Hi Fellow Indies,
We’ve had a great week at my writer’s group talking about writer’s block and how to address it. Sometimes problems travel in clumps, and many of us had fallen prey to the writer’s block in the last few months, the bane of every writer’s existence. I write to relax and stay sane, and so not only is it a pain in the butt when I want to write something, but it literally messes with my sanity. Fortunately, I am part of a group that tries to help each other. We get together to critique each other’s work, and sometimes, we can use each other to shake things loose when we’re stuck. One of the things I think we all agree on collectively is that writing should be fun. It’s also hard. But if it stops being fun also, we’re doing it wrong. So one of the things we’re doing is making sure to write something at least once a week. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, or the great American novel, or even a full story. It can be a scene, a conversation between two characters we make up on the spot, anything, as long as it’s fun to write. And fun for writers could be something that makes us laugh or even cry. Maybe ‘engaging’ would be a better word than ‘fun’. We need to write something that we enjoy writing that makes us not want to stop until it’s on the page.
Throughout history, writer’s block or if you aren’t a writer, creative blocks of all kinds have plagued people who wanted to create expression. The Greeks had nine goddesses who were in charge of such inspiration, and as many gods and goddesses were, they were known for their capricious nature, feeding artists and musicians music with divine origin at times, and abandoning them and taking their inspiration with them at others. The expression in which someone says such a person, ‘is my Muse’, and the term ‘music’ come from these goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemnosyne (lord of the Sky, and Memory):
Clio–Muse of History
Euterpe–Muse of lyric song
Melpomene–Muse of tragedy
Terpsichore–Muse of Dance
Erato–Muse of erotic poetry (my guess is a bit more significant than ‘There once was a man from Nantucket…’)
Polyhymnia–Muse of sacred song
Urania–Muse of astronomy
Thalia–Muse of comedy
I think it’s interesting that they were born of sky and memory, because people have been getting inspiration from looking at the sky for thousands of years, and it takes an act of will and the synthesis of emotion and memory to generate works of art or scientific inspiration that hold meaning for people.
But as with the nature of most gods and goddesses, inspiration can be dark. In Celtic lore, the Leanan Sidhe was thought of as a Muse, who inspired poets, but there was a price. She was also vampiric, sucking the life energy of those she inspired. The next story: The Muse, was based on this idea.
Rivulets of dark pungent water fanned across the rock, leaving a damp organic smell behind. The moon set beyond the deserted park, leaving only the sodium park lights near the Platte River to compete with the more distant city lights in the LoDo condo neighborhoods. But where the river met the rock, under the diseased elms, the shadows were inky physical things. The rivulets across the rock writhed and surged in black ribbons like the hair of a nymph. The river exhaled gray vapor into the air that smelled like the bottom of a lake. Eliza sat by a tangle of shrubs at the edge of the rock, ruminating about her student debt for the millionth time that day, for the millionth time that year. Pinpoints of light danced in the water.
The miasma pooled around her in the air like spectral congregants to a midnight church. Before she had to return to the dry dusty track home, she basked in the sudden humidity of the night river and inhaled the mist. It slid down her throat like silk. Her vision became blurry as the lights in the water doubled and she fell asleep beside the rising stream. When she woke, the morning star was shining. Her cheek was wet where the water had seeped up onto the rock where she lay. There was no indication of how she had fallen asleep, or why.
She had been pounding coffee since noon. Her mother’s voice rang in her head reminding her of how people drown in an inch of water. Her pad was open to a drawing she didn’t remember creating. But it was dark and she couldn’t see very well. She could barely make out the shapes of figures on the page as she peered at it in the pre-dawn light. The swaths of charcoal shifted and flowed across the page into spirals and eddies. Lighter patches here and there looked like eyes. She shivered in the early morning chill, pushed herself up, gathered her supplies, and climbed up to the footpath for the hike to the Light Rail.
