I’m glad Meredith mentioned where we first met, because I had forgotten. I do remember her blog though, and the wonderful art and photographs there. I always found it inspiring to read about her journey, which is why I asked her to share it with you. I’m also very glad to have Meredith along as a workshop participant.
When Merrilee asked me to write a guest post for her upcoming Creativity Workshop, I was thrilled – and completely at a loss as to what I should write. Merrilee and I “met” via my first blog, where I routinely posted about my efforts to bring creativity into many areas of my life, and she hinted that she’d like me to share some of that story with workshop participants.
There was only one problem: I’d never considered any of that as being a story. I dance, sketch, write, garden, paint, cook, crochet, collage, make “found” art, alter books, take photos, draw, and periodically do crazy things to my home/wardrobe/lifestyle. The only thing these disparate pursuits seemed to have in common was me.
But then I thought about their origin in my life, and I realized that there actually was a coherent center point from which all those various creative outlets radiate like the spokes of a wheel: my relationship with the Muse.
For a long time, I considered the Muse to be a fickle creature who delighted in showing up at random, inconvenient times in my life. She seemed adept at hiding, and her light shining on any project was the most fragile of flickering flames, wanting only a nanosecond’s worth of distraction to snuff it out and leave me staring at the blank page in darkness.
She’d give me ideas, but not show up for the follow-through. Or she’d leave a tantalizing glimpse of a story to linger on the edge of my consciousness, shimmering like the heat haze that rises from the asphalt in summer.
The pattern of our interaction was maddening, and often left me wondering if I was really creative after all, or if my “creativity” was the sum of a series of chance encounters, rare and beautiful meetings that occurred just often enough for me to know exactly what I was missing when she went away again. Her historical reputation as capricious mistress seemed well-deserved.
Our relationship was definitely on the rocks when, almost by accident, I discovered that it was me doing the damage to our old bond.
As part of my spiritual practice at the time, I was attempting to shut off the stream of incessant commentary in my mind. I was an abysmal failure at the traditional meditation route. The only method that worked for me was to sink down into my sense perceptions. I trained myself to note the minutiae of the present moment, to become aware, bit by bit, of this particular here and now.
Paying renewed attention to my reality might be as simple as noticing the sunset outside the kitchen window as I do the dishes, or actually feeling the flow of the hot water over my hands.
Sometimes I was conscious of the fact that I wanted to really live this moment, experience its sensations, sound its depths so that I might use it as creative fuel or describe its contours to others. That part was not new to me, even if I’d gotten out of the habit. Every writer I know does it at least sometimes, and many of us do so automatically. There have even been times when I could not resist the lure of a unique experience simply for the sake of recording that experience for the “author file” in my mind.
All artists must, I believe, step into the role of silent observer, the witness who is carefully keeping track of all of these fine details for later use. It’s a crucial skill for the writer, and one that ideally becomes a regular habit, as Merrilee suggested in one of the first posts of this workshop, “More ideas than you can write”.
Often I observe some detail with no idea how or even if it might be used later, either as fuel or imagery or inspiration for the creative act. Concern over the usefulness of a particular experience, however, is counterproductive; worrying about it would drop me right back into the realm of discursive thought, where the Muse can only rarely penetrate.
Because, of course, what I realized when I began to delve deeply into the intimate particulars of my day was that the Muse was not playing coy with me at all. I have known her secret address since childhood – without realizing I knew. She lives in the here and now. In fact, the doorway to her house is usually the narrowest possible slice of reality to which I can attach my undivided attention.
Whenever I get trapped in the rumble of my own thoughts, the mental noise prevents any awareness of her presence. She’s a tiny thing, and extraordinarily soft-spoken, and she can only be heard when it’s peaceful and still, when I give her an opening.
Besides, the vast majority of my thoughts are stuck in the past (replays or imaginative do-overs of old situations) or in the future (nebulous, free-floating anxiety about the future, specific worries, or daydreams about what lies ahead on the path). I can only visit the Muse’s house now. Yesterday and tomorrow are in the wrong zip codes.
Now, that does not mean she won’t resort to memory and projection, herself. In fact, those two are the creative soul’s stock in trade. You need them to have even a halfway decent chance of baking a cake, and you won’t get far as a writer if you’re not engaging in both. But the Muse can take you everywhere from the present moment.
For instance, while washing dishes at the kitchen window, I witness not just the sunset, but a single bird perched on the power line, illuminated by all that soft peach sky. As the light goes, the bird takes wing, and the Muse whispers, “That’s where the escaped parakeet ends up during the funeral,” nudging my work-in-progress along.
I direct my attention to the bowl I’m rinsing, watching the blue snowflake design manifest as the soap vanishes. The muse ricochets from there to a long-forgotten memory of my great-aunt standing in an antique shop. A blue-and-white porcelain piece hangs on the wall behind her head, and the dust motes swirl. She is ready to speak her truth, simultaneously so wise and so horrible that it will leave me breathless.
Memory need be only obliquely related to the subject at hand, and the ideas may come connected by the slimmest of threads. Yet this is how we communicate, the Muse and I.
Her address is the same when it comes time to engage in any creative act. In photography, the bounded world of the lens itself makes it easy to focus on her whispered instructions. When cooking, my attention is centered on the ingredients in front of me; it does no good to let my anticipation of the completed meal distract me from moment-by-moment awareness of the knife’s explicit path through the tomato or the state of the onions in the pan as they wilt to translucence.
Writing works on the same principle. If I’m blocked, it’s often because I decided to sit down and write a whole concept – not to put a sentence down on paper. There I am at the desk, my mind full of the big picture, so all-encompassing it dwarfs the poor Muse.
I might be planning to write about how men and women communicate, a huge topic. Meanwhile, she sits at her bay window, ready to gift me with a single, magnificent sentence where the main character hangs her red hat on a peg, shakes melting snow out of her hair. At that stage, I’m far from writing a literary gem about how the two sexes interact. The man and woman in question have yet to make eye contact — and the sad truth is, they never will if I don’t tighten the focus enough to write the first word.
The tiniest detail is the gateway to story.
I knock on the Muse’s door when my internal gaze comes to a pinpoint, a single, specific moment in an unfolding story. In order to bring any idea to life, I need to return to that narrow point again and again. There, she is almost sure to speak.
Meredith Wickham lives with her husband & two cats in a hollow in the woods in the Southeastern United States. Meredith is smitten with old graveyards, hummingbirds & thunderstorms, believes farming is the new wave, & always brushes her teeth according to a predictable pattern. She really gets a kick out of writing about herself in the third person – & out of life in general.
Meredith’s blog, The Enchanted Earth, features photographs and stories of her magical & everyday encounters with nature.
Well I’m inspired! And I wish my garden was as lovely as Meredith’s. How about you? Do you know where your muse is, and how to find her?