Losing My Muse
Every once in a while, usually at social gatherings where I am trying to go unnoticed near the cheese tray, and after I’ve just been introduced as a writer, a stranger will ask me why I write. I spit out the typical but not-totally-truthful answer about wanting to explore the human condition.
Human condition, wow. I see. And how do you do it? How do you write all those words?
I go through a rather mundane list of everyday writing routines. I’m getting pretty good at standard writer-ese. It’s much safer to fill an awkward silence with details about the amount and style of coffee I consume, or the music I listen to, or if I need to sit at a desk, but it isn’t really how I do it. Before now, I’ve never volunteered the rather integral ingredient: redirected sexual energy.
(All who know me, especially family: pause here for deep breaths.)
I’m not the first (and definitely not the best) writer to use that kind of heat as creative fuel. Yeats mused on Maud Gonne, Nora Barnacle was Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Woolf and Vita Sackville-West carried on a love affair that inspired both to write some of their best work. And okay, so maybe the idea of having a muse is a little obsessive and strange to the general populace, but a writer knows better than to pass on something that might provide longterm inspiration. I’m pretty convinced many more writers have a muse than admit it. Until now, I’ve been one of them. For fifteen years, I had a muse. He was how I wrote. He was why I wrote. Or that’s what I thought until I lost him.
I’m no classicist so before I began this piece, I did a little backgrounder on the originals, those nine inspirational women of Greek myth, each of them assigned to a specific area of art or scientific inquiry: epic poetry, love poetry, tragedy, dance, music, astronomy, history, comedy, and sacred poetry. These goddesses were the result of Zeus getting down with the Titan Mnemosyne for nine nights in a row. Well, who’s she? I clicked through to her wiki entry and this is the part that almost made me fall off my chair—Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory.
For those of you who write because of a muse, be honest, is there any description more fitting? Isn’t the process of creating for or because of that muse a little like having languid sex with a memory?
I met my muse when I was twenty-two. He was just a few years older but seemed decades wiser. While I’d been pinned under the too-tight buckle of the Bible Belt where I was born, he’d been kibbutzing, and backpacking, and gaining nicknames on numerous continents. He was scruffy and direct and more than a little intimidating.
He was adventure. I was engaged.
If I’d been a little less shy, we probably would’ve had the kind of affair that twenty-something intellectuals tend to be quite good at— full of gravitas, but with less of life’s actual difficulties (mortgages, children, full-time careers). But I was timid and totally inexperienced with any kind of direct sexual expression. I wanted him, badly. But I also couldn’t bring myself to do anything more overt than send intense looks across the seminar room where he and I and twelve other undergrads met every Tuesday and Thursday to discuss historiography. I developed a killer smoulder and he noticed not one bit. Or maybe he did and assumed I was really into Ptolemy.
Finally (quite literally), I got some courage up. On the last trip to the subway, after the last class of the last semester of our last undergrad university year, I caught up to him at a street light and we made a date. I danced toward the St. George subway station, impressed with my dramatic and impeccable sense of timing. I’d sunk a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
But he never showed. His beloved da was dying and he’d flown home to be with him.
After, he stayed in Calgary to take care of his ma. I wrote my last exam and got married two months later. What might have been a quick fling between us, or maybe a slightly-less-brief-but-probably-more-tumultuous relationship, turned into a meaningful long-distance friendship. We met up a couple of times the following summer, but mostly we wrote emails that seemed to scroll forever, always at the end of our respective days. Except for us in our midnight rooms, three provinces apart, the whole world seemed fast asleep. Sometimes he wrote things that made me realize I might be edging toward a life lived half-asleep too. Why don’t you do this thing you are so very good at? Why don’t you write?
I fell in love. I didn’t see him for fourteen years. I was married. He was adventure.
I lived another life. I became a mother and a writer when I had the time. I wrote a novel and I turned him into one of the characters who made me want to keep writing. Eight drafts later, ten years after the last time I saw him, the novel was done and he wasn’t really in it anymore. I’d bent and twisted the character he’d inspired so much, and stuffed words in his mouth that he never would have said.
And so, after a few months, I began writing again, searching for him.
This time, I wrote historical fiction, not the thinly-veiled wanto-biography like my first time around. But, when I wrote this second book, (and I hope he’ll forgive me this) he most definitely became the inspiration for the beautiful-but-doomed Charlotte Vogel, soulmate to an old lighthouse keeper. It is but one of many frustrated love stories going on in that novel. I couldn’t have written it so without feeling it for real.
When I finished the second book, I fell into a blue rut. I missed my story. I missed the characters and the daily habit of writing about them. I missed emoting for the sake of my work. My marriage had been wobbling for some time, and when I finished the novel, I finally felt the pit that my feverish writing of the past year had filled. I seemed to be trapped at the bottom of it. My marriage fell in. In fact, more honestly, I pulled it in. I was the pit.
I began to write poems like therapy. I spent my days in a panic of loneliness. At night, I wrote verse that made me weep, just to make sure I still could. I wrote nine poems and submitted them to a contest. Eight of them were about the end of a marriage. One of them was about my muse. I called it Varicella, a frantic itch that needed scratching. My collection didn’t win, but it made the long list, and quite suddenly, poetry seemed a thing I might actually be able to do.
I went off to find something that would stop the hollowing out and help me feel again. Anything. Good or bad, as long as it was real. I went to the mountains for the first time in my life. Classicists know, the mountains are a popular spot for muses. Mine happened to live there too.