One of the bulbs was out in the dingy kitchen of her Lipan Street apartment when she flicked it on. She tossed her pad and supplies on the kitchen table, pulled a chair up and replaced the bulb. She glanced down at the table and almost fell backwards off the chair. The drawing that had been barely visible earlier was a wash of dark shapes that still looked like they shifted if you glanced at another part of the page. The one certainty fixed at points throughout the page were pale faces caught in various poses of agony, fear and despair, like souls trapped trying to escape Tartarus.
She slowly righted the chair and stared at the notebook and tried to remember drawing it.
Jobie padded into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around Eliza as she was making coffee later that morning, and nuzzled her thin brown braids. “What the hell were you dreaming about after you finally got in? And where were you so late? I was starting to think I’d have to retrieve you from a crack den or something.”
She turned and swatted him.
He grinned, “And then when you came to bed, you beat the snot out of me in your sleep. I’ll have to start sleeping with my old football pads.”
She lightly bit him on the nose, and then wiped her lips on the kitchen towel. “Ew! Did you take your allergy pill this morning? Your nose is all drippy.”
He laughed. “Don’t blame me, Lassie.” He let her go and blew his runny nose on a piece of toilet paper. “Seriously, you ok? I know you been worrying all the time.”
“I’m fine. What are you talking about?”
“You just had some real whoppers of nightmares. I tried to wake you but you just screamed. You had your eyes open and everything. You stared straight at me. I almost called 911. I’m surprised no one did call. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about our neighbors, in case of a real emergency. ‘No Officer, I didn’t hear nuthin, or see the ax-murderer leaving their house covered in blood, with all of their belongings…’ I was about to call, and then you stopped, and started snoring like nothing had happened. You don’t remember any of this?”
She shook her head and frowned into his earnest brown eyes. “I used to get night terrors when I was a kid, but that was twenty years ago, when I was like four.”
“Did your parents drink? Cuz I sure needed a stiff one after that. Are you sure you’re ok?” He hugged her close. “I’ve been planning to tell my boss to fuck off for a day anyway. I want to see how long that unit lasts without me.”
She shoved him toward the shower. “Go get dressed for work. I’m sorry I woke you, but I won’t be the reason you lose your job in this economy.” Her fingers wandered to the edge of her sketch pad and she just stood frozen in thought as the coffee water boiled.
She dodged a frustrated driver trying to park in a spot too small, as she scooted across the street from the station to Auraria campus. The studio was cool in the summer heat as she set up her clay and tools and got to work. Her fingers tingled and the sculpture took shape as though the shape of the piece was flowing out of her hands. When it stood done, it was a long vaguely human form like the statues dubbed the ‘dancing aliens’, outside the Denver Performing Arts Center across the street. But this bore only a passing resemblance to that piece. This solitary form was fluid with curves, like a humanoid shape that was part amoeba. Tendrils from its palms reached out for contact to anyone, anything who glanced at it. It looked strangely hungry.
Mr. Catan, the teacher, wandered over and studied it, and noted the same thing. “You certainly have created a stirring piece.” He smiled at her, “Almost Dali-esque.”
Yeah, stirring, she thought, glancing away from his upswept 50’s greaser hairdo and skater-punk t-shirt three decades too young for him. Just like Hustler is stirring, she edged away and started smoothing the figure’s shoulders with a sponge.
But he didn’t move on to the other pieces. “What were you thinking of when you created this? It looks…lonely, empty.”
As soon as she stepped back from it, she saw that he was right. It did look lonely. Need seeped off of it, reaching for her. She gasped and backed up into the wall.
Mr. Catan laughed and nodded at her reaction. “Well, wherever you got this idea from, you had some kind of inspiration. There was a time when artists who created things like this believed they had been touched by the Muse, or fed upon by her. It depended on their perspective. Men gave their lives to her. Or at least, they gave pieces of themselves. Van Gogh, Pygmalion…what did you give to create this?”
Creep, she thought.
He smiled, “You should enter this in the student exhibit when it’s finished.”
Suddenly, she felt bad at her knee-jerk reaction. He was just trying to help.
The Orphan, its name came to her as he walked away. The curves of the statue almost seemed to lean after him, the vacant eye depressions gazing into the back of his neck. She hurriedly cleaned up her materials, and went to her next class, as the statue faced the door.
