The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

This is an expansion of I piece I wrote for my blog yesterday about muses, because I realised that a larger point was emerging that needed some explanantion.

Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick; Shakespeare had his Dark Lady; Woody Allen had New York . For them, their muse  not only stirred something creative inside them, but made that creativity come gushing out in golden form – transformed it as it touched the page/canvas/film into greatness.

But is there a darker side to the muse? In one sense, there very obvioulsy is, and it goes back to Platonism and the worship and objectifictaion of the spiritual. The muse is placed on a pedestal, worshipped, and, as a result, denied genuine reality – museishness is to blame for a lot of our less beneficial conceptions of women, for example.

But I mean another dark side – for the artist or writer or musician.

For me, the idea of a muse is rather terrifying. I imagine my muse, if I had one, staring at me – taunting or sneering – “You dare to call THAT worthy of me?” she harumphs, turning her back and leaving me staring at a blank page.

The point I want to make is this. there is a very fine line between inspiration and intimidation. Between the object of beauty who touches you and opens a creative spring and an ethereal form that’s just “out of your league” – that you could never do justice, so you end up snivelling in self-pity, and struck down by block, like an opera composer waiting a lifetime till they’re ready to produce a piece for the voice of their generation.

When you’re a teenager you’re desperate for a muse. A boy or girl in the class above, possibly a friend of your brother or sister – someone to bring out the Byronic in you. And when you find them, you aften will write a great torrent of, er, romantic twaddle, in your efforst to impress. Later you will look back ashamedly, and every time you write FOR someone or thing you will possibly be struck with fear of doing a similar hatchet job. Add in a mix of idealisation and you have a recipe for paralysis – we can, after all, never give a sacrifice worthy of the gods.

For me it’s not people who act as intimidating muses – it’s notebooks. I imagine if I have a beautiful hand-boundleather journal I will write something worthy of it. But I can never find a sentence good enough and so I sit and stare, and anything any good I DO write by hand is always in a skanky notebook I bought in bulk from a Polish supermarket.

Yet we feel instinctively that art is about eros, about love, about, in short, muses. So how do we avoid paralysis and create something decent as the result of having a muse?

The answer’s simple: forget about doing justice TO your subject; forget about writing something FOR someone. Instead, this is a time when a writer/artist needs to be introspective. What is it your subject/muse inspires in YOU? Look within, and describe the fire, the turmoil and the raging passion you find there. Considerations of worthiness go out of the window – the muse will enter only as a marginal character, a penumbra for the piece, but unmistakably present in the form of those qualities that inspire those particular thoughts. This way you will ACTUALLY do justice to them – not as idealised object but as active subject stirring your passions. And you will connect with your audience, will enable them not just to admire but to feel as you feel.

The last point here needs an explication. We talk of culture being communictaion (WE, literally – it’s in our manifesto). We talk of respecting our audience, of writing for them, of touching them and communicating something deep to them. But there’s a danger of objectifying our reader as we do that – of turning them into the impassive, passively scorning muse who sneers and makes us feel unworthy.

Yet if we don’t respect our audience, we risk writing meaningless, masturbatory prose. So how do we strike the balance? It’s the same question as Marc’s regarding pain, and I think the answer may be the same as it is for our more specific muses. We need to introspect in the right way – to look at those parts of ourselves in our audience’s shadow – those bits of our emotional lives that fall under the same shadow as theirs. They will contain specific, but they will, if we get it right, also contain those points of contact that make our story theirs and avoid solipsism.

Time for some questions:

How do YOU balance the need to respect your audience with not turning them into an intimidating, paralysing presence?

How do you go about selecting those specifics of your emotional inner self that are also universal, or at least shared? Do you even try, or do you just pour out yourself unedited?

When you write, do you imagine any one thing or person looking over your shoulder? Do you write FOR anyone/thing, and does this help or hinder you?

~ by yearzerowriters on January 9, 2010.

27 Responses to “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer”

  1. When I was younger, I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t have a muse. I actually invented a character who I called my muse, a little dragon that perched on my shoulder as I wrote. Yes, it was quite silly of me (but the dragon was cute!)

