Saturday, January 28, 2006

Who’s Your Muse?



I have a theory that the great majority of bloggers out there, either consciously or unconsciously, want to be writers. Do you think I’m right? And I believe that of all the arts, writing is the form of expression that can most effectively captivate an audience and hold its spell indefinitely. A painting or photograph may keep the observer in its thrall for a minute or two. A movie or play can do the same for two or three hours. A musical performance, whether live or faithfully recorded and reproduced, might enjoy a similar duration. But a written work lasts for as long as the artist feels it should — twenty, thirty hours or more in the case of a book — and the reader, should he find the novel or essay or poem or short story interesting, must of necessity immerse himself in it and, in a way, “work with” the author. The best writing is nothing short of magical. I want you to consider the most absorbing book you ever read. Perhaps you picked it up one day thinking to read a snatch of it for 20 minutes or so. Instantly, your mind became a sort of canvas the writer used to fill with color and form; your imagination immediately conjured a vast stage, replete with extravagant props and lighted just the way you and the author directed; the number of characters could have been infinite and their variety limitless. A script for a scene in a play or a film might call for an exotic setting in, say, the phosphorescent, underground caverns of a faraway planet, where giant, multi-legged creatures with horrible pincers lie in wait behind natural pillars of glowing crystal, just as they did in this favorite book of yours. What a bother that would be for a production crew — the expense, the manpower, the logistics and so on — to pull something like that off. Yet, as you read your book, the whole job was done instantly and with no fuss. And the story, as it turned out, was so engrossing, that when you glanced at the clock, you saw to your amazement that an entire hour went by! The author “had you.”

Writing something and having it read is, I think, a kind of power. It’s just you and the reader — with you, as the writer, conducting the reader. Your point of view holds sway. You have the floor. Perhaps you might agree with me that there’s something distinctly exhilarating about that.

Anyway, the main question I want to ask is, do you, like me, feel a need to set things down in as interesting a way as possible? That it is not enough to say what you have to say, but to say it as compellingly and entertainingly as you can? I know that’s a stupid question — of course you do. But how do you do it? What can you draw upon for aid? How can you arrive at a writing style you think does the greatest justice to what you want to convey?

I know most of the bloggers I visit are readers. They have exposed themselves to many books and authors and have a great appreciation for what they read. Like many of them, I have a taste for the classics as well as the modern best sellers. I can finish a novel by Charlotte Brontë and next take up one by Michael Crichton or Ken Follett without turning a hair. Sometimes I go through phases where I stick with one author for several months — often winding up by reading their biographies. I went through a memorable Dostoyevsky period once; another time it was Hemingway. I’m a minor Shakespeare buff (I know about eight or nine of his plays and listen to audio performances of them from time to time). There are many, many authors I admire — and, I may add, there are more than a few bloggers I admire as well.

But when it comes to a personal writing style and the influences that can be brought to bear, I can think of one author in particular I have chosen to emulate to some degree. It’s not necessarily that I copy him or try to be him or feel like I’m “channeling,” but I can almost sense his presence when I sit down to write, as if he’s peering over my shoulder and encouraging me. He is my muse, so to speak. I like how he writes and I try to do some of the things he does. He suits me. And that’s what I want to share with you today.

The man in the picture is W. Somerset Maugham (pronounced “mom”). Many of you have heard of him, and quite a few, I’m sure, have read some of his books. He is the author of the novels Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence. I made his acquaintance roughly ten years ago when someone in the building where I used to work set out a box of used books for people to sift through and take what they wanted. Among them was a collection of short fiction called South Sea Stories. I recognized the author’s name and thought I’d give it a try.

Not long after that, the family and I went on a trip to Disneyworld. Anyone who’s been there knows what it’s like to stand in line waiting to go on a ride — it can seem interminable. I am always in the habit of carrying a book with me and it so happened I brought along the Maugham paperback I claimed from that box. The result was this: as I look back on those three days in the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and MGM Studios, I remember more vividly the stories I read from that book than the attractions I paid so dearly for and waited so long to experience. Maugham had a natural talent for drawing the reader in and holding him there. The Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain were anti-climatic — I swear I enjoyed the time spent in line more!

