The Muse

by Erin Weller, Colgate, November 13, 2008

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“Who says words with my mouth?” –Rumi

“Tho I call them mine, I know they are not mine.” –William Blake

I sit despondently at my desk, staring at the blank computer screen. Microsoft Word is open (I can’t afford any of those fancy writer’s programs), and the white sheet of digitalized paper is blinding me in a mocking way.

Once upon a time… how cliché.

Once there was… not much better.

One day… lame.

Aren’t there any fresh ways to start a story?

Maybe it would help if there was a story already there that I just had to fit a beginning onto. But that is also lacking; I have no story. My mind is as blank as the page in front of me is.

Disgusting. And I call myself a writer.

“Geez… some people are so impatient!”
Who was that?

I look around, but no one is in the room. I am alone with my laptop, a lonely existence, sure, but also supposedly conducive to time spent productively.

“Wait, you heard me?”

I look around again, but the voice seems to be right in my ear, in my head even. Yes? Should I even think that? Maybe I’m going crazy. I’ve heard of that happening to people with writer’s block. They can’t take it anymore. They just snap. Either they give up writing completely or they turn to “modern” poetry, meaning inane babble on paper. I don’t want to end up like that. But if I’m hearing voices it might be a little late for me to avoid that. I might as well try, though. I’ll just ignore it, focus on the task at hand.

“No! No! Don’t ignore me! Wow… it’s been way too long.”

Who are you? Where are you? I am getting very flustered. Plus thinking things to express them is kind of disconcerting. Really, what is happening?
“Hmm… I wonder what order I should address those in. Really, you are quite inquisitive. I suppose that’s why you’re a writer.”

I don’t know what she’s talking about. Oh, the voice is most definitely female.

“Not always.”

Now it’s a deep bass. It returns to the original female voice when it answers.
“But I’ll answer your questions. I am… your Muse.”

My what?

“Your Muse, of course. Where do you think your stories come from, thin air?”

Umm… No, I thought… Wait, Muse? Like the whole Greek mythology thing?

“I suppose so… I think the last person I actually talked to like this was a Greek. Terrific bard. Told great stories. Lovely falsetto too.”

So, where are you?

“I’m in your head. Well, I don’t actually know, that’s just the easiest way of putting it. Actually I’m in your mind, and that’s a little different from your head. But I’m not technically there either, because I’m not a physical being. But you get the picture, I think.”

I nod my head, then realize that there is no point. The Muse is already reading my thoughts.

“Reading them and supplying new ones. The latter is my job, of course.”

So wait, you’re supplying my thoughts right now? The idea is disconcerting to say the least. Not to mention, Then wouldn’t you just be talking to yourself?

“No, no. I don’t control you’re thoughts, I just give them to you. Maybe that wasn’t the best way of putting it.”

I’m intrigued. So what exactly do you do?

“I supply your stories.”

Supply my stories?

“Yup. All day long I go around to different writers and give them stories. Just kind of pop them into their mind, as it were. The mind really is a tricky thing to work with day in and day out. You should try it. Though it’s tough, it’s really quite fascinating.”
I don’t believe this. My stories are my own creation, surely. Though I am having quite a drought right now.

“Sorry about that. You have no idea how many writers there are out there right now. And I have to travel to all of them, well, most of them. There are a few of us. But anyway, sometimes it takes a while. I’m sorry for your “writer’s block,” as most now call it. But sometimes it can’t be helped. I’m very busy, you know.”

Wait, I couldn’t write because you weren’t here to put ideas in my head? No, that’s crazy. This is crazy. I’m thinking to a voice in my head. This is just the frustration talking and the lack of sleep. I’m not thinking straight. I’m not well. I’ll go to bed and this’ll all be better in the morning. Or maybe I’m dreaming already. That would make a whole lot more sense.

“No, don’t go! And don’t think you’re dreaming either. Please! I like having someone to talk to. Sometimes it gets so lonely.”

Lonely?

“No one talks to me any more. Come to think of it, hardly anyone listens either. I give them a story and they botch it up and it comes out all wrong. Or they try to add their thoughts and opinions to create some moral or theme. They try to put themselves into the story, and it never works out right. It always amazes me how people can ruin such great tales.”

But isn’t the author a part of the story? Their experiences, their thoughts, their emotions, they all come into the story because it is their creation.

“No. Now you are thinking like them. All those egotistical word-flaunting show-offs. It is not their creation at all. Though, I suppose they do help it come into being. I guess the authors are like mothers in a way, giving birth to the stories, metaphorically speaking.”

And the Muse is the father?

“Not really. We’re not part of the story at all; we don’t provide any of the chromosomes, as it were. Come to think of it, neither do you. I guess it’s more like surrogate motherhood, and we’re the doctors. We create the story in a Petri dish and then implant it.”

