Friday, March 16, 2012

Killing Off the Muse

Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helion (Parnassus) by Claude Lorraine (Wiki Commons)

I used to be a writer. I spent hours, days, weeks writing. Mainly, it was workaday journalism. But once in a while, I got to do something lyrical, something I actually cared about. And, while I did have to make some significant effort to sell my work―not having access to a good ole boy network or the ivied handshakes of an educational career at Harvard or the Seven Sisters―it wasn’t that bad. Write a letter to an editor explaining the work one wanted to do, wait for a reply, and be happy or sad. Either way, go on to the next letter so that, if the fates allowed, one would have a relatively continuous string of assignments for which one would eventually be paid.

That was then. This is now. And now, it seems to me, is the time for all good writers of retirement age to, in fact, go into retirement.

If I have to spend one more day murdering my muse―and it’s a wonder the poor little thing has hung on this long―I might as well kill myself. I don’t want to Twitter. I don’t even really want to Facebook, not except to say hello to actual friends. I don’t want to have to collect 5,000 FB friends; how could I possibly even respond to 5,000 FB friends? But I most especially don’t want to buy/download/learn/use programs that force ever more of the remnants that cling to my once-robust, if not necessarily laudatory, muse into the public view by automating the prattle Twitterholics seem to lap up with more alacrity than I lap a tangy glass of Hendrick’s gin these days.

On Twitter and on Hub Pages and on Suite101―all vehicles meant to entice readers to my work for pennies a pop―these poor shreds of my thoughts, feelings, and knowledge sit. They await the next disgruntled millennial taking a whack at them, the next curmudgeonly old fart spitting  through clacking dentures on them, the next member of the middle-range great unwashed heaving a sigh, venturing the comment that they don’t care for such elitist crap as books, and shoving off down the pub for another evening of dendrite murder.

Hemingway drank even though he lived in a world that was still real. He could booze and write. He could go fishing and write. He could talk to people in real time (remember when ALL time was real?) and write.  He could even hunt and kill wild animals and write.

I like Hemingway, but possibly only because he was one of the few decent choices for my thesis in Modern American Literature, so I know more about him than most people do. I abhorred his hunting. And I found his staccato writing style not quite to my taste always.  Plus, there was a certain emptiness exuded by all his work, as if he could not quite grasp what the world, even his own relatively plain vanilla world, was all about. Nor can any of us. But his world rang emptier than most, I always thought.


I have decorated my world the way I write; there are a lot of bits, sometimes all heaped up on one another, sometimes standing apart, but always bound up in the end through conventions of rhetoric or fabric or a bit of cornstarch or flour, depending on whether it’s the writing, the household or the cooking that needs to come to some sort of reasonable and understandable conclusion. It isn’t neat. But sometimes it is pretty in the end.

Sometimes, now for instance, I can see through the entire mess. I can know that I don’t know what I know. I can’t count on anyone, even myself.  And there is nothing for it but a nap, or flinging myself out the back door naked and screaming at the cows peaceably munching grass and looking after the calves they have birthed there the past few evenings.

I probably won’t do either one. I know nothing but writing. In the old days, I knew publishing, too. I knew that a writer with 14 books on her resume, all published by one of today’s Big Six, would at least get a look by an agent. Not these days. Not a nibble, even from an agent who is a friend of my retired agent. I haven’t killed anyone, which is pretty much what super agent Richard Curtis told me ten years ago, when the death of the writer’s life was first underway in earnest, and I had called him to pick his brain. He was very courteous about that, also being a friend of my retired agent.

Perhaps, though, that’s my ace in the hole. “But Richard,” I might exclaim, “I have killed someone. Her name, at one time, was Laura Harrison McBride (although she assumed others for various writerly purposes) and she harbored a muse. The muse was clever, not particularly classic in her approach to writing or creating or life, but she could turn a phrase. And I killed her. I deprived her of air by crushing her under the weight of the Digital World. I ripped her heart out by making her into a self-obsessed searcher for cyber-based fame. I flayed her alive, stripping the verbal meat from her bones to tantalize slavering hordes of readers whose main literary diet consisted of graphic novelizations of fourth-rate films.”

Maybe that’s the book I should write, a book about how the incessant, constant shoving of self-promotion into all our faces―but most of all, into the relatively tender faces of arts and crafts workers―is killing the joy and beauty in our world. How pandering to the lowest common denominator of readers―and a dozen years after No Child Left Behind taught kids to memorize disparate factoids rather than think, that’s pretty darn low―has sent the muse into early onset dementia with not even a palliative drug in sight, never mind a cure.

These days, even the quiet sadness of a James MacNeill Whistler vacating lodgings after going bankrupt―19th century art galleries that represented him having not done right by him AGAIN―would be bandied about the cheap cyberpress to milk it of its value. Not for Whistler, but for the purveyors of cheap cyberpress rags or those to whom he owed money.

Whistler would have been twice trashed. As are we all, now, every day. We are trashed, having to pander to a public ever more jaded and unable to see truth because of glitter or because they have developed a taste for sleaze and a tolerance for lies. Or, if they suspect the truth, running from it because they fear they might have to pay attention to a needful thing for longer than a soundbite. Or they might have to feel something, from disappointment that they have failed to reform the world to joy that a small animal was saved from the grim reaper.

But all that is digression. Here is the crux; if you are an artist of any sort―writer, painter, photographer, musician, other―and were not fortunate nor wise enough to secure your place above the fray before about 1997, nor young enough to have known nothing better than the blitz-promo tactics of the cyber age, then you are finished.

Face it.

Take a job cleaning ashtrays at airports, which at least is honorable work. It would beat being a Twitter whore for a dollar a day from a group of other Twitter whores hoping that their twaddle is better than yours, and that the bagman known as Google Adsense will bless them with a few miniscule droppings in their Paypal account...and not in yours.