W. Somerset Maugham is not considered a great writer. Maugham had even described himself as more of a storyteller than anything else. He was, however, a very successful and rich storyteller. As a young man, he attended medical school in England but never practiced medicine after graduating — by then he had already written a novel that sold very well. Later he made his fortune as a playwright. It wasn’t until he was in his forties — around 1920, I think —when he started writing short stories and resumed novel writing.

Maugham’s first short story during this period was called Rain. It is one of the best short stories I have ever read, and, to prove my good opinion of it, I can tell you I have read it over and over some six or seven times so far. I can’t tire of it. The plot, of course, is well known to me, but I enjoy witnessing again and again how he did it. I admire his character studies, the descriptive passages, the well-constructed framework of the story, and how he draws one of the principals in an unsympathetic light, only to later show redeeming traits which are then trodden upon when a fatal flaw becomes exposed. His gift for dialogue is superb. Maugham, in all of his stories, has an uncanny knack of placing you right there.

Here is the opening paragraph of Rain :

“It was nearly bed-time and when they awoke next morning land would be in sight. Dr. Macphail lit his pipe and, leaning over the rail, searched the heavens for the Southern Cross. After two years at the front and a wound that had taken longer to heal than it should, he was glad to settle down quietly at Apia for twelve months at least, and he felt already better for the journey. Since some of the passengers were leaving the ship next day at Pago-Pago they had had a little dance that evening and in his ears hammered still the harsh note of the mechanical piano. But the deck was quiet at last. A little way off he saw his wife in a long chair talking with the Davidsons, and he strolled over to her. When he sat down under the light and took off his hat you saw he had very red hair, with a bald patch on the crown, and the red, freckled skin which accompanies red hair; he was a man of forty, thin, with a pinched face, precise and rather pedantic; and he spoke with a Scots accent in a very low, quiet voice.”

Don’t you want to read more? Don’t you wish I had kept going?

Who is it for you? Can you claim to have a muse? A novelist, or a sports columnist, or comic book writer? Is there an author whose style you admire and feel, when transposed to your key, might suit you?

25 Comments:

Blogger Beth said...

Oh boy, is there! I'm not sure about a muse, really. I can tell you I love classic literature. My particular bent is towards Dickens.

I'm far too busy to try to be interesting in blogs, but I do love to write and used to have my own monthly column. Does that count?

I miss my old writing discipline. When my brain would stop, the characters would dance before me, and I would just put it all on page longhand.

12:15 PM  
Blogger LL said...

Good question. I think everyone emulates someone when they write, but I also think that the muse varies with the subject matter. I know that I'd write humour differently than a serious, or dramatic phrase. Now which is the muse for each, I cannot say. I've not given it much thought until now... That's why I enjoy this blog. It expands the fertile wasteland of my mind in ways not previously imagined.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

"Instantly, your mind became a sort of canvas the writer used to fill with color and form; your imagination immediately conjured a vast stage, replete with extravagant props and lighted just the way you and the author directed; the number of characters could have been infinite and their variety limitless. "

Thank you, Schprock, for putting so eloquently the magic of fiction reading.

Yes, I am known and dreaded for relating events quite elaborately, because I must have a set-up, a building action, and a climax, and most people standing there listening just want to hear the good parts. I also retell the stories almost exactly the same way each time I tell it!

Yes, I want to be a writer. It's a talent I've had all along, about which friends along the way have commented favorably, and which I finally reluctantly acknowledged a few years ago, and which has suffered for neglect.

If my muse has a name, I don't know it. Sometimes she gently prods me to write. Other times she kicks me hard in the ass and I can't put off writing. And then other times she abandons me completely. I have a screenplay and the pilot episode of a television series in the works (all speculative, of course), and my pet story, which has been rattling around in my head and on various sheets of notebook paper going on 16 years, now, and currently progressing very slowly in narrative form on my laptop.