    The things that inspire me – well, I don’t consider them muses or alive in any way. I consider them things. So I’m not afraid of them judging me, sneering at me. If anything, I’m my own harshest critic, and the person I’m most afraid of disappointing is myself.

    Perhaps it is wrong of me, but I don’t really stop to think about my audience, either. I work on things until I am happy with them, in the hopes that my standards and the audience’s align. I guess that’s my way of respecting my audience: giving them my very best.

    I was going to say I write for myself, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. If anything, I write for my characters – a subtle difference, but there nonetheless. It is more often than not my characters who sneer at me when I can’t do them justice.

    Did that make any sense?

  2. That makes perfect sense. Do your characters at any stage point blank refuse to let you treat them in a certain way, or just say “I’m not doing that?” More important, when they behave like that, do you think they’re right, or do you try to beat them into submission?

    • They mostly attack subtly, by altering the plot far off of the intended course if they don’t like where it’s going. Which means I have to re-plot things (very annoyingly).

      If I try to force them to do something, they point blank refuse, and I can’t write. I get stuck.

      And if I try to beat them into submission, they just leave, and anything I write ends up having the wrong voice – it has my voice in it, instead of theirs. So it doesn’t ring true, and I have to scrap it all.

      Annoying characters!

  3. Your second question is one that I have been considering a lot lately. Are writers through their particular temperament or desire well placed to tap into and relate the universal realities/feelings of the greater mass of humankind or are we as reflectors, observers so seperate from the more prosaic minded that we can’t refelect their worldview? For me the muse thing is about stirring the passion, we have to care desperately about the thing we write for it to be completed in the first place and for it to have continuing resonance. My muse can be a person, place, interest that stirs a very powerful emotion or idea. I read somewhere that parts of the body have their own memory, it is these memories embedded in the cells by love, fear, anger, fascination that provide the strongest threads that can be used to weave a story.

    • I don’t know why it is that we actually think we’re able to do these things. I think in my case I find it hard to shut up so it’s easier on the world’d ears if I put it donw on paper. I think there’s a further discussion to be had about the difference btween “every(wo)man” as opposed to very specific narrators – and which the reader empathises with more/which is more effective for engaging the reader. Possibly both work but for different readers – which is a heartening diversity for us as writers.

  4. Good questions. I write about the ideas that don’t leave me alone. And then I spend much much much longer rewriting and reshaping so that I can eventually make other people fascinated by them too.

    • “I write about the ideas that don’t leave me alone” – that’s a great way to put it!

  5. I’ve never considered writing FOR someone else when I write fiction. I’ve always liked writing what’s inside me. I believe that writing what’s inside is the very thing that makes your work unique. No one else has had the same experiences as you in exactly the same way.
    There are so many things already written that not very much is new/fresh. Therefore, it’s our personal experiences that make our work stand out from the rest.
    Anne LG

    • Yes, “we” are the only really oiginal thing we have to write about – it’s how we take that and make it of interest to and connection with anyone else that I struggle with.

  6. When I write I do so from the perspective that I am talking to someone. So it is just the same as having someone listening to me as I go along. The person I am talking to, is in reality *me* and I am a very easily distracter bored sort of person who will happily wander off and do something else unless I stay interesting.

    I can’t understand how anyone can write anything boring or dull. How can they stay there writing for hours and hours and produce boring work? I have huge admiration for writers who can manage this feat. If I don’t get some sort of zap of laughter or excitement or strong emotion from what I’m doing – I stop doing it.

    So I suppose what I’m admitting to is that I am hopelessly narcissistic and my muse is me. But luckily if I’m amused (no pun intended but I’m having a little moment now having spotted that and being slightly pleased about it) the chances are others will be too – so it seems to be working so far.

    • The problem, Banana, is that most who write to please themselves really do think their work isn’t boring, but they are often wrong – you are very lucky to have hit upon something everyone seems to love.

  7. “Yet we feel instinctively that art is about eros, about love, about, in short, muses”

    For me art is about thanatos. It’s about our impending mortality and all showers of sparks flying off from that one human essentialism. I don’t aspire to reach eros or muses, as at best they can only be fleeting. The act of passing over into death is pretty fleeting too, but I guess it ushers in an eternity thereafter.

