Listening for the Muse’s Whisper

I recently finished the novel that has taken me two years to write (two years, two houses, two states, endless revisions). It’s done. Or as done as I can make it right now. I sent it out to a few interested agents and am waiting. Ugh. The waiting. Waiting for the feedback. Waiting for the rejections. Waiting to send it out to the next group. Waiting for the one yes.

The finishing was entirely anti-climatic. There was no celebration. There was no champagne. There was simply real life crowding out the fictional one and fast. And the real life mess I found (and continue to find) myself surrounded by has completely thrown me out of my creative routine.

In the weeks since real life’s descent, my fictional lives took a back seat. More accurately, they took a separate car and their GPS and mine apparently did not match up – I haven’t seen their car for days. I have spun out in several different directions about what to do next, how to accomplish my creative writing goals, how to get my freelance writing off the ground. All roads feel like dead ends, my brain unable to take any single route to its destination.

For a little while, I couldn’t write anything. The whiplash of switching from full-on, months-long revision mode in my fictional world to real life problems with no easy solutions for me to conjure up out of the ether left me dazed, confused, empty. I admit, I was scared. I have never had my mind feel so empty, so quiet. It was disconcerting and disorienting.

But I kept reading: books, articles, interviews with authors. I went to lunch with fellow WFWA writers. I added books and blogs to my growing to read piles. I wrote a new blog post. I kept putting in an effort, even when it felt wasted.

I walked. I listened to music and to podcasts. I watched a movie or two. I gave up some days and ran errands.

I kept showing up – butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Determined. Aware. Ready or not.

This week, while perusing a spreadsheet of upcoming deadlines for possible contests to enter, a line of dialogue popped into my head.

“Open the door.”

Boom.

I quickly opened a doc and typed it. A response followed like a gift. Lines poured out. Not many, but enough. A short scene appeared on the page. What was happening? Who were these people? Who were they to each other? Why was she so scared? Why was he so angry? Is that actually fear? Is that really anger? It’s not a novel. It’s not the next big story. But it’s a story. A short piece that may be strong enough to stand on its own two feet or, at the very least, get me back on my own.

It was a whisper. A drip. A start.

Real life, writer’s block, busyness, it’s all going to happen, to me, to you, to Stephen King and Ann Patchett and probably happened to Shakespeare, too. There is so much noise in our lives ready to drown out the muse. But if we keep showing up, keep putting in the effort, keep feeling, exploring, seeing, trying, we may be able to still ourselves long enough that a single whisper will make it’s way through the cacophony and the emptiness won’t be empty anymore. The whisper will grow into a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter… The words will start to fill the page again.

I am learning to live in the quiet, to seek out the peace, to listen to the whispers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
 -Emily Dickinson
The muse doesn’t leave. It’s waiting. Are you listening?
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The Maybe of Muses

On July 28th, I went to the NC Museum of Art. The kids were back at school. We were 21 days post move. I needed to recenter. To come back to my creative self. The months of March through July were so tumultuous and busy and mind numbing that I was afraid I would need an ice pick to chip my way back to my creative core.

Art, the visual, is one of the fastest ways for me to touch that core. Music can be fleeting, at least for me. Each song brings its own emotions but when the last chord sounds, it’s gone, dissolved into the air again, it can be hard for me to pull it back.

But art? Art for me hints at a story. It shows me just enough and nothing more. It leaves me with questions and, on a good day, avenues for answers, the possibilities spinning, weaving, endlessly simple, inextricably complicated. Someone saw something – a bowl of fruit, a blackened barn door, a look between lovers – and captured it in paint, on film, in stone. The subject is nothing without what the artist brings to it. And when it is combined correctly? Pure magic.

I wandered the over air conditioned museum, happy I brought a sweater so I wouldn’t be distracted by my physical feelings. I happened into a temporary exhibit of photography. I was floored. I was immediately sucked into the fifteen to twenty photos on display. I love photography, although admittedly couldn’t name any famous photographers beyond the big A’s: Ansel Adams and Annie Liebowitz. But this photographer intrigued me. Or rather his work did. I moved slowly, staring down each one. Going back. Taking a closer look, then a wider. I think I made the security guard nervous. I was in front of the same two photographs for so long I think he suspected I was planning to make off with one. And if I had a malicious mind and could have figured out how to get away with it, I might have.

The months passed and I can still call to mind his images. There were the famous Woodstock photos and the chilling images of a waxen Martin Luther King laid out in his coffin at his funeral that would certainly stick. But there were also the images of twisted and blackened books with only a few words still visible through the carnage from his “Burned” series. There was the back of a blackened barn from his “Just Add Water” series, the barn’s doors thrown open wide in the front, our perspective making it impossible to see what could be hiding inside, discarded bottles littered the weeds around it, dents and scratches marred the exterior walls, and there is the black. The barn painted in some haphazard fashion of what looks like buckets thrown at it, black drips streaking like tears, blank spaces cloudy like smoke. These images left me wondering, thinking, considering. They left me melancholy, yet full. They sparked. The creative core in me had warmed.

But this was all months ago, remember. A long time. Spark ignited, I was back at the keyboard, working on my own projects, the blackened barn now just an image in my phone.

Then, today, during lunch, I grabbed the Sunday News & Observer I didn’t have time to read yesterday from the counter. There, on the front page of the arts section was a beautiful feature on a North Carolina photographer. He’s embarking on a fascinating portrait series celebrating African American culture. His thought process and care with each subject were fascinating. I found myself curious when they mentioned his bio, his credentials. They seemed so familiar. Could it be? The same man? The one who caught my eye months ago at the art museum?

It is. A quick Google search confirmed it. So why? Why is Burk Uzzle suddenly popping back into my life? Coincidence? Maybe. Sure. Probably. Perhaps it is no more than that. But what if it’s not? What else is it?

I have been scrolling through his web page and staring at images (the black barn is in the Just Add Water gallery on his page). I have subscribed for updates on the documentary currently filming on his life and work (watch the trailer here). I have written this post all without really knowing or understanding why. I just feel I need to. I just know that his work is flat out beauty to me. Beauty in the honesty of it. The heart of it. The ugly truth of it.

Maybe it’s his camera’s insistence on shining a light on things often forgotten or hidden or silenced. Maybe it’s his sense of humor (just check out some of the titles of his work). Maybe it’s simply good photography and I appreciate his art.

Maybe.

Or maybe it’s a muse. Maybe it’s someone trying to tell me something. Show me something.

Maybe it’s all those things. Maybe none.

 

But whatever it is. I feel it. In that creative core. Something has been planted. What it grows into, only time will tell. When it has blossomed, though? That will be the story I tell. Then it will be my turn.

And so the cycle continues.