The best novel I have ever read is _The Jungle_ by Upton Sinclair. The saddest part about that comment is that I hated the book. I was suckered into it from the start, and just when it seemed near a resolution, it became an advertisement for Socialism! Man! I was pissed off (senior year high school reading assignment)! But it had me on the hook all the way through to the end. No book since then has gripped me like that one did. I also loved _Dracula_. _The Green Mile,_ by Stephen King was awesome, too.

I don't find myself consciously copying anybody's style. I actually read very little. I want my own voice, and I fear that reading others' styles will dilute my own. Besides, reading takes away from my writing time!

Oops, sorry. Too long. Your fault. You said yourself that we bloggers are wannabe writers! So there you have it!

6:30 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I'm far too busy to try to be interesting in blogs, but I do love to write and used to have my own monthly column. Does that count?"

Oh, I'd say it counts. And, as your posts are always well-written and interesting, then I can only assume you don't even have to try to be interesting, which makes you the object of my envy.


"…but I also think that the muse varies with the subject matter."

That's true. I can instantly think of a personal example. I wrote a post once called Name That Moon that came about after watching about 6 Seinfeld episodes in a row. It almost felt like Jerry and Larry David were helping me.


"I want my own voice, and I fear that reading others' styles will dilute my own."

That is a very valid point. But I wonder if it might make sense to read authors whose style is consonant with the one your going for, or applies to the piece your working on. I think you can't avoid being influenced, so maybe you should choose your influence rather than have it thrust on you. Or is that cheating? I wonder…

7:47 PM  
Blogger boo said...

poems - ee cummings
comics - berkley breathed
shorts - hermen hesse
all-time - burmese novelist u thein maung

9:20 PM  
Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

There's too many to mention. I really can't pick one out, so I tried to make a short list, but even that was hopeless! Any name I think of I can see a thousand reasons why they are the best authors in the whole world, but then the jostling crowd of contenders begins to pull apart those reasons and take their own all too fleeting position on the podium. I believe a certain Mr. Schprock for a while held the laurels... :)

8:58 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"all-time - burmese novelist u thein maung"

You piqued my curiosity with that last one, Boo.


"I really can't pick one out, so I tried to make a short list, but even that was hopeless!"

I understand that, Spirit. I guess the thing about Maugham is, I can read him anytime . . . in fact, there are times when I'm feeling a little harassed or depressed when he is the ONLY author I can read. His complete short stories — which are out of print and in two volumes — is always next to my nightstand. He's my main man.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

I have no muse because I do not consider myself a writer. I read other people's blogs and admire their writing style and wish I had the same panache, the same way of turning a phrase. I think I'm better in person than on paper. I think my blog has a tendency to be stilted.

"I want you to consider the most absorbing book you ever read. Perhaps you picked it up one day thinking to read a snatch of it for 20 minutes or so."

For me this book was The Eight by Katherine Neville. It was in a bunch of books a friend had lent me and I was bored one Monday night (YEARS AGO) and picked it up. I honestly and truly thought that I was not going to like it and that I would put it back in the bag and return it to the friend the next night at the bar (that's how I remember the day so well). It's a fairly large book, so it took me longer than a week. The first week I couldn't wait to get home from work and read, but as I got closer to the end, I kept putting it down and finding excuses to make it last longer. No other book has ever done that to me before or since.

6:37 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I really don't think I have a muse either. Outside of my blog, I don't write at all. Unfortunately, I write almost exactly like I speak.

I've always read a lot, though, so I suppose each author influences us in some way. Thank God I quit reading V.C. Andrews after Flowers in the Attic, or you never know what my blog might have been about!

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Dreadmouse said...

I've always wanted to be a writer, but kind of in the same way that I wanted to be an actor or an astronaut. It's more of a dream than a genuine goal. Moreover, I simply haven't the necessary discipline. Serious writing demands serious committment.

