Last month during the Sharpening the Quill writing workshop I lead here in Princeton, one of my students mentioned that although her lifelong dream has been to be a writer, she’s been plagued over the past year or so by a series of illnesses that have kept her from writing as much as she’d like. At the same time, she feels more and more antsy, more irritable. Could this be, she wondered, some part of her subconscious trying to both sabotage her and urge her on at the same time?
Of course it could.
As we talked about our own similar experiences with The Cranky Muse, it became clear that although the form the discomfort took varied from person to person, visits from the source of inspiration were just as likely to arrive in the form of self-loathing, irritability, a nagging sense of having left something undone, restlessness and a general sort of discontent.
When I get that way, my Best Beloved looks at me and says, “Oh, you’re there. That’s good; it means you’ll be writing again soon.” Then he wisely ducks.
But he’s right, of course. (Which is what makes it so damn annoying!)
Now, as someone trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol one day at a time, if I don’t tend my spiritual garden daily my default state is restlessness, irritability and discontent. Which, of course, makes the life of a writer perfect for me, for when I feel that triad of unpleasant emotions, I know the most powerful curative is the blank page. That is my spiritual resting place. It may not be easy, and since a part of me would be quite pleased with itself if I succumbed once again to addiction, most days I have to have a good stern chat with myself before I successfully get my ass back in the chair in front of my blank page. However, experience has taught me that the longer I put it off, the more likely I am to feel increasingly uncomfortable — or get sick, like my friend from the writing workshop.
Many of us think, or hope, our muses look like this, depicted by Cezanne:
However, my experience has been more like this:
Meet my muse. I call him Rankles. Over the decades I’ve been working as a writer I’ve come to almost welcome that snappy little ankle-biter. Sure, every once in a great while a sweet inspirational rain descends from I-don’t-know-where, accompanied by a breeze created no doubt by the wafting of angels’ wings and all the flowers in my writer’s garden open, spilling literary perfume about willy-nilly. It’s a heady experience and one for which I’m humbly grateful. But that’s rare. Most of the time there’s just this annoying wee daimon named Rankles who won’t allow me to rest comfortably until I get my word count out for the day.
And in the end, it’s Rankles who herds me to my rightful spot; it’s Rankles who forces me to focus; it’s Rankles who nips at my heels when I slack off, and it’s Rankles to whom I owe my deepest gratitude.
So, the next time you feel out of sorts, restless, irritable and just can’t settle, why not just write a few hundred words and see if Rankles doesn’t curl up at your feet for a while?
You might even write a bit about the personality of your own muse . . .