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.