Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


Wet Soap and a Waterlogged Muse

I’ve received Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk from two very reliable friends, so I knew even before I watched that there was something powerful and relevant in her message. It’s about creativity – the power of it, the elusiveness of it, the fear that it will leave you as quickly as it came. I know the feeling well. There have often been times in my writing when I’ve felt quite literally possessed by voices that were not my own. Some people call it channeling, though I won’t go that far. Whatever it is comes to me in spurts or trickles. There are times when it seems the muse whispers in my ear. Other days, I’m not sure she’s there at all.

Gilbert mentions the poet Ruth Stone who said that sometimes a poem would come to her over the fields like a “thunderous train of air”, that she would run like hell to the house for pen and paper, but that sometimes she wouldn’t get there it time and the poem would rush off across the fields looking for another poet. For me, those moments often happen in the shower. The perfect image will fall upon me like the warm rain that rinses through my hair, and I will grab at it, repeating it over and over in my head, knowing that each time I grasp, I lose a little bit of it like trying to catch a floating, waterlogged soap bar. By the time I rush into the bedroom, still dripping, if I have even a tiny smidgen, I scratch out the thought, recognizing even as I do that I have lost something about it that was essential.

Still, I try. We all try. Because those fleeting moments are precious. Most often the words don’t flow or spurt or even trickle. Sometimes the words are just bricks – ugly gray cement bricks that must be hauled with brute force, piled up and crudely stuck together. The craft is in taking those bricks and carefully, meticulously sculpting them into something sturdy and perhaps someday beautiful.

That’s all we can do, as Ms. Gilbert says, with the “sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up” at our jobs as writers, as creative people, and as humans.