Nice imagery. I’m not sure I’m comfortable thinking about my short story coming out of a womb, especially my own.

“Sorry, I was just trying to get the point across.”

I think a little about the hypothetical situation, and I spot a flaw. But that doesn’t make sense. Because some great stories definitely are influenced by the author’s experiences, and it’s not the writers pretentiously putting themselves into the story just to show-off.

“Oh, I know. Boy, you’re nit-picky. There is some room for that. That’s really how we decide which story to give to each writer. We do it based on their life experiences. Give a love story to a lover, a war story to an ex-soldier, a story of intrigue to a keeper of secrets. That’s how it goes. It really is a meticulous and deeply involved process. But it also really is fun to pick out the perfect story for a specific person.”

And yet you said that many go astray?

“Nobody’s perfect. Not even a Muse. I make mistakes sometimes. I misjudge. But it’s always gratifying to see the seed of a story come to fruition under the gentle care of a worthy author. I love hearing the completed tales once they pass though your human minds. I love that moment, when the story is finally complete in its earthly form. It would give me shivers, if I could shiver.”

But you know the story. You give it to them. Doesn’t that take away the surprise?

“I give the story, but it is nothing like the finished product. I don’t supply the words, the form, the intricate details. That is for you to provide. Remember how I told you that stories don’t come from thin air? While that is true, they do have a little substance before being planted in a human mind. But it’s little more than a wisp of cloud. It is up to the author to give it something of color, of substance.”

It’s nice being needed for something. You made it sound like I was little more than a tunnel, from the gods, or whatever you are, to the people. You just stick a story in and, whoosh, it comes out on the other side.

“Ah, ha! No, it’s not entirely like that. But don’t go feeling too important. You need me, you know. Before you can do any of your molding and shaping, you need something to mold and shape.”

You provide the marble, and I am Michelangelo.

“Do I sense a bloated ego?”

I was kidding.

“I know.”

It’s kind of hard to hide anything from you. I think about that. All of my secrets…
Damn it! Now I’m thinking about them! I embarrassedly scan through all my humiliating moments, all my most private thoughts. I’m mortified but can’t seem to stop the procession in my mind.

“I’m not looking. Try to focus on something else.”

All right, yeah, good idea. I come back to the present. Got it. So what is this? Are you testing me or something? Trying to find me the right story? Is that how it works?

“Actually, no, it usually doesn’t work this way. Usually I just poke around for a bit, look at some old memories, some beliefs, some pervading opinions and tendencies. Then I go and pick a story and place it right where it belongs, ready to be used.”

So why are you doing this then? Because, frankly, I still think I may be going crazy. Though this is an intriguing conversation, so I promise not to ignore it.

“Why thank you, I appreciate that at least. I don’t entirely know what’s happening here, to tell you the truth. The Muses used to talk to humans. As I said earlier, I talked to many a Greek. But through the centuries, we have been forgotten. Or if not forgotten, then demoted to the world of myth. It’s hard to speak to something you don’t believe in.”

But I didn’t believe in you.

“That is the strange part. It fascinates me too. Maybe it means something.”

Maybe?

“No, it does. But I don’t know what it is. Perhaps…”

I wait for a few minutes. But there’s no hint that she’ll go on. Hey! I can’t read your thoughts! That’s not fair. You can’t just trail off like that.

“Sorry. I’m not really used to having to finish my thoughts out loud. It really is nice to have someone to talk to you know. It’s refreshing.”

And? So?

“So, perhaps I’ve finally found someone to handle… The Great Stories.”

The Great Stories? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

“Okay. I’ve gone around to thousands and thousands of authors in my time, some multiple times, some only once. I give them the stories that fit them and fit their audiences. Some are children’s tales. Some are bawdy ballads. Some are epics. Some are novelettes. Some are escapist literature. Others teach something about real life. To each their own, and everyone lives happily ever after.”

Okay. But the Great Stories?

“The Great Stories hold something more than that. Their roots are deeper, their origins higher. They are held in awe by all the Muses, and are used sparingly, and only with undying confidence in the writer-to-be. For we can’t afford any mistakes when it comes to the Great Stories. They are the most precious thing we have in our possession and we give them only sparingly. For it would be too heartbreaking to see one ruined by the folly or hubris of a silly mortal.”

But what is so special about them? What makes them so “great?”

“Each of the Great Stories, at its core, holds an element of truth.”

Truth? But don’t all stories have truth? Even fiction. That isn’t so special. It’s true that I’m a writer, it’s true that you’re a Muse, its true that the sky is blue, that Asia is a continent, that I tied my shoe yesterday. Or if you’re more for the abstract, the emotional, it’s true that I love my family, that there is prejudice in the world, and that conflict is inevitable. Truth is everywhere.

