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Thursday, February 08, 2007


Today, it is about time we talked about muses. We have avoided the subject long enough.

In mythology, there were nine sisters—the nine goddesses who inspired creative endeavor. When you had a poem to write, or a play to put on, or a painting to paint, you called the muses. They came tripping along in their long robes and danced around you, and your head filled up with ideas . . . or something like that. No one really knows what exactly happened when they showed up, but if the muses liked you, you were good to go.

The muses have been portrayed in film on several occasions, most notably (to me) in the 1980 roller skating epic Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John as Terpsichore, the muse of dance. By the time of the movie, she is a roller disco queen who leaps out of wall murals and inspires a guy to open a roller disco, all with the aid of Gene Kelly, who plays a rich clarinetist. Xanadu is the closest you can get to being high without actually being high, but if you like roller skating and think Mount Olympus looks like an old school video game, this is the movie for you.

You should watch this all the way through. At first, you will probably be confused and disoriented, but it only gets better as it goes along. Don’t stop with the two people wobbling on the tightrope. The muses all appear at the end, on a giant glowing Frisbee. Terpsichore rises an entire two feet in the air before they are all vaporized. This is what having a muse is supposed to be like.

I should also point out that the main character of Girl At Sea, Clio Ford, is named after the muse of history. Her muse status plays a part in the book. You’ll certainly be hearing more about this the closer it gets to June.

I realize that most people think that the muses are imaginary creatures, and when writers talk about their muses, they are just being poetic and pretentious. I am breaking the unspoken code by telling you this, but the muses are, in fact, completely real. All writers have one. There are a lot more than nine of them.

The thing is . . . they’re not at all like the description in the history books and annals of mythology. This is why most writers won’t talk about their muse. But I like to be honest with you and tell you what the writing life is really like, muse and all. And I must tell you this . . . it is not like Xanadu.

My muse’s name is Scruffy. At least, that’s what I call him. His real name is something like Scrufistorimachus. Not even he can pronounce it. He came to me one day one I was writing my first book, The Key to the Golden Firebird, and I was stuck on a scene that involved some very awkward making out in the back of an RV.

“#&$^#*&$,” I opined, smacking my keyboard. “I can’t write this #&$*(&#*(#*$(^#($^#&*$^ scene. I wish I had a muse.”

And with that, there was a knock on my door. I answered it to find a tall, very lanky guy in a blue corduroy suit. He was pale, with sandy hair and a washed out complexion. He smelled like cooked cabbage and looked like he had recently been weeping.

“I’m Scrufistorim . . .” he began. “Call me Scruffy. I’m your muse.”

He pushed past me and went into my living room, where he dropped on my couch.

“You don’t look like a muse,” I said, shutting the door.

“Like you’ve ever seen one. Do you want help or not?”

I did want help.

“Yes!” I said. “I’ve seen Xanadu! I know how this works! I’ve waited for this all my life!”

“Okay,” he said. “The first thing I’m going to need is some Cool Ranch Doritos. They’re my brain food.”

Scruffy did almost nothing but eat Cool Ranch Doritos for the first six hours I knew him. I got him every bag in the store. He sat on the couch and munched away while I continued to try to write the scene. I had just managed to write in a bit about a very dusty Operation board game box that I thought was a nice touch, when the Cool Ranchiness finally hit Scruffy’s brain.

“’kay,” he said, licking the dust from his fingers. “’kay. So. In your book? You know what you should do?”

I turned.

“You should put in a shopping scene. Like a montage. Of shopping. For shoes. And, it could be that your main character is like, really unpopular, but then, she gets these shoes . . .”

“No,” I said.

“Listen! Listen! So, she gets these shoes, right? And, like, everyone suddenly sees her in a new light, because she’s wearing these really cool shoes. And everyone thinks she’s cool.”

He waited for my reply. When I said nothing, he felt compelled to explain further.

“Because of the shoes,” he said.

“This is a book about three girls coping with the death of their father,” I said. “I don’t think shoe shopping really goes, do you?”

“Well,” he said, reaching for my remote control. “If you’re going to be like that . . . do you have cable?”

It turns out, when you get a muse, they never leave. They just sit there and nag you until you do what they want. For hours, I resisted Scruffy’s shoe shopping montage idea.

“Shoe brands say so much about a person,” he said, when I woke up in the middle of the night to find him going through my closet. “For example, I would say that you are . . . wow, your feet are huge! I thought you were like, a six. These things are like boats. I could sail around in these.”

“I’m not doing it,” I said.

“Suit yourself,” he said. He sat on the edge of my bed and ate Doritos until dawn, keeping me away with the crumpling of the bag and the constant, open-mouthed chewing.

Over a breakfast of Cool Ranch Doritos and milk, he explained his theory of character development.

“When a character walks into a scene,” he said. “First thing, I’m looking at the feet. Some people think the mouth does the talking. I say, it’s the feet.”

“Don’t you have any other ideas?” I finally screamed. “What about death? Love? Loss?”

“You can lose a shoe,” he said.

Scruffy passed out in the afternoon while watching a Buffy marathon. He came to a few hours later with a jerk and a snort. I had managed to write a chapter while he was out.

“I got another one,” he said, sitting up and pulling his jacket back on. “’kay. What if . . . what if . . . your character really likes someone, but that someone turns out to be a robot wearing a suit of human flesh? And then they go shopping together?”

“Did you escape from some kind of a home?” I asked. “Where are my leaping skaters? Where are my unsteady tightrope walkers? Or my adorable mime-breakdancing guys in suspenders and hats? You . . . are no Xanadu.”

With that, Scruffy burst into tears and locked himself in the bathroom. This provided me with another chance to get some writing done. I began to notice a pattern . . . when Scruffy left me alone, suddenly, words were pouring from my fingers. I started taking Scruffy into the city, where I would push him out of moving cabs. I would rush home and write until he found his way back. I took him to the airport and left him at an arrivals gate. I pushed him off the Staten Island Ferry.

Over time, it’s gotten harder and harder to shake him, but I’m constantly thinking up strategies. That’s how it works. If you plan on being a writer, you better get used to the fact that you are going to spend your life constantly on the run from your muse . . . because from what I’ve heard, they’re all like Scruffy. Some are worse.

The truth is, my Xanadu looks a lot more like this . . .

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

i thought you should see this:


so affordable! sort of!

7:09 AM  
Blogger Justine Larbalestier said...

Blabbermouth! If you keep telling all the writer secrets they'll take away your decoder ring!

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But...but...how did you get a muse? I have watched video and still don't have one.

Also, when will you or Scruffy set up an LJ feed??

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering about all that singing I heard whenever I call you to check on your progress.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Hannah Rose said...

Oh wow. I want a Xanadu. Maybe not Olivia though, she scares me.

Just how many times did you watch that clip, Maureen? I can picture you watching it over and over and over....

So about these decoder rings Justine mentioned...


4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After watching that clip...I must see Xanadu. Not only to compare Newton-John's acting in it to Grease, but it looks pretty darn good! (And I can't rollerskate to save my life--it's nice to watch people who can.)

6:31 AM  
Blogger CJ Omololu said...

So, now I think my muse is Andy Gibb. I could do worse.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Little Willow said...

Dear Scruffy,

Don't you dare make a Buffybot. Because, really, that whole storyline was cheap and dirty.

Little Willow

7:28 AM  
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