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?