When she came back to the sculpture the next day, Mr. Catan had moved it to the side of the room to make space for a metal-sculpting class. She uncovered it and her impression of it being ’empty’ dissipated. The atmosphere it created was different now. Maybe its paler color as it dried had changed the feel. It seemed animate, almost sentient. But it no longer felt empty and she almost wished that it had. The head had only the slightest depressions for eyes and merely a sloping rise for a nose, and yet, it had an expression. As she finished the fine details, it still looked lonely, like the embodiment of loneliness, but now it somehow looked full.
Ms. Teague, the visual design teacher, stood off to the side, watching the progress of the shapes taking form in the classroom.
“Ms. Teague? Where’s Mr. Catan?” Eliza asked.
She shook her head, a couple grey bobby-pinned curls escaping. “He didn’t come in today.”
“Is he sick?” The hair on the back of Eliza’s neck stood and she positioned herself so she couldn’t see The Orphan.
Ms. Teague frowned, “I assume so. The office is having me fill in. Do you need anything?”
“No, thanks. Just wondering.” Eliza wandered back to her work area. The Orphan’s form seemed to occupy the room as a crowd of admirers gathered around it.
“Wow, this is really cool. I wish I could make something like this.” Wendy, the wispy Gothic girl of the class whose works all had a Tim Burton-esque look to them, twirled her long black locks.
Her lanky partner, shifted his skull-and-crossbones suspenders. “Yeah, you should enter it in the exhibit. Or a gallery. My brother has a friend who owns a gallery on Santa Fe. He’d probably take it. He don’t pay much though, but people’d see it. This needs to be seen.”
Wendy touched it gently, “May I?”
Eliza shrugged. “Sure. Just be careful.”
The girl nodded, “Funny, it seems like it wants to be touched.” She drew her hand away suddenly and then replaced it again. “It’s warm. Like it’s alive.” She smiled, her red lips stretching into a white smile, “Gives me some new ideas,” and she wandered back to her work area.
Eliza just sat back in bewilderment at The Orphan’s popularity until the students trickled away to their own projects. She added and polished, and couldn’t get away from its warm suppleness and the sense that it felt everything she did to it.
Jobie squeezed her, and popped another pig in a blanket into his mouth. He washed it down with another plastic cup of wine and said through a mouthful, “Congratulations, Babe! Wow, my girlfriend won an award from the student exhibit.”
Crowds trickled into the gallery from the street. As the servers moved to the greet them, Jobie snagged another handful of appetizers. She frowned as she peered around. He leaned back and peered at The Orphan. “Wow, it really is something else. It feels like its watching me. What inspired it, was it your creepy greaser sculpture teacher? Those tentacle-thingees in its palms make me think he did a little too much stroking the monkey. You know what they say about that. And your statue’s blind too,” he tipped one of his teetering cups to The Orphan.
Eliza almost shot wine through her nose as she laughed. “I think that’s the four cups of booze you’ve had in the last hour. Not the sculpture.” Eliza smirked.
He looked offended. “No, I’m eating food with my alcohol.” He stuffed three sausage-filled mushrooms into his mouth to emphasize his point. “You gotta live a little, Babe! It’s your art. You painting and sculpting and stuff, that’s the first time I’ve seen you relax a little and express yourself. You’re always so practical, like Spock. Join your own party for a change!” He poked a breaded sausage at her mouth.
She waved him off, and then thought better of it. She grabbed his cup of wine and downed it, and then another.
“See, that’s it!” he beamed.
She basked in the glow as people flocked around the statue. These art classes had been electives to fill in for some liberal arts core requirements. They had been a pragmatic choice, since it seemed like an easy grade. Maybe this could be a second career for me, she thought, but it won’t pay as well as business administration, and at least that’s steady. But now, it was turning out to be satisfying in other ways. It was the first time she had ever felt…expressed. There were other things in life besides a steady paycheck and security. Maybe Jobie was right.
She wrapped her arms around Jobie’s paunchy middle and enjoyed the attention for the rest of the evening while he did all the talking and bragging for her.
