tempering the shellacking I might receive from fellow writers. The key word here is expect. Although I’ve learned that it’s always best to have no expectations in life, I apparently still needed a solemn reminder.

Mr. Needy

For thirty years, my muse read my novel drafts and made solid contributions to their rewrites. In the case of my last novel, Running from Mercy: The Psalms of Israel Jones, she joyously collaborated with me in the early planning and pre-writing stages, and read and critiqued the entire manuscript more than once. Thus, we shared the euphoria when it won the Hackney Award for 2010. This time, though, things could not have been more different. While formerly it was easy to forget my muse was in the same room dissecting my work, that wasn’t the case this time. From the beginning, she vocalized strong objections rather than merely jotting them down until she’d finished reading. Furthermore, her increasingly emotional tone was not encouraging; she seemed angry, distressed—it became an uncomfortable chore.

Thank God my skin has grown thicker at the same time my ego has shrunk (not nearly enough). I won’t say this experience was pleasant by any means, but it has been interesting. Of course I wanted her to like if not love a work into which I’d poured so much blood and sweat. But when she disliked most of what I’d written, I was not devastated. Instead I felt curious, approaching her increasingly harsh critique—by now she was practically shouting—with wonder. What in the hell had I done to earn such a visceral reaction?! This restrained curiosity was really different for me, a guy who once, many years ago, tore a literary magazine in half after his muse damned him with faint praise (an admission I do not easily make).

End of the Line

As her reading of the Appalachian Ohio manuscript continued, I hoped things would get better; instead, they worsened, until one day I told her she should quit, since her task had obviously become too painful to bear. She agreed. Was I sad? Yes. Devastated, angry, vindictive, resentful? Strangely, no. By this time I’d gotten critiques from a couple of writer-friends who, while mirroring many of her criticisms, weren’t as negative, holding out a lot of hope for a successful rewrite. But, instead of puzzling over who was right, I decided that the worse problem was the absolutely untenable position I’d been putting my loved one in for years. It had to stop.

Acceptance wasn’t immediate. At first I told her I couldn’t imagine not sharing this intrinsic part of myself with her. In retrospect, I see my thinly veiled demand as bargaining. I was saying, “See, you can be as critical as you like; I’m not hurt, just as long as you continue to shoulder this burden for me.” It was a necessary phase, I think, to get me to a more mature acceptance of the inevitable.

The Indefinable Something

Resolution took a couple of weeks, during which I didn’t know if I could even return to the novel she’d thought so poorly of. Then one fine day I woke up, hopped on my bike, and as I sped past glorious forests and fields, I felt revelation descend: “The only muse you need is yourself.” And at the moment I was finally able to put myself in her place; I got it. I’d finally realized that I have no right to ask my soul mate, with whom I share so much, to validate me as a writer. That was the “indefinable something” I’d been expecting—no, demanding—for nearly three decades. It’s not the responsibility of a muse, or anyone else, to tell me I’m a writer. Only I can do that, every day, day after day.

The New Deal

This probably doesn’t mean my wife will never read another word I write. But she’ll be invited, not required. I do expect her to take a break; after three decades, she deserves one. In the meantime, she’ll no doubt be reading other writers’ works (she’s much sought after as a critic by some of my best writing friends), and I’ll try not to be envious. In the meantime, those aforementioned writer-friends will, I hope, continue to excoriate me for my shortcomings as well as, I hope, point out any assets. And I’ll try to do the same for them. (You know who you are, and you’re all damn good critics, helpful, smart, exceedingly kind and compassionate.)

As for the Appalachian novel, the rewrite is proceeding well, thank you very much. I’m quietly hopeful that I’ll have a new, improved draft by next spring. Maybe I’ll even be an improved writer by then. But I believe I can depend on being an older, wiser one.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoffrey Porter October 20, 2012 at 9:49 am

You’re very lucky to have somebody who has put up with your work for this long. 😉

Finding critical readers is very difficult. Some people will have a lot of good ideas for things that need change, but I’ve found those same people will often want to change things in circles. “Oh, change it like so, it’ll be better…” But I think it’ll be worse with their adjustment, or a side-ways kind of change where you aren’t making it better or worse, simply changing it because we can.

Ed should really shake things up and write a zombie story 😉

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oc July 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I’m a*muse*d that you only had to tell yourself this once on a bike ride. As a musician, what I do takes on an incredible new dimension of beauty and excellence when I am in love with a woman. After she leaves, I can no longer play because my heart is gone.

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Ed Davis July 4, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Thanks for the comment, to which I deeply relate. Long after that bike ride, I’ve had to continue to tell myself I have no right to force my literary neediness on others. It makes life better.

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Natalia Gorawski June 2, 2014 at 9:10 am

Hello Ed-
Thank you for writing of your revelations about losing your muse. I have come to realize I have done this to my only daughter. She is 23 and has just announced she will be leaving the county to live in Europe. My husband and I have a business and many animals so we can not stop to make visits except only once in a very long while. So she will be gone completely from our lives. Your Muse realization and correction seems so easy and quick. I am crushed and don’t know how to go forward. It is ruining our relationship. I just can’t fathom what our relationship will look like in the future. Not sure why I am writing, not sure what I am asking. I did find your Muse writing fascinating.
N

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