Monday, July 27, 2009

Roundtable: Spirit and Muse

Someone once advised me to find a picture of my muse and put it near my desk. I actually did this. In my office there hangs a carved wooden figure that somehow seems right. When I read William P. Young's novel, The Shack, I imagined that Sarayu looked a bit like this. Later I read George MacDonald's The Back of the North Wind, and thought this being looked like the North Wind.

The thing about this figure that really struck a chord was that little bit of wavy stuff beneath her. To me it looks like water,
and water has for some time represented, in my mind, the mysterious depths of the human soul. The Bible says it was the Spirit who moved over the face of the waters. So there you have it. My "muse" is the Holy Spirit.

I love Vinita Hampton Wright's take on this, in her book on writing, The Soul Tells a Story:
The spirit will require tougher things than the Muse ever will. The spirit will not be satisfied when you merely embrace your personal darkness and write an astounding poem about it; the spirit will push you beyond that to whatever healing or understanding is necessary in your life.

This spirit will stare at you until you make your art honest... The spirit will require that you push through the despair and get to the hope, that you push past the comfort and embrace the confession.
A muse I have not. Or, if I do, it is a shifting thing that doesn't move with me from project to project. I don't look to or at any one thing to find inspiration. Mostly because my brain doesn't work that way. I'm a self-proclaimed "projects person". Once I have turned the last page on a project, I'm finished with it and look ahead to the next. The trappings, ideas, even the magic of the last project is gone. (Don't get me wrong, Talking to the Dead stays with me - but not as a project to be worked on. Rather it stays with me, I think, in the same way it lingers with readers, as ideas to be explored).

I've started a new novel I'm very excited about. I can't give details at this point because of some still unanswered questions. But I can share this picture of the journal I am using for my handwritten notes for this book. It feels "muse-ish" to me. It makes me smile when I reach for it and when I write in it, I feel as though I'm recording something very important - even if it does look like plain old chicken scratch- including spelling mistakes and words crossed out. It is the place that holds my ideas for this book and it is very much a place I meet with God to talk things over.

By definition a muse is "the spirit that is thought to inspire a writer; the source of genius or inspiration." As a Christian, I simply capitalize the "S" in Spirit, and there's my Muse, backed up with my favorite Scripture regarding the call of writing in my life: "For it is the Lord who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). As the Source of inspiration, He gives the desire and the ability to accomplish the thing He's called me to do. That doesn't just apply to one thing in my life. For He's called me to do many things; writing just happens to be one of them.
There are times when I feel His leading in a very particular way as I write, and there's no doubt where the inspiration comes from. I love those little surprises -- serendipity or happy accidents as Jim Scott Bell shared recently: Other times, the inspiration is more subtle, but it's just as important.
I don't have a physical or mental image of my "Muse." I just know that I need His presence in my life for all that I hope to accomplish in the name of the Lord, which includes writing the stories He plants in my heart.

"By living well and observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you training yourself in writing, in repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given to move around. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room."

This is from Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, a book he freely admits has nothing to do with Zen but a title that has everything to do with marketing. This quote is from the chapter "How to Keep and Feed a Muse" which discusses how inspiration comes from being fully engaged in life.

As Christian writers, we know that inspiration comes from the Lord. Each one of us has a fertile history that God draws from for our unique stories. We are the only ones who can tell these stories from the perspective He gave us and He expects us to keep the soil tilled and prepared to help those new ideas to sprout.

Until I began posting on this blog, I never acknowledged to myself or anyone else how great a role dreams have in my spiritual life.

Once I had a colleague who was very discouraged and thinking of leaving his ministry. At that time, I had a very vivid dream of a vast field of mud that stretched out as far as I could see. One at a time, people began emerging from the viscous mud and struggled to get free. My friend stood at the edge and began pulling people from the mud.

Imagine my surprise when I attended the estate sale for a late neighbor/artist. There was a chalk portrait of someone leaning over a wall and reaching for the hand of another. It so precisely portrayed the spirit of the dream I had. I keep it in front me as I write.

Though the deceased artist was African-American and thus most of her portraits were those of people with dark skin, I prefer to see these two people as both covered in the mud I saw in my dream. It reminds me that anyone who thinks to help draw people from the mud of this world must remember that each of us in ministry was also once in that very mud.

(Please excuse the largeness of the image. I was afraid the details of the painting might not be visible in a smaller size. )


Stace said...

As odd as it sounds to even me, my muse and the Spirit have always been two different forces for me, something like the id and superego. The muse will take off in any and all directions, playing with literally whatever happens to be in her path. The Spirit, now he is the one who stops me and asks, "Is that good? Is that pure? Is that beautiful? Is that exhortational? Will that help?" He's not so much an editor as he is the conscience of what I write and why. An editor might require standards of excellence, the correct spelling or grammar, the right syntax and the applicability of every scene to the narrative. But the Spirit, he's all about the effect - will this glorify God? Will it assist or grow the Kingdom?

Katie Ganshert said...

I don't know what my muse that bad? Perhaps sitting in a restaurant and people-watching. When I do that, loads and loads of character ideas pop into my head. Fun post!

Anonymous said...

Stace, what a beautiful way to put it. And what an accurate and lovely description of the importance of the Holy Spirit's presence in our writing.

Katie, I too love people watching. Such a fertile ground for character discovery.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

This is a really cool post! I just found this blog last week and am so thankful!

Nature moves me in a way that nothing else does. I find that I'm most inspired to write in the spring, summer, and fall, when it is so beautiful outside. Of course, it's a double-edged sword because all I want to do is be out there playing instead of inside writing (which, at times, is a lot like play). I seem to write more in the winter, when the world is gray. But my ideas come from other times of the year.

Nature teaches me so much about God. It inspires me and breathes life into me when I'm tired. It's most definitely my favorite way to worship and to be with Him--to go outside on my swing at sunset and watch the night come; to count the stars, to listen to the ocean, to play with my poodle. It's like being outside helps me to breathe. And writing just flows from that.

All of my stories are heavily marked by the presence of Nature as well. It's just something that does not change.

Anonymous said...

Kristen, so glad you found us. We look forward to hearing more from you.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Kristen, I whole-heartedly agree with you about the effect that nature has on our whole being. Often I yearn to get outside and just meditate, but finding time is seasonal. Maybe in autumn...

Kathleen Popa said...

Stace, I love what you said, about the difference between the muse and the Spirit. Taking a cue from Ray Bradbury, I really think even our consciences should run out for donuts or something while we write, and then return to us during the editorial process. For me, the worst thing is to ask myself, in the heat of creation, whether what I have said is quite right. Writing is, I think, in good part a subconscious exercise, and our subconscious simply won't come out to play if there are too many supervisors in the playground.

Stace said...

Absolutely, Kathleen! After so many years of seriously following Christ, I hope that enough of it has seeped into even the subconscious to keep me from eggregious error, but in first and sometimes even second drafting - no holds barred. After that, the Spirit starts to nudge in places. Those get addressed first, and then the editor can take over and neaten things up. If I had not me striving to live the life of a disciple for so long, perhaps I could not have that confidence, but it seems to me that Father knows what we are thinking anyway, and so nothing He sees scribbled on the first drafts is a surprise to begin with!