She glanced around and frowned. It had been the one sour point in the evening, reminding them of the situation unfolding on campus. Mr. Catan was missing. He had been reported a couple days prior, and it had been on the news. No trace of his whereabouts had been found, the news had said. The university had been silent on any details of the investigation. While she hadn’t much liked him, she hoped he was alright, hoped he hadn’t fled from some heinous crime they had yet to discover. And, she thought, a little selfishly, she wished he had been here to see her piece opening in the gallery.
As they returned home, her sketch pad slid to the floor of the train and Jobie picked it up. “Let’s see what Michelangelo’s been cooking up on paper? You never showed me these.” He flipped slowly through the pages of fruit and nature scenes, and then stopped abruptly at the charcoal she had puzzled over two weeks previously from her nap by the stream.
“Whoa…” His soft drunk brown eyes focused on her. A flash of fear floated through them, and then was subsumed again in the haze of alcohol. “Left turn into dark. Which one of these is not like the others? When did you do this?”
She reached for it, and studied it again, swallowing on a lump of apprehension in her throat. “Last week, Tuesday. The day I had the night terrors.”
She sighed, “No, night terrors aren’t dreams. They don’t happen in REM sleep. It’s during deep sleep. That’s why no one remembers anything when they have a night terror. They aren’t dreaming or seeing anything.”
“Well, one physiology class and look who knows everything about the brain. I’ll make you a bet that in ten years, they come out with another study that says the exact opposite, just like they did with the study saying fat is bad for you, and then that we need it for brain function. Make up your mind, people!”
She laughed and pushed at his ample chest.”When they said fat is necessary, I don’t think that ten bags of pork rinds a day were what they meant.”
He shrugged and his eyes slid back to the picture. “I’m just saying. Something scared the hell out of you, and this picture scares the hell out of me.” He tapped it, “But it’s really interesting. Interesting and creepy sells. You should get it entered into a contest or put it on an art website or something. Maybe we could win the rent money. And then I could go tell my boss to fuck off for good.”
She smirked and packed the pad away in her bag. “The scary picture’s gone now. And I’ll think about it. There’s a scanner in the student aid office. Maybe they’ll let me use it. In the meantime, you’ll just have to keep being the loathed IT guy until the gravy train comes in.” They linked arms and walked to the station.
The studio lit up as she entered, the first one there. She had an extra hour between work at the coffee shop and sculpture class. The block of clay felt cool and satiny underneath her hands as she wet it and began working. The slip glided through her fingers as a shape formed. Other students filtered in. A ring of students gazed at the emerging creation, and then set up their own stations, glancing back at her every so often. Ms. Teague watched her with a pensive look, but said nothing and just let her work, commenting here and there on other students’ pieces.
About ten minutes before class ended, Eliza stepped back from the bench and brought herself from her reverie to look at the sculpture from a distance. It was not even remotely humanoid. There were shoots emerging from piles of loops that looked like internal organs, and hands, dozens of tiny hands and mouth indentations lined with buds like tongues.
Gothic Wendy’s voice startled her, “Girlfriend did some LSD last night.” She stared at the grotesque sculpture. “It looks hungry. But I like it. One brush with celebrity and you go right off the rails.” She smirked at Eliza.
“Don’t go cutting off any body parts to mail to your boyfriend.”
Eliza frowned. It did look hungry somehow, and it wasn’t just the mouths. It had the same vacant feel to it as The Orphan had started with, as though it were waiting. Eliza covered it up and left for her Developmental Psych class.
At the end of the semester a couple weeks later, she brought her new piece home, when they emptied their things from the studio. Jobie gaped at it as Eliza partly uncovered it on the hand truck, to undo the cords holding it.
“It’s…unique, in a Crypt Keeper meets the Return of the Living Dead kind of way. What’s this one called? ‘Your Insides on Pork Rinds?'”
She tilted her head at it, while flicking Jobie’s ear. And the name came to her. Bacchus’ End, she realized, like the Baccanalians and their festivities. It was like a mass of senses feeding on itself.
He patted her on the back. “Good job, Queen of Darkness. If you go whip up some grub, I’ll get this unloaded and start the folding the laundry.” He turned the TV on.
