Almost thirty years ago, I was eating dinner at a little restaurant on the edges of Johnson City and Binghamton, New York. My mentor and her husband had invited me along. These were heady occasions, full of discussions about writing and literature, and the program in which we all worked. I was a student, but I still worked. On this particular occasion, they started talking about writers manqué—although I heard it as writer manqués. It was a new word for me. Manqué: having failed to become what one might have become; unfulfilled. They started listing writers who had been in the program, writers who had published and stopped, and writers who were currently in the program. It was sharp and cruel, and the sobriquet stood out as one to be avoided at all costs. These may not have been eternal footmen, but there was snickering enough to go around.
The muse is a durable construct for the writer, because the muse can go away. Most writers I know have experienced life-crushing bouts of silence. It is the single worst event in the life of a writer: when the inward eye stares and stares and sees nothing, and all the inward voice can do is wait, or write, less vividly, about less, or about the nothing. Think of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman,” and the listener, who “listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” A writer who has faced silence has faced the absolute nothing. It makes the writer question her or his ability to evoke a world, to create, to even be. Stevens turns it into a gift—the ability to not see anything but what is, to inhabit a “mind of winter” without preconceptions or preconditions.
The writer carries a slew of preconceptions and preconditions. While most can leave their jobs and go home to become a mother or a husband or something, the writer, like a soldier, is on duty all day. Unlike a soldier, who can remove the uniform, and briefly be, what? human? the writer never becomes anything else. Her or his humanity is bound into this one peculiar characteristic: they make worlds with words. I’m sure this is true of artists of all sorts. A friend recounted an interview with a composer who told how each time when she wrote and felt that the work was wonderful and that she was flying, when she started the next day, she had to learn to fly all over again, that she was rooted to the ground. Success is no bulwark against the feeling of starting all over each and every day.
And so, locating that characteristic in a muse—and those old Greek muses were incredibly flighty—was, is, a safe way to inoculate oneself against the silent times. It isn’t me! It’s that damn fickle muse!
Some writers simply prescribe habit to overcome the silent times. Stephen King wrote the commonplace advice: “Writing equals ass in chair,” which is a grittier take on Mary Heaton Vorse’s “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Getting used to daily practice removes the onus of waiting for the muse. Sit down and write. Repeat. Of course King provides an example of a diligent sitter in The Shining, when Jack Torrance produced reams of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” A little more than sitting can be a help.
Nonetheless, the fear of being unfulfilled lurks. In a prose poem called “Ants,” I render it as a mass of ants that eat the speaker, even while success beckons. Having come to writing in stages, and later than many, I was thrilled by the force of words as they seemed to tumble forth. I was also a little suspicious. Was this really what I could do forever? What about money? or success? Hearing my mentor denigrate those poor “manqués”—I imagined little monkey of Isak Dinesen’s tale “The Monkey.” How horrible to lose oneself to that invidious transformation.
Like any great and terrible idea, this one lurked. Even when I was writing every day, and earning the admiration of friends and mentors for my creative and scholarly work, I worried. Perhaps that is because I came late to the craft, that coming so late, I did not have a firm belief either in it or myself. There are half a dozen other reasons, all of them lying in wait. Monkey. Like the law-seeker in Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” I was ready to be stopped at the wall, and wait. I knew better—I even knew the antidote! I did!—but the idea of “manqué,” so formidable, grew out of proportion to all reason.
When the silence came, I was unprepared, or, rather, I was over-prepared. Too ready. I sought and found success outside of my work, and followed those paths for years. However, the muse—or the mind—did not forget. It simmered there, stoking my peripheral vision for years. Characters and stories inhabited the edges of my consciousness, darting away when I turned my inward eye upon them. Chiding me—don’t you know how to see us? I did not. It hurt. I carried half a heart in my chest, wearing an inner funeral black no matter what flags of color banded my body.
And I had success. But what is success to a writer, to an artist, but the work? Teacher, husband, father, religious leader. I had to tear my life apart, reorganize it.
Kafka has another short story, “My Destination” (“Das Ziel”), in which the traveler declares “I need [no provisions], the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I knew this long ago, and sang it out to any who asked, but could not hear it, not truly, myself. Physician, heal thyself. I could not. And a silent wound festers until it explodes. Or until the call is heard. Again.
And, as if by magic (and not magic at all, old artificer), seeing that I had given myself back to the craft, that I was writing every day—these blog posts included—the vision began to hold. I wrote, I changed my life, and continue to write, out a sense of surprise and without expectation. I write without a plan—and that is my secret. Without a goal, other than writing, there is no question of staring straight at something, or letting the peripheral vision take precedence. I can move forward by sidelong glances. Into the unknown, ignorant of my former limits—and not, stupid memory—and finding the old useful joy and craft.