When the Muse Doesn’t Come
May 13, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Sarah Eshleman
When you’re a writer, people consider you a clerk of happenstance, an amanuensis of both the marvelous and the mundane. When a coworker sloshes her cup of tea, she grins like Mr. Bean and implores, “Please don’t write about that.” As a storm rolls in, your grandmother shivers and—as if you find intrinsic drama in the thunder—hints, “I think I see a story coming on.” In writing classes, professors adjure, “Write what you know.” In other words, the world is your obliging oyster, stuffed with pearls of inspiration. Start shucking.
Propelled by these voices, we begin to believe the universe owes us ideas and insight. Then, perhaps inevitably, we assume that our commentary validates the world’s existence. We become self-important, impatient, entitled, and maybe a bit more—desperate. If we have nothing to say, what does that say of us?
Last fall, my best friend, Laura, and I visited Mackinac Island, Michigan, a destination accessible only by ferry and free of automobiles. History and horses, fudge and ferries, a grand hotel and glorious scenery—the island sounded like the sort of place to fire my writing senses, a place where the Muse might live in a hillside cottage. I felt giddy wondering what transcendent gift the muse would bequeath me upon my arrival.
On the island Laura and I strolled through a butterfly house, letting the creatures light on our arms. We sipped tea at Fort Mackinac, ensconced in the British, American, and French history all bleeding together in a smear of red, white, and blue. We biked eight miles around the island’s perimeter on a tandem bike, our friendship teetering between trust and tumble. We chatted with a fudge maker who recounted his pilgrimage from listlessly making car parts in Detroit to selling his possessions and finding peace on the island folding frames of gooey confection with a long paddle.
Bereft of car engines, truck horns, and sirens, the island’s stillness was broken only by the clop of horse hooves on concrete, the water slapping the pilings, a bike bell shrilling on the breeze.
But despite the place’s deviant enchantment, so far, the Muse had whispered nothing to me, not a line of poetry or image for an essay.
Her silence terrified me.
I’d been spoiled by other places eager to give up their message. Only months earlier, at the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, the words to an essay formed as I stepped from the car. But I had context then, unmined emotion lingering from the day the towers fell.
Mackinac stood alone, an island isolated without context to other land, and so were my thoughts to it—disconnected from any previous experience.
On our final day, as we stepped off the ferry, the notebook I had intended to fill remained empty. We tightened our scarves against the lake breeze and strolled down Main Street. We ducked into a small gift shop that we’d passed our first day. In the back of the store, we found two armchairs facing a window. I sat and pulled out the notebook to show the Muse I meant business. But I was distracted by the scene overlooking the docks.
Gulls swooped to meet the waves, undulating like kites in the wind. A duck bobbed in time to the current. Two draft horses plodded down the pier, bearing slouched workers atop a flatbed cart. The rhythm and movement swayed me into a trance, each moment the only moment in the universe, disconnected from my past or from a future, leaching me of my panic and worry. The world just was, with me its lone spectator.
As the trance evaporated, I sensed the hum of customers behind me, heard Jack Johnson on the intercom, felt my fingers wrapped around the hovering pencil, saw again the empty page. And I understood, then, that she wasn’t coming. The Muse had abandoned me in that backroom on the island with nothing to say. Later that day, I boarded the ferry, carrying that experience like a souvenir of bottled air—nothing and something at the same time.
When we returned to our home in Cincinnati, I resumed my writing projects, but I didn’t write about Mackinac Island.
Not until now.
Often I revisit my photos of the island, delighting in the pebbly beaches and hilltop panoramas. But the photo of that backroom view spellbinds me until I’ve come to think of it as the point of my trip—to find that place that stripped my entitlement, forcing me to humbly face the silence and in that silence to acknowledge my inability to derive meaning from a moment without the connection of time and experience.
In the Muse’s absence, I learned to listen rather than report, to realize the world simply is, with or without my commentary, for sometimes I have nothing yet to say.
The writing craft books tell you to try harder, to write faster, to show up and get to work and press your shoulder against all resistance. No doubt you’ve done all this before; you should do it, at times, again.
But I’m telling you not to write about the experience you are interrogating for epiphanies—at least not yet. Loose your frenzied pursuit for immediate, transcendent inspiration. Even silence holds substance and purpose. Delay is often as necessary as momentum, and movement does not always indicate progress. We live first and divine significance later, rarely absorbing the full weight of a moment within itself.
Tuck the experience away. The Muse will reveal the words when you’ve learned what you must to unlock the meaning. For now, live fully and write other things. Listen to what is speaking to you now. You’ve experienced something before whose meaning has come.
Sarah Eshleman lives with her best friend, Laura, and their dachshund, Dudley, in Northern Kentucky where she works as an editor in chief. Read more of her writing at The View from Goose Hill blog. You can also find her work in Ruminate and Counterclock journal.