As she kissed him and went into the kitchen, she could almost feel the tongues questing and the mouths opening and closing on the scents in the air and the hands reaching for something, anything. About twenty minutes later, the hamburger helper casserole was done and she went into the TV room to catch their regular episode of Bones with Jobie. But he wasn’t there.
“Job? Hey Job?” The television was still on and she lowered the volume. She poked her head in their bedroom, but the rumpled Snoopy sheets were empty. The bathroom door was open and dark. She peered out the window to see if he might be coming from the store. But the only folks she saw were heading to or from the Osage station.
She texted him. A buzz from the counter showed her his phone. She called their friends, his work and anyplace else she could think of where he might have gone. But he wasn’t there, and it didn’t seem likely that he would have just gone without telling her, especially not just before dinner. Finally, she called the police, to say that something must have happened to him, though she couldn’t imagine how. They came and took her statement, and gave the statue an odd glance as they left. She sat on the couch and cried.
Like The Orphan, it seemed different in the dim light of the living room lamp. It had seemed vacant before, but now, though the statue seemed hungry still, it seemed more…present, inhabited. She shuddered and threw the couch blanket over it and went to bed.
She cried until she fell asleep. Every hour she woke and felt the lump of blankets to see if Jobie had come in. He didn’t, and the phone never rang.
His side of the bed was still empty in the morning. She pulled her knees to her chest and just rocked for a while. At ten o’clock, she called in sick to the coffee shop. She stared at the screen for a couple hours. He’ll be back from wherever. Those people on TV always come back. Look, those talk show guests have it much worse, they’re throwing shoes at each other. God, where the hell is he? I know there was nothing wrong between us? Was he mad at me? No, he would never just leave me like this, wondering. Oh God, something had to have happened!
She went around and around like that, as the television droned on. Finally, she shut it off. The silence in the apartment was unbearable. Baccus’ End waited under the cloth which she had left over it. She could almost hear it breathe with its many mouths, and feel the pulse of its blood. She grabbed her bag and left, slamming the door behind her.
As she crossed the walking bridge over I-25, she spotted a sculpture she had never noticed before, though she remembered dimly that it had been there for as long as she had been in Colorado. Jobie had snarked about it constantly, because it was the singularly most hideous incomprehensible thing she had ever seen. It looked like a giant pile of red gory jelly beans that had melted and stuck together.
At night, the fine citizens of Denver were treated to its full effect as it was lit from within, so the dribbles of red paint down its side looked like the innards of a demon that had been put through a Star Trek transporter accident. She walked up to it now and touched the cherry red protuberances. And quickly pulled her hand away as they pulsed faintly under her hand. The electrical source used to light the monstrosity must have been buzzing, she thought, but didn’t try to touch it again. ‘Crimson Love’, it was named. Now she had to shut her eyes and press her fingers into her sockets, as a sexual connotation was added to the demon intestine image.
She sighed, checked her phone again in case Jobie called, and headed down the path to the river.
When she got there, she pulled her pad out of her bag, tore the charcoal drawing out and ripped it into pieces, smearing charcoal across her hands. The feeling of loathing she got as she looked at it was irrational, she knew. I still don’t remember drawing that. What if I didn’t? All this started after that strange night. What if it’s the drawing? What if it let something in? Or what if something else drew it and cursed me? Everything went wrong after that.
She thought about the sequence of events. She had never been a artistic prodigy, so why all of the sudden had she suddenly started drawing and sculpting pieces that got people’s attention so strongly? A chill ran down her spine as she thought about the lights in the water that night. What if I did draw it, and whatever was here that night got into me? What are those things I’m creating?
She shivered, and threw the shredded picture in the water. The shreds hit a stagnant pocket of water behind a brake of river debris, so the shreds just eddied around instead of being swept away. As the water soaked through the paper, the images ran and blended together. The eyes in the paper rolled and the faces convulsed and then they were gone. The river exhaled a belch of vegetal air and the breeze whistled a sigh around her ears and through her hair.
