The Sly Muse’s Guises

With some regularity I’m overtaken by timely, pretty-darn-good (I almost wrote “brilliant”) inspirations bursting with agency—that I don’t want to heed. The first time this happened, I’d submitted my MFA essay to the editor of my memoir, hoping she’d publish it as an afterword. “The memoir should stand on its own,” she insisted. “Why don’t you flesh the essay out to be a book in its own right?” In other words, write a writing text.

An excellent idea.  My thesis had come easily.  I’d written one long spiritual memoir and dozens of short ones, read hundreds, taught spiritual memoir writing for years, and had coached innumerable writers.  This unwritten book was a complete entity in my being waiting to be birthed.  Clearly I’d been walking a path toward this project for years.

My reaction, however, was a decisive no way.  I wanted to give my best energy to creative work, not pedantic instructions.  For two, three, four years the idea nagged me.  Finally, when my friend Kristen offered to feed me popcorn and tea for days on end while I cranked out a draft, I conceded.  I dealt with the drudgery by exploring an unanswerable question alongside all the inevitable exposition.  Eighteen years later, Writing the Sacred Journey is still a faithful companion to seekers penning their paths, and I remain baffled.  Is this really how the Muse works?

At my writing desk each morning I sit in the tension between my own desires—an imaginative story, an exploratory personal essay, anything lively and wise, innovative and artful—and some instructional project persistently knocking.  My creative impulses well up like a spring.  I’m eager to taste these new waters; they inevitably surprise and enliven me.  The instructional projects are more like an internal cistern I don’t know exists.  It gathers rainwater over years until it bursts at the seams, leaving me no choice but to release the pressure.  Creative projects feel generative and full of agency but struggle to reach their audience.  Writing about writing always entails surrender, knows its readers from the start, and has commercial value.

I wind up alternating between these impulses, the years spent pursuing bliss followed by years with my nose to the grindstone.  Having guided other writers, I know inspiration also comes like lightning followed by a storm of composition.  Sometimes it floods our lives; sometimes it’s a tiny but reliable trickle.  Droughts descend on all of us.  The creative ideal we imagine, where we jump into a river of inspiration and easily ride the current downstream before emerging, refreshed and accomplished, is just one (relatively rare) possibility.

Inspiration appears in unexpected guises, within and without, and usually asks of us a sacrifice.  My Muse, I know, enjoys unseating my ego.  So the challenge I face each morning is, on the one hand, how to find within my creative proclivities the longings of a wider world, while on the other how to serve that mysterious external call while locating within it some generative part of myself.  Sly vixen!  She keeps me on my toes.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew