It’s a muse thing, until it happens to you…

May 6, 2010 at 2:30 am (Uncategorized)

I was talking to my Man Town writer friend L last week, and she started telling me about a great talk given by the author of (please stay with me) Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert. I rolled my eyes – I couldn’t help it. Something about the entire enterprise has always left me completely cold, and it’s not the book’s runaway success. I actually really enjoy seeing someone, anyone, succeed in making a decent living out of writing – Hallelujah, another one got through! So it’s not that. I think it’s the self-help component – now there’s an entire industry that’s never seeing a dime out of this dame. It just does not appeal. I know these books purportedly help millions of people all around the world, but I feel genuine disdain for the whole self-help genre. I could probably examine those overwhelmingly negative feelings were I not completely comfortable with the idea that everyone’s entitled to make up their own mind about these things, it’s not to my taste, and that’s that.

So I’m not one of the people who pushed Eat, Pray, Love onto every bestseller list going around town. I haven’t read it, and yet that didn’t stop me from doing something that’s actually really unfair: I blithely went ahead and made a series of baseless assumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert, chief among them being that we wouldn’t get along. This is a necessary process of elimination, and I think every reader does something similar. Snap decisions, yes or no, money where your mouth is, because how else does one filter sufficiently to ever commit to reading a certain title? The world is teeming with books whose authors speak so clearly to me that it’s actually a necessary sanity- and time-saving measure to regularly wipe a few more writers off the TBR list. Nope. I’ll just scrub your name off, no hard feelings, and there now, see, that’s one less book I have to worry about not having read yet. Lovely. Have a nice life, Elizabeth Gilbert.

Anyway, L disclaimed about Gilbert in much the same vein before assuring me that this talk on the history and function of the muse was worth watching. L summarised its content. Basically, back in Ancient Roman times, the muse was seen as very much external to the self. It was a separate entity lurking somewhere nearby that could either assist or hamper an individual’s creativity, depending on its mood. This idea of the individual being the site of all his or her own creative inspiration is quite a modern idea, and seen from a certain perspective, it places an unrealistic and very troubling burden on the creator. It’s all down to you – and that’s a very daunting prospect.

I was really interested by this stage.

“Wow,” I said to L. “That’s so interesting. This is something I’ve actually worried about a lot. I’ve really beaten myself up about it. I’ve always felt really illegitimate as a writer because I’m just not one of those people who generate an endless stream of story ideas from nowhere but inside my own head.”

Indeed, I’ve always thought of this as a massive failing and limitation of mine, and it’s been surprisingly painful, because I guess that’s been my muse model, this idea that the muse is internal. It is? Well then, I am in a shitload of strife! I’ve just never felt that I have carried the source of inspiration within myself. On the contrary, I would say just about all my ideas come to me from external sources, and that’s always felt like a weakness instead of just a different way of thinking about the muse.

I can honestly say a dead weight flew from my shoulders as L continued talking. It felt so liberating, like a warm hand on the back of my head, receiving this glimmer of hope that maybe it is all right if the source impelling my writing lies outside myself. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that doesn’t make my writing an act of bad faith, and maybe I am not someone who doesn’t have the right. Yep, I have been chronically insecure about this for a really long time. It’s been a shameful secret and a source of sincere unrest: I do not inspire myself, other people inspire me, and I am nothing without them. This has made me stoop and avoid eye contact in discussions about one’s muse, resident in one’s own self and kindly dispensing a golden stream of genius concepts, because I have never experienced any such thing. Mm. Perhaps you can tell.

Anyway, the upshot is that I Googled Gilbert’s talk, and I loved it. More, I liked her. I think we’d definitely get along. I’m still not interested in reading Eat, Pray, Love, but you know what? I might put her name back on my TBR list. I’m sure her muse has still got more to give.



  1. Fugitive Pieces said,

    The fantasy is one we all suffer from, and that the self-help genre really harps on – that we possess total direction, total control of our lives and art, and that any reference to externality (let alone mysticism or divinity) is a sop for the faint-hearted. It is absolutely fine if you produce your best work locked in a silent log cabin all-year-round, though tricky with the necessary supply of gourmet cheese – but it’s also fine if the teeming, buzzing world around you is your power source. Your work, your muse.
    So yes, I’m totally with you on the self-help genre, but Gilbert hit a curveball. I suspect that the success of ‘Eat Pray Love’ is based to its humorous, self-deprecating tone rather than the story. She’s likeable, clever, and nuanced, and she’s comfortable with the idea of her own annoyingness. The book doesn’t suffer from relentless positivity, or those exhortations onward! upward! which serve to shit me to tears in roughly a paragraph and a half. It’s pretty good. But that doesn’t mean you have to read it. Maybe try her most recent book ‘Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage’?

    • doctordi said,

      Wouldn’t that be like watching the sequel without having seen the first part of the series?? Not sure about that… somewhere in my mind there’s an order freak having a bit of a pink fit at the idea. I did pick up EPL aaages ago and read the first few pages… I don’t know… still ambivalent. And is it true Gilbert’s withdrawn from the SWF because of marital strife? That seems a bit too cruel given her most recent book – I hope it isn’t so.

