Posts Tagged ‘Inspiration’

Muse Rides Again

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Max Greenstreet in Ireland (self-portrait)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” Socrates

From the age of twenty-one until I was fifty, with only a few brief respites, I wrote many novels, most of them never published. The first dozen or so novels I wrote were related to the kind of poetry Socrates is describing when he says, “…who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” I wrote in a state of enchantment without knowing in the least what I had written until I came out of my writing trance, gathered up the pages, and read the words that had spilled from my pen. By the age of thirty-five, I had managed to publish four of those inspired novels, and then for reasons known and unknown to me, I was unable to convince publishers to take any more chances with my books; and shortly thereafter those marvelous states of enchantment ceased entirely to take me over.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

As Van Gogh warned, I then became a slave to my model, which is to say I feverishly tried to think of what would make saleable novels, and I slaved away for years writing dozens of half-baked uninspired works that literally made me sick. Yet I continued to compulsively work at novel writing because I defined myself as a man who writes novels, which self-definition was how I knew, sort of, what I was or thought I was; and I desperately wanted to sell another book because I thought such a sale might save my marriage and cause my friends and family to like me again.

But my marriage collapsed before cosmic largesse might have prolonged the inevitable, and in that state of collapse and emotional free fall, the muse suddenly dropped in on me for the first time in many years and gave me Ruby & Spear, which, despite my not having published anything in a decade, was quickly bought by Bantam and brought me sufficient bread to move from the rubble of my marriage to my next camping spot, Berkeley, where I once again fell prey to trying to think up my next saleable opus, which behavior inspired my muse, the bringer of enchantment, to disappear once more.

So at the age of fifty I had a real humdinger of a breakdown accompanied by a severe depression that brought me face to face with the question: what’s with the compulsive novel writing, buster? And in the throes of my misery, I spotted a book I had been schlepping around for fifteen years but had never opened (the only such book I have ever owned) entitled Severe and Mild Depression by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad, two erudite psychotherapists, their tome full of case studies of depression.

“But I’ve never really been depressed,” I said, as I leafed through the book. “Until now. Well…maybe for those little whiles between writing novels, but that was just post-partum blues. All the great writers talk about their little depressions between novels and plays.”

Then I happened upon Arieti’s case study of a compulsive novel writer, a summing up of that writer’s life that might as well have been my biography, including precise and detailed descriptions of my unhappy and unhealthy relationships with my parents, my failed marriage and failed relationships, and my decades-long compulsive attempt to try to write a successful novel. There was even mention of this writer’s early spontaneous and inspired works giving way to intellectually constructed imitative dribble. And, as was true of me, this man had not previously exhibited any outward signs of being depressed.

I read this case study as if watching a time-lapse movie of my life. I was fascinated and horrified and excited to find out what this guy/me was doing in a book about depression. Well, according to Arieti, this guy/me had been running ahead of a murderous depression for his entire life, and the source of this killing depression was his parents lifelong withholding of love from him while simultaneously denigrating his creative impulses and his desire to be an artist. And in order to cope with this painful lack of love and support and the resultant feelings of worthlessness, this writer came to believe that if he could only write a massively successful novel, he would be lifted out of his hellacious life of failure into a new reality in which he would finally be happy and his parents would love him.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso

So I decided to see what would happen if I stopped writing novels. I had long known that whenever a play or screenplay or short story began to write itself through me, if, in my compulsive way, I tried to force that inspiration into the form of a novel, my state of enchantment would vanish. Which told me it was not writing I needed to quit, but the writing of novels.

And for the first year or so of not writing a novel, I was, indeed, very confused about who I was and why I was alive because I no longer possessed the identity that had been my mask and shield and raison d’etre for the previous thirty years. Eventually I embraced a more complicated and satisfying identity; and one day when I was fifty-four, I found myself writing something without thinking about what words I might write next, but rather seeing the story unfolding and writing down what I was seeing, knowing only that I’d been grabbed by something good and I wanted to read whatever that something turned out to be. So I hung onto the pen for twenty pages, then made a cup of tea and sat down to see what I’d written.

“Uh oh,” I said, speaking to the invisible ones, “this quite obviously wants to be a novel and I don’t write novels anymore. Remember? I’m okay without them now.”

“Oh, but this is a great story, Todd,” said the muse in her gorgeously non-verbal way, “and we’d really like you to write it, but not compulsively. Just as it comes to you.”

Which is what I did. And though that novel Bender’s Lover was never published, it pleased a good many of my friends and ushered in a new era in my life in which I might write anything in any form because I am no longer constrained by thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Here for your enjoyment is how Bender’s Lover begins.

Four months ago—the ides of June—I was in Lorna’s wildflower shop ogling a maroon Sierra Shooting Star while awaiting my haircut, when I fell into conversation with an intoxicating woman who said she was looking for something to cheer her up. This woman, small and lovely and full of purpose, was torn between an Azure Penstemon and a California Harebell, and it was over this Harebell—the brightest blue I’ve ever seen—that we found ourselves marveling at the mood-enhancing qualities of flowers in general, Harebells in particular.

As her initial suspicion of me, based, I believe, on my unruly hair, gave way to a noticeable appreciation of me, based, I think, on my ability to speak in complete sentences, I was on the verge of inviting her to partake of further investigations, when she reared back and asked, “So what do you do?”

I almost replied, “Well, this morning I woke from a wildly erotic dream, masturbated, showered, had two cups of a fabulous black tea, petted my cats, played the piano for the better part of an hour, talked on the phone to a whiny friend for ten minutes and then lied about someone being at the door so I could hang up, gave a piano lesson to Ethel Zawarski, an accomplished atonalist, and then I called my whiny friend back and confessed I’d lied to her about someone being at the door. Why did I feel compelled to confess? Because I hoped to forestall the unseen powers from rioting against me.”

Instead I said, “I’m a piano player.”

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” William Shakespeare

As it happens, I have not written or been writing a novel for several years now, and I had begun to think I would never write another novel, which would have been fine with me. I no longer define myself as a novelist, though writing is still a big part of my life. I think of myself as a person, husband, friend, gardener, cook, self-certified prunologist (pruner of fruit trees, Japanese maples, and the like) writer, musician, artist, and earthling.

But a few weeks ago, I woke to a charming voice in my head telling a story I very much liked the sound of. So I gave myself to the tale, and ere long it became clear the story being told to me was not a short story, nor was it a novella. I am now a hundred pages into whatever this opus turns out to be, and I remind myself on a daily basis that if I never finish writing this tale, life will still be worth living, the earth will continue spinning around the sun, and the countless miracles composing this astonishing reality will go right on composing. And I also remind myself that if I do finish this tale, it will be my great pleasure to read the whole thing and share it with my friends.

Ergo Ego

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.

Restoration and Redemption

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Before

During

After

With Under the Table Books