    I am motivated by the fear of death and the purposelessness of humanity that engenders. Leaving monuments and inheritances through art isn’t even it, since that does not cheat or countermand death in any meaningful way. I guess it’s just my inquiry into what’s the bloody point of existence and why it takes the shape that it does. Do you think I’m impassioned about these things?

    So questions 1 & 3 I don’t give one moment’s thought to. Question2 is the key. Can’t say I have any formula to unlock it however. I do like writing books I might like to read that I feel I’m rarely serviced by the professional publishing output (that’s not to say there aren’t a plethora of fantastic books, just they don’t manage to tick all my boxes). But I think I’m condemned to try & bring an audince along with me, since I don’t think my stuff is instantly accessible.


    • if you listen to many, Eros and Thanatos are the same – I remember having to read De Rougemont’s bleeding awful Love in th Western World as a student, where he argues that Platonic Eros and its influence on courtly literature (which is where all the muse stuff as we understand it today comes from, Helicon notwithstanding) is where the death drive entered western culture.

      I understand the writing in the shadow of mortality thing – the desperate need to get it all done/find answers before it’s too late. I had too much Kierkegaard as a student to be healthy for anyone’s development.

      What you seem to be longing for is an audience that actually cares, that asks questions. I’m sure they’re out there – or rather I’m sure the questioning impulse can be touched if you do it right.

      • I actually mention this in The Emptying. The Greeks had Thanitose and Hypnos (sleep) as twins. Freudians had Thanitose and Eros as opposites. In my book, my narrator thinks that Eros and Thanitose should be twins because when people choose to reproduce, it’s like a death of the individual.

      • yes, it goes back to the sex and death tie-in of courtly ove – teh love that can be consummated only in death – apparently it’s all about the Tristan & Isolde myth.

  8. RE an audience being an intimidating presence – I’ve never felt this before. Or maybe I have and I’ve never thought of it in that way. For me, I’m more concerned with doing the character justice and the world I have in my head. That’s the frightening bit, doing justice to the characters and the ideas I’m trying to convey. I forgot who said it up there, but I write because the ideas won’t leave me alone. I’ve all these novels fermenting in my head right now, and I have to get them all out to have any peace. But then of course when they’re out they create more problems and I have to think even more about them. It’s ridiculous.

    And as for selecting what bits of myself to write? I’ve never done that. Firstly, I believe very much in the interconnexion of every bit of our life; there’s a reason why we do everything and it all ties in and weaves around and there’s no true separation. But some parts stand out stronger in some of my work. I’m not sure what bits you’ve seen of me, if we’re thinking of being reflected in our writing, but it’s far from the whole picture (even though in saying that I’m almost contradicting my “whole world intwined” theory). So I have an abundance of writing focusing on the abundance of intertwined theories, emotions &c &c ad nauseum.

    But I definitely have to filter things OUT. That’s the only selection — or, I guess I do de-selection. That’s how everything I write gets mucked up.

    And I’ve never even imagined — or considered — having a muse. I have a hard time seeing the true muse outside of the art world (it just makes more sense in that world for me) but the idea of being enslaved to one thing! I’ll gladly take scrambled inspiration — all those tiny things that don’t really make up anything.

    • I agree with you re: selecting bits of yourself to write. And anyway when I do try to select bits, to convey certain things, I’m often surprised by what readers pick up on – some readers tell me that thing I didn’t even realized I had put in what were touched me the most

  9. “scrambled inspiration” – LOVE that way of putting it.

    As for parts standing out stronger in some kinds of our work – I think that’s how I feel – all the elements will always be there but it’s like mixing a track – you turn some parts up for some works, tone them down for others.

    Interesting you associate muses with art – I remember watching a documentary about Ingres when I was in my teens, and his relation with his models, and yes, teh artist/model relationship really struck me. But I think I still think first and foremost of Abelatrd and Eloise, or Shakespeare and the Dark Lady.

    • no, no, muses = art forever and always. It, like, barely makes sense in literature. Maybe if someone was writing sonnets TO someone, that would be a muse. But a novelist? What? Rubbish!

      It is scrambled, though. Because it makes no sense, and it’s everywhere.

