Friday, April 21, 2006

Giving Credit to the Muse

Beyond the Pale. Artist, Anthony Weir.

For the longest time, I had trouble understanding the concept of a muse. I thought about it as something a little bit ridiculous, too romantic for me. I pictured a love-sick poet soaking his writing page with tears, pining for his lover.

Then one day it hit me: a muse is anything or anyone that drives you to create. I think my muse is constantly changing, and my muses are writers of the past. James Wright, Truman Capote, James Dickey, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and so on. And you have to give credit to the muse, because nobody writes in a vacuum. Nobody goes it alone. And if you don't give credit to your muse, your work dries up.

I'm reminded of a Native American Trickster Tale:

Coyote was hungry and cold. He wrapped himself in a blanket and went to talk to Stone, who had magical powers. "Stone," he said. "I am starving to death. If you help me, I will give you my blanket." Coyote placed his blanket across Stone.

As Coyote walked home, he saw a deer and he killed it with his first arrow. "Oh boy," Coyote said. "That was lucky." Then he thought of Stone and was thankful.

A few moments later, Coyote began to feel very cold. "Stones do not need a blanket," Coyote said to himself. "And anyway, I killed the deer myself. Stone had nothing to do with it."

Coyote returned to Stone and took his blanket. But when he returned to his camp, he saw the deer had turned to dust. Only magic could have done such a thing to the deer.

Coyote thought about it. Then he said to himself, "I know where I made my mistake." Coyote held his blanket tightly around himself, shivering from the cold and weak from hunger. He thought, "I should have eaten the deer first, THEN took my blanket away from Stone."

Coyote went back on his promise. He lost his connection to what is right. And he failed to give proper thanks to the magical source that helped to nourish him. As a result, his nourishment turned to dust.

I think it would be the same for me if I failed to properly acknowledge my muses.

Today in my Native American Literature class, the students were doing presentations. Their presentations took many forms. One by one, the presenters came before the class, sat in a chair, and shared part of themselves and what the literature had taught them. One student had written a song. She played her guitar and sang. Her arm flew out and then came back with great force to pluck the strings. She closed her eyes and her voice was strong and sweet.

Another student put on dark glasses and read parts of a journal he had started during the semester. The entries were fragmented and painful for him to read. They were based on a fall he had experienced, a fall into the void of clinical depression. Because the literature we read this semester is a literature of survival, he had identified strongly with it. The literature had helped to draw out his dark thoughts, like the chewing tobacco my Daddy used to put on my bee stings used to draw out the poison.

Another student read his own poems. Another had painted a picture for the first time in many years. She smiled shyly and claimed she had no talent and wasn't "creative in any way." Another, a philosophy major, talked of how his classes had converged this semester to bring him to a new state of consciousness.

It was a beautiful experience, but I don't take credit for any of this. The authors we studied were the students' muses.

And they gave proper thanks. Yes they did.


TJ said...

Very well said, makes you stop to think for a moment about how we all have so many influences in our lives and opportunity for learning if we pay any attention at all.
I feel thankful daily for the beautiful things I can experience. I try to show it in my photography and renders. A muse is a wonderful thing...

Vicky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vicky said...

What a beautiful experience to see your students engaging in creation, driven by what you have revealed to them, Theresa. You deserve that happiness.

I shall spend some time musing upon who is/are my muse(s). I do believe there are many. And I do believe you may be one of them.

Love, V xx

ggw07 said...

re. "like the chewing tobacco my Daddy used to put on my bee stings used to draw out the poison." These are specific powerful images-Sounds like your stimulating the students and honoring your muse is working- Keep it up- More of this! Thanks!

ggw07 said...

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,--you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."
Black Elk Speaks

"Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."
Ancient Indian Proverb

"Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. "We are Indians and we have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our way of giving is our bank."
Chief Maquinna, Nootka

V said...

Theresa, I think of muses as they who inspire. In your class, as you describe it, it is you who inspires, who gives direction to your students.Their work is shaped by the assigned readings but it is your spirit that infuses.
I think of the story I`m writing in my blog. My muse there is my friend Ed.
Aw, Theresa, you inspire me.

alphawoman said...

Since leaving KY I have felt that the state, the people, the beauty, the memories, the history, my history etc etc etc ...was my muse both for writing and photography. I feel totally dried up and uncreative here. This entry really caught my attention.

beths front porch said...

Theresa, I'd have to go along with Vicky and Vince. I believe you may be a muse. Love, Beth

Nelle said...

I love the Native American tale. Your students sound very fortunate to have such an intellectually as well as emotionally stimulating course. I loved my literature course and professor. It opened my eyes mind to many things I was unaware of.

dreaminglily said...




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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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