Let me say this here, now, because many of you may be wondering when I am going to get to the point of this essay: Dear Reader, I began to lose my muse as soon as I made him real to my life again. And actually, he was the first to warn and question the sagacity of my seeing him again in real life: Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a novelist (+ poet), and I think this means that the world you imagine, in order to write, is likely a richer world than the one we live in…Indeed, you might actually prefer to keep me a part of ‘the writing world’ and not ‘the real world’!
I enrolled in a mentorship program and travelled back and forth to the mountains to work on my poetry and hike and make love with my muse. I’d fly home after five or six days and leave him with a handwritten poem. When I asked him one evening on the phone how he felt about being a muse, he skirted a bit. He told me it wasn’t really about that. All of my work, even if it was about a very particular moment we shared or feeling he evoked, was really only about me. It was my experience I was writing about. He just happened to be part of that experience.
My mentor, the quietly magnificent Betsy Warland, had a habit of rejecting all the poems I wrote about my muse. I would go to her after hiking hand-in-hand with him through Stanley Park, all flush with the excitement of he and I actually being a real thing happening in the most beautiful place I’d ever been in my life. And she would offer me a cup of sobering tea and ready her sharpened pencil stub and mark exes on every page that held a poem I’d written for him. She almost rolled her eyes when she read them for the first time. These ones, they’re about your current love? I nodded. They’re not ready. You need distance. Instead, she wanted to know more about Frank and Rose, the married couple in my poems who were falling apart. For a moment, I hated her like a child hates the grown-up holding the tablespoon of bad medicine they know they have to take.
I returned to my muse in the mountains and he wrapped his arms around me and held me as I cried a little. He, too, was confused about why Frank and Rose held such interest to my mentor. Why those sad sacks, after all? Why not this fresh desire?
Being with him was whimsical and fun, sometimes breathtaking. But there was a lot of not being with him too, a lot of intermittent text messages, a few midnight phone calls I made from inside the shower stall in my bathroom so as not to wake the kids. Still, the yearning was good for my poetry, and as much as it hurt, as bonkers as the distance sometimes made me, it was good for me too. Like my summer swim in the glacier-fed Lynn River—what beautiful pain to feel so alive.
He took me away to an island mid-winter. We talked about practical things in person for the first time: my children, and career prospects, his skeptical ma, and money, and theoretical future children. We walked through ancient forests and kissed the mist of a waterfall off each other’s faces. He held my hand inside his hand inside his pocket. Some of it was magic. Some of it was pure suspension of disbelief.
I told him I loved him. He was adventure.
The sun set in a beautiful glow on Wickaninnish Beach and everything got suddenly cold.
Whatever we had ended a month later, but not before I flew out in a fit of poetic spontaneity and surprised him. He was not happy to be surprised. We collected my hiking boots from his mountain aerie and I read him one last poem as he drove me to a hotel. It was a new poem about birds, raggedy ugly birds, becoming magnificent when they flew.
For days afterward, I hardly slept. When I did, I woke in full panic mode. What had I done, after all? I had made a hundred plans to change my life that seemed downright embarrassing. I was deep into a poetry manuscript where two-thirds of the poems were about him. I didn’t want to open the file and read all of that tender longing. How could I ever go back to it? When would it not hurt?
Betsy, oblivious to the mess I was in, was pushy for my final submission to the mentorship program. I wrote her a pitiful email of excuses and then I opened the manuscript, expecting the worst.
But, hey, hmm. How interesting.
It turned out a lot of the poems I’d written for him didn’t make a lot of sense at the time because they each contained a sort of poison pill not fully digested. You see, I knew somehow. I knew what he and I had was powerful and completely overwhelming, but I also seemed to sense that what I wanted from him wasn’t to be had in reality. What had been annoying equivocating before, as Betsy recognized, became, with tweaking here and there, with hindsight and a bit of distance, stark. These poems were no longer wobbly love Jello. They were desire and loss, cut clean.
Still, I couldn’t write. I couldn’t write much of anything for months. And when I did, it was still always about him. I was supposed to write this essay three months ago, but couldn’t bring myself to sit and contemplate the loss of that source of creative energy. And I didn’t want times that had definitely glowed to acquire the grey and boring tinge that explication sometimes imparts.
When I wrote to my muse, to tell him about my fear, that my Maud Gonne was no longer, that I didn’t know what would fire me up enough to write again, he wrote back and told me what he’d told me once before. You’re Maud Gonne is not gone (indeed it is not me, I don’t think!) I think it is you and it makes you a great poet…
Until I lost my muse, I thought he was real. But my muse was no more real than the nine lovelies of Greek myth. Sure, yes, there is an actual man out there and he is the one I experienced the very real love affair with. But the fifteen-year muse was always just me. I peeked behind the curtain and found my twenty-something self sitting there scribbling in a notebook, wild for a little more from life, always a little more.
During our last session, Betsy asked me to go through and tell her who each poem was about. I had trouble but I gave her a list. It didn’t feel right though, and I didn’t figure it out until much later. The poems, all of them, were me. I was Rose, and I was Frank. I was their child, and their cats, and their old kaleidoscope, and the half-dead squirrel they found in the street once. I was the boat, and the refugee, and the moon. I was the red balloon inflated with my mother’s breath, and the 800-year-old tree that swayed near my lover’s house in the mountains. I was me being in love with my muse. I was my muse. And I was feeling it all, finally. I am adventure. I am adventure. I am adventure.
Erin Bedford's work is published in William Patterson University's Map Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Temz Review, and Train: a poetry journal. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction for her novel Fathom Lines from the Humber School for Writers. Currently, she is acting as shill for her newly-completed second novel Illumining, and a manuscript of poetry. Follow her to find out more @ErinLBedford