Writing a novel means sentancing yourself (heh) to solitary confinement at a desk or laptop for umptybillion hours of hard work that may never see the light of day. And the editing... GOD, the endless, punishing editing! A real novel is so polished I suspect the author never wants to read it again by the time they've gone over it the number of times they have to in order to get it ready for publishing.

I know I don't have the necessary skills right now, and I'm not sure that I have the ability to hone myself to that keen literary edge; I know I lack the focus and discipline.

Maybe one day I'll give it a serious shot. Given that I can't even find the focus to finish a decent short right now, I don't think that day will be soon. Until then, I'll content myself by being an audience for those who have what it takes.

8:21 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I have no muse because I do not consider myself a writer."

God, Kathleen, technically you're perfect. Your posts read extremely well. I don't think they're "stilted" at all. I consider you a writer.


"Unfortunately, I write almost exactly like I speak."

All right, Trina, stop right there. I know you're kidding around, but there is nothing "unfortunate" about your writing. In my book, yours is the top blog. I always click "Trina" in my bookmarks first. Everything you write is interesting, clear, grammatically correct, spelled right, all that stuff — but above all, it's always compelling. I think when I mean "writer," I don't necessarily mean a fiction writer or a novelist. You would make a great columnist or essayist, in my opinion.

Of course, my opinion and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee.


"I've always wanted to be a writer, but kind of in the same way that I wanted to be an actor or an astronaut. It's more of a dream than a genuine goal. Moreover, I simply haven't the necessary discipline. Serious writing demands serious committment."

I agree — same with me. But at least you did admit that deep down inside, there's a little Dreadmouse with a typewriter, thesaurus and dictionary fighting to get out.

8:51 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:37 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

If I read Douglas Adams too much, I start to emulate him... only not as good.
Muses? Hmmm... Actually, music more then anything else. A lot of songs and the atmosphere they create can open up pathways to multiple universes that just are begging to have witnesses of.
As for what book really drew me in, I have no idea actually. Often times people will ask what my favorite book is and honestly I have a hard time answering that. Mostly because there really isn't one book that stands out more then the rest in quality. Mostly, the books that I have devoured over a weekend or so had something in there I was looking for in some way, but the books themselves are technically just ok. *shrugs* And when I go back to revisit them, I can’t understand why I liked it so much because by the second time, I'm not looking for that thing...
Sound weird?
Do I feel the need to write things down? Oh yes. It's the only way to calm the voices. Those damned insistent voices! ;)

12:41 PM  
Blogger Flash said...

My muse is my alter ego Tony Montana. A straight foward kinda guy. Drinks a pepsi out of a highball glass and has 2 women on his lap. Yeah, Tony is always one to throw around some sarcasm dipped in poison.

I know, that when I write, if I can hold his interest, I've done my job. Over the past 8 years, I've locked my writing form into standard script format, so when I started writing these blogs, they were nonsense at the least. Usually curse words strung through some verbs, usually other curse words. But thanks to the blogs, my writings have developed my works into something people can understand. When I write, I try to emulate Dennis Miller. I love his metaphores, and always try to work one into my blogs, at least once in a while.

As for litature, I like so many authors, that I can't really say I lean towards one or another. I like a lot of different writings from a lot of different writers.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

"In my book, yours is the top blog. I always click "Trina" in my bookmarks first. "

But, wait. Schprock, you said that about ME. Remember, that stormy night? You held me so tenderly in your arms to quell my trembling. And then you told me that I was the best. I was your favorite. I was your schmoopsy-woopsy.

Please tell me what it is I have done that you have forsaken me!

Schprock!

SCHPRO-O-O-O-ACCKK-HAACCKK!! (vomit.)

(did I mention I used to do community theatre?)

7:46 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Hello Mr. Schprock -

I wish I did have a muse, but I really don't. I am reading to try and find one, but I think most of my influence comes from live muses, ones who guide, complement, suggest. I've gotten some encouragement from you as well. But when it comes to a writer to emulate, I think you are lucky to have found someone. But it's not really luck I think, because you have read a lot, and it stands to reason that you found someone to affect you so.