“But not these truths. The truths in these tales are not subject to the passing of time. They are not bound by the laws of earth, of physics, of human nature. These are the universal truths, that all men seek, but few find, and even those that find them can never be sure that they have. The truths are hidden deep within the Great Stories, but they are there, and they will shine through, though few will have their mind’s eye open to see the light. Still, the stories are beautiful, and I’ve waited a long, long time to see one told.”

Wait. I am frightened and more than slightly overwhelmed. Why me? I’m not even an author yet. I’m just another amateur writer. I don’t have the skill. I don’t have the experience. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. You said before that you’ve screwed up in the past. Don’t do it now.

“Ah… but you forgot to mention one thing you do have, one thing that is certainly unique to you in this day and age.”

What is that?

“You have me.”

I hesitate a moment. But all writers have a Muse. You said that before. Without you and your Musey friends all of us writers would be tearing our hair out all the time just staring at blank pages.

“But none of the other writers of this age have taken the time to listen.”

I can’t really counter that one. I am listening.

“You can hear me. And if you can do that, you will also be able to see the story, just as I give it to you.”

And other writers don’t?

“With other writers it’s done more indirectly. We kind of sneak it into their subconscious and hope it makes its way onto the page. It’s hit or miss. Sometimes the stories come out right, sometimes they come out wrong, sometimes they don’t come out at all. And we just have to wait and see what’ll happen. But you, you are that direct link, that tunnel, as you put it.”

Thanks, that makes me feel special. I’m nice and hollow. Nothing in this brain at all.

“Don’t be rash. Of course, there’s something. Or I’d just be talking to myself.”

Ha! And I thought that was me.

“Ha, ha, very funny. Anyway, I’m not saying that the story will just slide through you and out of your pen, or your typing fingers, as I guess it is nowadays. No, you will be able to shape the story as you choose. But the unique thing is you will be able to see it. Laid out in your mind’s eye. As clear as my voice in your mind. Though, regrettably, I won’t be here.”

Wait, why not? I’d actually grown fond of this voice in my head. It was nice to have someone to talk to. Sitting in my room, a laptop for company, wasn’t exactly the most social of situations.

“I do have a job to do, and I’ve already spent way too much time on you.”

I like wasting your time.

“You’re not wasting it. This is more fun than I’ve had in millennia. But I really do think I’ll get you a story now.”

All of a sudden I become aware of the room. It is dark. There is a slight buzzing, white noise, probably from the heating system. The screen in front of me has grown darker, the result of my not pressing any buttons or brushing my fingers across the touchpad in quite some time. The page is still blank, but the white is more subdued, less blinding. It is waiting, just like me. I try not to panic as I wait for my Muse to return. I take a deep breath and start counting. 1… 2…

“I’m back! Did you miss me?”

Actually, yeah. I did. I admit it kind of sheepishly, but with all honesty.

“Well, I promise you won’t have time to miss me once you have this on your mind. Gosh, it is heavy.”

I thought it was a wisp of cloud. Are wisps of cloud heavy?

“Don’t you mock me… and it’s not heavy in the sense that you’re thinking. You are too literal, too physical. I guess the word I should have used is dense. Though that will make you think that I’m giving you a tome to write.”

I smile. Do you really think I’m ready?

“I’m sure of it.”

I’m getting jittery. I blame the nerves, the excitement, the anticipation. I’m looking forward to what I’m about to receive, but at the same time I don’t want my Muse to leave.

“There, there. You got along fine without me before today. You’ll get along just fine again when I leave.”

But I am curious on one point. I just have one more question before you go.

“Just one, then I really must go.”

You said before that you we’re a part of the story either. Well, then where do the stories come from?

“Ahh… now that is a question. Well done.”

Inside my mind, I swear I can feel my Muse begin to smile.

“I will let you in on a secret.”

I lean forward. Why, I don’t know. There’s no one there to whisper to me, and there really is nothing more private than someone talking in your mind.

“I don’t know.”

What?

“I don’t know where they come from. I just know it’s my job to give them to you. Just as it’s your job to write them down.”

I am dumbfounded. But you’re a Muse

“That doesn’t mean I know everything. Maybe more than you, I give you that, but not everything.”

There is a pause. I don’t know how to respond.

“You know, I think it’s nice to have a little mystery.”

I nod my head, not in agreement, but just to have something to do as I ponder the implications of what my Muse just said. I don’t have long to mull it over though.
“Now I really must be going. It truly was nice talking to you. But it’s time to say good bye.”

Alright… Good bye! I’ll miss you!

“Don’t worry, we’ll meet again I’m sure, if only for me to see how you handle this story. It won’t seem like long; you’re going to be pretty busy. But I know you’re going to make me proud.”

Thanks.

“Good luck!”

And with that I feel an almost tangible wave of ideas and images come crashing down on my conscious. The Great Story fills my mind to the brim with its teeming waters. And as tears run down my face, I begin to write.


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