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When the Muses Block your Creativity

"Horses" by Fani Hason

“Horses” Painting by Fani Hason

A few weeks ago, a Muse hit me on the head—not with a magical wand but with a book. It was on one of Tel Aviv’s few gloomy days. A grey wind blew outside my window, making the thought of any venture outside even more depressing than staying in. A writer’s block had occupied all corners of my keyboard.

I must get out of the house, I told myself and hopped on my bike. I rode through Allenby, dodging low clouds and loud busses to arrive at Halper’s Books – one of Tel Aviv’s hidden gems for used books in English. I didn’t have a book in mind. One should approach used bookstores like an antiques store; you never know what you will find.

At this point you are probably expecting me to reveal that I discovered a special edition of The Wasteland or Anne Karenina, soiled by coffee stains and breadcrumbs left from their previous owners. No. I bought almost-new copies of The Road (saw the movie but never read the book) and Alain de Botton’s Essays on Love (this one I hadn’t heard of, but the book whispered into my ear: “buy me”).

essays-in-love-9781447275329My new books and I rode down King George and took refuge in the Little Prince when rain started pouring in all its might. The Little Prince is another gem in Tel Aviv—a wonderful place to write, read, and drink coffee surrounded by used books. As I read Essays in Love, an avalanche of ideas started bombarding me to the detriment of a deck of post-it notes I used to tag them with.

The thing is, I had been working on a love essay of my own since six months, writing and rewriting, and never getting anywhere. Eleven pages into de Botton’s international bestseller, I knew exactly how to write my own essay on love. The idea landed on the brightest corner of my brain.

Alas, I had dinner plans and I was already late. Since I couldn’t write down my thoughts as I biked, I recorded them on my phone for fear that the Muses would snatch them back as I dined. Throughout dinner, my mind ticked like a metronome on high speed. I wanted to return home as soon as possible so that I could pour onto paper the genius stomping my brain.

Upon returning home, however, instead of opening a word document on my computer, I opened de Botton’s Wikipedia page to read his biography. In discovering that he wrote the book that had just unblocked a six-month love-story blockade at the ripe age of 23, I sank into depression like five tons of brick into the ocean. I certainly didn’t write an ingenious book at age 23 and the doubt remained at age 31. A poisonous ivy of envy and jealousy paralyzed me. I couldn’t write a word.

My mourning in self-pity lasted for a few minutes before I opened a new window and googled “writes who bloomed later in age.” Reading the biographies of writers like Haruki Murakami and George Eliot calmed me down like a cold Chardonnay. To further relax, I reread Rilke’s exquisite words proclaim that “verses amount to so little when one writes them young. One ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long, and a long life if possible, and then, quite at the end, one might perhaps be able to write ten lines that were good.”

These lines come from Rilke’s only and semi-autobiographical novel The Notebook of Malte Laurids Bridgge. The 28-year-old protagonist is frustrated for not having written anything of substance yet. Then he understands that his predicament is normal,

“for verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough)–they are experiences. For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, things, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning.”

Reading Rilke helped but the damage was done. My enthusiasm beaten to the core, I went to sleep and let my essay remain as incoherent ramblings in the form of voice recordings within the confines of my phone.

The Nobel Laureate poet Wislawa Szymborska put in verse the exact circumstances of my fight with the Muses in a poem that chronicles the birth and slow death of an idea. “So it whispered a few words in my ear,” she repeats throughout “An Idea,” conjuring a whimsical goddess Muse who at once gives and takes away the gift of poetry:

An Idea

for a rhyme? a poem?
Well, fine—I say—stay a while, we’ll talk.
Tell me a little more about yourself.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
Ah, so that’s the story—I say—intriguing.
These matters have long weighed upon my heart.
But a poem about them? I don’t think so.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
It may seem that way—I reply—
but you overestimate my gifts and powers.
I wouldn’t even know where to start.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
You’re wrong—I say—a short, pithy poem
is much harder to than a long one.
Don’t pester me, don’t nag, it won’t turn out.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
All right then, I’ll try, since you insist.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I write, tear it up, and toss it out.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
You’re right—I say—there are always other poets.
Some of them can do it better.
I’ll give you names and addresses.
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
Of course I’ll envy them.
We envy even the weak poems.
But this one should…it ought to have…
                 So it whispered a few words in my ear.
Exactly, to have the qualities you’ve listed.
So let’s change the subject.
How about a cup of coffee?
It just sighed.
And started vanishing.
And vanished.

"An Idea" is from Wislawa Szymborska's book of poetry: Here

“An Idea” is from Wislawa Szymborska’s book of poetry: Here

The ancient Greeks believed that the poet composes his poems through the mediation of the Muses – those goddesses responsible for the creation of all art. The Muses bestowed upon the poet the art he poured onto papyrus as a God whispering words of prophecy into the prophet’s ear. Without the Muses, the artist and his work amounted to nothing. They were the real generator of ideas.

Art was garnering a bad reputation back than, no thanks to Plato. Plato considered the artist incapable of the kind of rational thought required for creation. He thought the Muses were madwomen who needed to be medicated and poetry had not value unless the Muses inspired it. Thus, poets were madmen, also in need of medication. No wonder Plato would have banished all practitioners of “imitative” arts from his perfect Republic.

Plato’s sneers aside, what is important for the poet (or the writer, or the musician, or the painter…) is not where the ideas come from but rather where they go. And fear and self-loathing is the Muse’s best weapon as she dangles those ideas in front of the artist.

So here’s my reply to the Muses: thanks for your help but the Voice Record app and I will take it from here. Now, I’ve got to go write my love essay.

Photo by Ari Strano

Photo by Ari Strano