Catch the muse

The muse. Flighty, isn’t she? Darting in and out of our minds without so much as a by-your-leave. I don’t have a problem catching her – more like she catches me when it’s least convenient. But still, I must heed the call. The point is that she is my channel to creativity – and if I know what’s good for me, I need to listen.

There is a school of thought in writing which veers towards the obsessive. That you must write. That it’s painful, gut-wrenching and debilitating if you don’t.

Ray Bradbury described this kind of possession so eloquently, and look where it got him: brilliance, numerous books and well-deserved acclaim.

Unleashing creativity is like Pandora’s Box

I’m not sure I subscribe to the idea of obsession – balance is key, moderation in all things – but as Bradbury implied, the urge to express yourself, to follow your muse, is strong for anyone drawn to write – and if you don’t honour that it can lead to frustration and unhappiness.

Once you unleash your creativity, it’s like Pandora’s Box: you can’t put it back again.

On World Mental Health Day I came across a recording of an early 1960s interview with Sylvia Plath, talking about her poetry. She had so much acuity, so much more inside of her to give: she said she was intrigued by prose and wanted to go on to explore novels and longform. It’s sad to think she was claimed so prematurely that she was never able to follow her own muse to its natural conclusion, sharing more with a public that would have loved her work.

Plath was very much of her time in terms of confessional poetry, of which she was a leading light – but sadly before her time in terms of the kind of psychological knowledge and treatment which, these days, could well have saved her.

Virginia Woolf was another, but of a different kind. She feared that the onset of psychosis would rob her of her creativity. Depression is a country where no one wants to stay: foggy, bleak and desperate; just ask anyone with the misfortune to have been there. Bipolar sufferers describe their condition as amazing on the highs, but a deep, black curse on the lows.

Taken to extremes, as in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s solipsistic Prozac Nation, being so in love with the drama of depression that you don’t want to reliquish it, is both tedious and counterproductive. (Wurtzel reports towards the end of the book that even her own shrink tells her to get a grip.)

Many creatives fear that losing their depression would mean losing their art. Woolf feared her creative demise because of her mental fragility. She really did need help.

Writing doesn’t have to be so drastic

Anne Sexton is a good example of an obsessive personality, and her poetry can be difficult to stomach – as Germaine Greer once sighed, ‘Honestly, just go for a walk’ – but the act of writing doesn’t have to be so drastic. If you have to repeatedly spill your guts, to burn yourself out to create your art, then there’s something wrong.

At its best, creativity is a gateway to a greater purpose. Catching the muse connects you with your highest self. It should be fulfilling. Even if you are writing about a dark place, ultimately the experience of following and expressing your art should make you happy.

I don’t usually publish my poetry, but this is the result of what the call gave me this week. It was a quick scribble and fully formed when it came. (Orwell and Hemingway would have hated all those adjectives. I don’t care. Under Milk Wood is full of them, and that’s good enough for me. I’ll advocate for the adjective another time.)

The air is changing.
My lens mists on chilly mornings;
where I had caressed young blooms
in spring, faces raised to a gentle sun,
stand now flecked with ochre,
stems faltering, shooting seed pods,
begging for return to the soil.
I wrap myself against the cold and walk,
earth crunching beneath my feet;
wood-brown leaves, curly-edged and
crisp as parchment, carpet the view.

The sky is changing, slowing down.
Blue turns to grey, then cotton-white.
We will all sleep in winter,
dreaming of warmth on skin,
glinting eyes and dappled light;
thoughts of summer idyll calling,
faces raised to the sun –
yearning, hearts open,
for another year.


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