Anyway, I hope to be around more now that I'm back to work. You are my first stop since I've been back online, but now I have to get busy and get some work done. Ouch.

4:40 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"If I read Douglas Adams too much, I start to emulate him... only not as good."

May I take this opportunity to repeat again that your fiction writing style (which, by the way, can be found right here) reminds me a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley? She should be your muse, in my mind.


"My muse is my alter ego Tony Montana."

When your alter ego takes over, do you tell people to "say 'ello to my little friend!"?

Just kidding. I understand your points and I like the way you think, Flash. I hope to see a film of yours someday.


"Please tell me what it is I have done that you have forsaken me!"

Oh, Farrago. Well, well, well…

I will say this, and I hope you take it as a compliment: of all the bloggers I know, I think you are the most like me. I think our writing styles are similar, we're close to the same age, share a lot of points of reference, that sort of thing. When I check your site to see you have a new post up, I strap myself in and enjoy the ride. Your blog is always an enjoyable read.


"Anyway, I hope to be around more now that I'm back to work."

That's awesome, Scott. We've missed you. I always look forward to reading your posts.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

Tanks!

You always blow me away with your eloquence. You have a grasp of the proper use of words, and are not just content with having them in your vocabulary.

I don't see our styles as similar, but that's because I don't feel I can write to your level (not like I try, but you know what I mean).

Wrod verification: wahihelu

I think I visited that place in Hawaii last year...

6:18 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Word verification: wahihelu

"I think I visited that place in Hawaii last year..."


Nope. It's a sort of Zulu shillelagh.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Irb said...

For snarky blog posts, I'm definitely inspired by Dave Barry, David Sedaris, and Seanbaby.

For fiction, I've tried in the past to ape Roger Zelazny, Tim Powers, Umberto Eco and Douglas Adams. I eventually found my own voice. Unfortunately, that voice frequently sounds like third-rate Piers Anthony. Peh!

12:06 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

BTW, Irb, speaking of finding your own voice, I'm up to chapter 7 in your Verbal Reynard book. I think I have a crush on Valkyrie Red.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

My favorite writers are William Trevor (pure brilliance), Augusten Burroughs (no guile or effrontery and every word is perfection), and Mr. Schprock. I like that last guy because when I read his posts, I always think wow, that was so effortless, why can't I write like that?

Seriously, you make me a better writer. Thank you!

4:09 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I like that last guy because when I read his posts, I always think wow, that was so effortless, why can't I write like that?"

Holy cow, Chloe! I'm glad I was sitting down when I read that! That was so nice, and coming from you, a compliment to be treasured.

I must point out that all too often it isn't effortless — although, ironically, I take pains to make it look that way. I pick and pick and pick, and re-read things until they don't make sense anymore. But thank you very much, and please understand that I, in my turn, have a very high opinion of your writing talent. I can just tell you're someone to watch.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

You're too nice, Mr. Schprock. Thank you.

And I find that I write the way I speak when I'm writing e-mails to specific people. I do find that now that I have a readership of people I haven't actually met, I'm doing better than when I first started. I'm still not happy with my efforts though on a regular basis. Some posts are definitely better than others.

And if my posts weren't grammatically correct, I would be most upset with myself. ;-)

8:31 AM  
Blogger Claire said...

I would have to say that some bloggers want to be writers, but not all of them. I won't fill up your comment space with my reply, but suffice to say there are those out there who care naught for the proper turn of a phrase and who type like they text. Yuk :P

That said, most of the bloggers I read can evoke something in me when i read their words. At times, I feel like a child among adults because I intersperse weighty topics and lengthy writings with current events and cultural commentary. Unlike most of you, however, I am a writer. Not because I blog, but because my paycheck comes from working with words day in and day out. I blog to get away from what I do, and at the same time, to improve what I do. I tend to follow a similar form each time, but long or short, comedic, sarcastic or insightful...all depends on which muse has visited me that night.

8:54 PM  

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