      • Fugitive Pieces said,

        Oh no – I really hope not. All I’d heard re: the cancellation was the “family emergency” statement.
        Not having read “Committed”, can’t say, but I think it would stand alone. I am smiling at the idea of an order freak in a pink fit, though, imagining a sort of prim, anguished squeaking…
        I did some more thinking about the self-help stigma; interesting that neither Litlove nor Charlotte thought of E,P,L as self-help. (Plus there are certainly one or two quasi-self-help tomes lurking on my shelves; so why was I so vehement?) I think perhaps this comes down to a kind of snobbery, or tribalism. There are books I’m happy to be seen reading in public, and others that I don’t want to be identified with – truthfully, I don’t want to seen as the credulous, anxious person to whom they market these books. The crossover success that Gilbert achieved brought a whole lot of the self-help readers into another section of the bookshop where I was working, and that, perhaps, is why my latent snobbery prevented me reading it for a long time. I didn’t want to be in their tribe, and I still want to paddle my own canoe, thanks.
        But like you say, life is short, and books are many…luckily, books wait patiently for us. I don’t know that E,P,L is a classic, but I’m still glad to have read it, if only to take part in the conversation that swirled around it.

  2. piereth said,

    With FP on this, and further, the self-help genre is startig to lose its relentless stridency, that which ‘shits FP to tears’ and me too, also. One of the best books in the type I have read is called ‘Healing Without Freud or Prozac’ by Dr David Serban-Schreiber. This book saved me when I needed, desperately needed, so sort of inspiration on how to move forward, because I was all out of ideas.

    You changed your mind about this lady, and this book ( which hasn’t crossed my path here yet) and more, oyu can admit it. Fine and wonderful to have opininos if they’re subject to change!!

    On the inspiration thing, the first internally-inspired author I thought of in regard to this post was Stephen King, who always starts with a ‘what if?’ and seems to dream his best ideas. Well, lucky him. He’s unusual. He also tells us to ‘write what you know’ and I suspect he realises how unusual his ‘what ifs’ are. So you don’t have a seperate muse-mind piping up every day with new fresh ideas? No, I suspect most writers don’t. Write what you know.

    • doctordi said,

      Yes, Piereth, what you say illustrates that it’s as unfair to generalise about self-help as about any other genre, or about anything, really. I don’t doubt there are excellent books out there that really do have a profound impact on people, and I don’t mean to belittle that. It’s just not material I seek out, and I think there are some pretty woeful, cynical books out there that are about nothing so much as separating people from their coin.

      Oh yes, Stephen King! I’ve read On Writing twice now, and I *distinctly* remember my heart plunging when he started on about his limitless reserve of ideas. He really does just teem stories every second of every day. I didn’t at the time get the impression he fully grasped how unusual his ideas warehouse of a brain really is, but I sure hoped like hell he was the exception rather than the rule, because otherwise I was done for!

  3. litlove said,

    I’ve heard that her talks are excellent, and I really must get around to listening to them (or is it just the one online?). I don’t mind the thought of Eat, Pray, Love. I thought it was more about a journey towards self-fulfillment after she’d been through some tough life experiences rather than self help, per se. But then again, it’s true that it’s really easy to form an impression of a book that turns out not to be true at all. Been there, done that!

    • doctordi said,

      I suspect you’re right, LL, but it had those self-help-y overtones – maybe that’s the marketing department’s fault – that turned me off from the outset. But yes, I think that’s what happened – I formed quite a definite position, being “I’m not reading this,” and now I do wonder if I was too hasty because I liked her talk so much.

  4. Fugitive Pieces said,

    Actually, that’d be a good question for a meme – what book were you convinced you’d hate – until you ended up reading it?

  5. charlotteotter said,

    I loved the book and the talk, and I found the idea of the external muse blissful. As you say, what a relief!

    Litlove’s right (how often do I say that?), E,P, L isn’t self-help, it’s her personal journey of self-discovery. My book club was divided down the middle about it – there were those who loved it and those who found it whiny and irritating. If anyone’s journey of self-discovery is unlikely to be your thing, then you don’t need to go there.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, Charlotte of the Burg, if you loved it… I must say these positive notices are helping her cause with me a good deal!!!

      I’m not against journeys of self-discovery per se. Something about it failed to capture me that day as I stood reading the opening pages, but that might have been my mood the day in question, so… perhaps there’ll come a time. The nice thing is I’m now open to the idea in a way I simply wasn’t before seeing her speak.

  6. Grad said,

    Eat, Pray, Love was in a pile of on-sale books at B&N and I kept picking it up and putting it back. I eventually selected First Among Sequels by Fforde instead (my budget, you know), but I’ve heard so much about it I was very tempted, and still might check it out of the library. I am not one for “self-help” books (although it apparently isn’t one). As far as writing goes, I don’t think it matters much from where the inspiration comes, as long as it arrives. How aggravating to sit at the keyboard with…nothing…coming…to…mind…….

    • doctordi said,

      Sounds like we’re pretty similarly placed as far as EPL goes, Graddikins – maybe we should commit in tandem?!

      Yes… I think the external muse might help keep writer’s block at bay. If one’s stuck, one only needs to look outside and observe the street for a time – something will happen, someone will pass, something will be said, and there it may be: an idea.

  7. Pete said,

    I think I will probably read E,P,L at some point, although not now. I really enjoyed her talk. I love what she said about genius and about just showing up for your part of the work. And the concept of “Allah / Ole” was a great one too. Her talk reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell (or maybe it was someone else) who spoke about creative ideas coming when you least expect them (driving, having a shower) and it’s apparently it’s something to do with putting your (left-brained) ego aside and allowing the right-brained creativity to do its thing. Maybe there’s outside influence as well but we’re all composed from the outside (and inside) anyway, aren’t we?

    • doctordi said,

      Yes, Pete, I wondered if the Allah/Ole story was historically accurate – how wild if so!

      Ah, the ego. It really has a lot to answer for.

  8. Lilian Nattel said,

    This whole you have to do it all yourself and be a font of all things thing is an extension of the extreme form of individualism that is current. It’ll pass like all extremes do.

  9. doctordi said,

    I hadn’t thought of that, Lilian, but you are so right! That makes perfect sense!

  10. doctordi said,

    Fugitive, the prim, anguished squeaker is exactly right!!!

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