Monday, February 23, 2009

Butterfly Dust

I recently took a writing class in which the teacher, a mid-list novelist, offered her take on THE MUSE, which was to see it as a separate entity; one that needed to be coaxed, prodded, enticed into performing for the artist in question, namely any aspiring writer.

Call me superstitious, but I avoid searching disassemblies of THE MUSE, citing minds greater than mine, namely Hemingway, writing in A Moveable Feast, of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

— Ernest Hemingway

That's how I think of THE MUSE. Dust on butterfly's wings, and the butterfly doesn't need to know how it works to fly. I feared critical examination would prove a fatal marring of the dust.

I was uncomfortable with class assignments to personify THE MUSE as an animal. Name it. Give it its own assignments. All the better to cajole it into submission.

I noticed others in class, mainly fantasy fans, loved this imaging, and created muses as unicorns and fairies with gay abandon. I dutifully completed the assignment, choosing an animal, filling my office with pictures of same. I'd sit and stare at them every once in a while and think, hmm.

I didn't believe. Couldn't see THE MUSE as a separate entity. I believe it's the better part of my dusty old self, and I'm happy with that. No problem here.

Although, cue Twilight Zone theme, I have experienced a definite feeling of otherness at times when the writing is going well, and suddenly, something will spool out of the keyboard that surprises me. How is that even possible?

Don't know. Not gonna try and find out either. As I've mentioned before, I don't have to change the oil to get the car to go.

Decided that was the teacher's process and it didn't have to be mine. Moved on with the class.

Last night, I found this article, How We Kill Geniuses by the author of Eat, Pray, Love.

She says how humanity sees the muse has evolved from outside and separate to inside and personal, and that hasn't been especially helpful.

She looked at other societies to see how they regard this pressure on artists and found an answer in ancient Greece and Rome. In these places, people didn't believe that creativity came from inside. They believed it was an attentive spirit that came to someone from a distant, unknowable source, she said.

"[It was] a magical divine entity that was believed to live literally in the walls of an artist's studio and would come out and invisibly assist the artist with the work and shape the outcome of the work," she said.

This view served the artist's mental health, she suggested, because by attributing the artist's talent to an outside force, the artist was relieved of some of the pressure to perform, and was not narcissistic. If an artist's work was brilliant, the outside force got the credit.

All that changed with the Renaissance when mysticism was replaced by a belief that creativity came from the self. For the first time, people started referring to an artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

"Allowing somebody ... to believe that he or she is ... the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche," she said. "It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

She acknowledged that there were people in the rational-minded audience (which was filled with scientists) who would balk at the idea of creativity as a kind of "mystical fairy juice" that's bestowed on someone. But she said it made as much sense as anything ever posited to explain the "utter, maddening, capriciousness of the creative process."

Mystical fairy juice. Dust on butterfly wings. Genius in. Genius out.

How's it work? Knowing that it does is enough for me.


  1. Stella1:47 PM

    the tribble cat


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