  10. I’ve never been comfortable with and never personally used the word ‘muse’ in regards to anything creative or otherwise. I like the fantasy of it (mine is Tilda Swinton in strict business attire and leather boots with a riding crop threatening me to get something done OR ELSE), and the fantasy is fine so long as you leave it there.

    I was telling Penny (Goring) recently that what we do – writers, et al – is WORK. If we start laying all sorts of pretensions on it – ‘Art’ and so forth, the whole meaning of it can get lost in some attempt at what Marc alluded to with monuments after death and so forth. Art, for me, is an aesthetic sense, not a literal one and writing is work – my life’s work. It is not my job or my career – it is my calling. I suspect it is the calling of every writer on this site. Art maybe the after-effect, the connection – but doesn’t it all start as work?

    We know that the idea of the muse can work for some – that special someone who inspires a creative urge or might even be directly (or indirectly) connected with a great work – we can start with our parents, our teachers, our first girlfriend or boyfriend – that first kiss – but the ‘muse’ must be special. He or she or it must be the ‘one’ in order to have any sort of merit. Who can we dedicate this great piece to? I have poems I’ve written specifically for or about someone – there is simply no way these pieces could exist without the influence of this other person – and the barbaric twin of it is simply art.

    There must be a reason why we do what we do – maybe we are born with some inner, invisible deformity that both teases and tortures us to try and express it somehow – this inexpressible thing – but that might be making too much of an inherent or latent gift that you may choose to ignore anyway. How many ‘geniuses’ go silent every generation? How many pop up, out of the oddest places, then vanish? What if Charles Dodgson had never met Alice Liddell? Would he still have written Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Not likely, but he was a fanciful loon long before he met her. He might have written something else – but for that one thing that came into his life and he called it Love.

    Stephen King called it something else – in Misery she was Annie Wilkes, a deranged nurse who kidnaps and tortures a popular novelist of pulp fiction into writing his best work. This, King is saying, is his muse, his REAL muse. The bitch that won’t quit. That ominous, threatening figure who would rather you were dead than one other phony thing be written.

    For me, this is the last word for all good work – there doesn’t need to be a beautiful girl with slightly dimpled buttocks in a bathtub or a dominatrix with a red hot poker in my eye – there is only the deepest understanding that if I cannot be honest whatever I do is going to be shit.

    Not that I wouldn’t mind a beautiful girl with slightly dimpled buttocks in the bathtub just ONCE – but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve got to get back to work.

    As for the audience though – they don’t belong to me so I don’t worry about them.


    • for me it starts out as art and ends up being work. Then it circles back into being art when the work’s all done. If it started out as work, I wouldn’t touch writing.


    • I think you’ve put it better than I could – because that’s a really important part of what I was trying to say – that self-consciousness, trying to create something for one’s muse really isn’t a good thing – self-consciousness is never good – but what I can’t think of a better term for than the ridiculously pretentious “adumbrated introspection” IS productive – chiselling away at those parts of oneself that are both specific and universal, mining them for seams worth putting on the page.

    • Oh, and Tilda Swinton ni leather boots and a riding crop – hell yeah! I remember seeing her first in Orlando. Then, of course, there was the incredible piece by Sam Taylor Wood.

  11. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a muse. Am I that different in that I don’t write thinking of anyone except the people (or things) in my stories?
    And bits of me – completely random, though the wordplay thing comes up fairly regularly.

    • I gues I was just one of “those” teenagers – everything I did as a teenager was to impress some girl or other – only I always couched it in ridiculous pseudo-philosophical Romanticism

  12. Dan – absolutely with you on the chiseling away of the self – great way of putting it. It is absolutely my idea of what ‘work’ is – the gnawing at one’s own flesh to find what you’re really made of, what anything is really made of. How much of work is deconstruction? Peeling away the layers and so forth. There can be great joy in it, and I think joy wants to be shared. Finding those to show ourselves to, opening up and hoping for the same in return – this is a kind of muse. We do not model, but there can be a pose to it and poise. Cross a certain line and it all falls away. Is this art?

    Oh and I do miss the Tilda of Orlando, etc – bit worried Hollywood has its hooks in her and she’ll be confined to nasty lawyer parts. Someone as thought-provoking as she can be in some of the parts she has chosen – most muse-worthy, I think.


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