Someone wandered by with a dog. It was friendly and explored Eliza with a wet nose, a snort and a wag of its coppery tail.
“Sorry. Down, Chassie! I’m Meg.” She held out her hand.
Eliza shook it. “It’s ok.” She ran her fingers through the dog’s fur and let his drooling tongue comfort her. A tear leaked down her face.
“Are you ok?” Meg came and squatted by her.
She nodded. “I’m just having a bad day. Your dog is nice.” “Well, I hope things get better. You’re an artist? That’s pretty good!” The gray-haired woman peered at the picture exposed in her pad now that the dark charcoal was gone. It was an ordinary mountain scene in watercolors.
Eliza nodded, “Well, I’m taking a class. It was fun, but lately…it feels like it’s been kind of taking over.”
The woman smiled, her crafted earrings swinging as she spoke, “Touched by the Muse, eh? That’s how one of my artist friends in Sedona talked about her art. Like it came from someone else besides her. She also said the liquor fairy breathed life into the things she made. If she stopped drinking and partying, her art started to suffer.” She laughed. “Listen to me, You’re not underage are you? How old are you?”
Meg batted her hand in the air. “Ah, you’re legal. Anyway, you just look so serious. I’m not saying you should go get liquored up or anything. Just don’t forget to have some fun, eat and drink, before the time goes by, and you get to my age.” The dog began pulling the woman away. “Nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Eliza nodded. She sat until the sun set, not wanting to face her empty apartment. Jobie hadn’t called. The police hadn’t called either. Their friends only called to check in with her and make sure she was alright.
Her fear of the art pieces seemed silly now. Despite the woman’s talk of spirits, it seemed more firmly in the realm of folklore. The police will figure it out. Just let him be ok.
She dangled her feet in the river as the light faded. The trickle and the crystal cool swell around her shins was comforting. The sand swirled around her toes and shaped into furrows around her feet. She flopped out of the water and found a stick, and sat where the beach met a lazy part of the river, next to the sitting rock. There she drew spirals in the sand until the stick broke. Nothing was strange about the doodles. They were just swirls of sand. Just to prove her point she took handfuls of the sand and built a little mound with a moat.
The water shimmered and lapped at her fingers like little velvet tongues and deepened in the moat. The sound of the waves were hypnotic. The twinkles of light in the water were so beautiful and cool. They whispered and sang in high sweet voices that everything would be fine as a cool mist kissed her eyelashes. She relaxed and let the sand settle around her feet and arms. Something in the back of her mind was screaming at her to move, but the troubles with Jobie would still be waiting, and one more minute in the water felt nice.
Her arms had sunk into the sand and dark water. The waning moon was barely a sliver in the sky. The sodium lamps didn’t penetrate the mist that had risen in the trench of the river where Eliza crouched in the pungent water and drank, as the heat ebbed from her limbs.
A dog sniffed around the new sandstone sculpture by the sitting rock, and decided that it was not a good candidate for marking his territory. It was too…alive.
The squat amphibious creature sat, almost in the water. It looked like it was made of eyes. The eyes covered its head in clusters, even lining its wide full lips, as though it were a creature that was always watching the world from the sidelines. Long columns of stone drooped down its hunched form, almost like brown thin-braided river-weed hair. And it was surrounded by silence and sadness. Insects moved and chattered about, and the river flowed as always, but there was a stillness around it that dampened the air. As though it were waiting to breathe. Another dog’s owner trotted over. “What the hell is that? What a weird place to put a statue,” her ponytail bobbed as she jogged around it.
The jogger’s companion took a swig from her water bottle and kept jogging in place on the rock. “Have you ever looked around Denver? We’re in the city of weird sculptures. It’s that push to be ‘cosmopolitan’ whatever that means. I think it means you’re acceptably hoity-toity if you have weird art. Haven’t you ever noticed the ‘cosmopolitan’ statues around the city?”
“True. Like that demon horse with the red eyes outside the Denver Airport. There’s something I want to see before I get on a plane. I heard the artist died just before he finished it.”
“Actually, it killed him. That’s what I heard.”
The first woman snapped her fingers at the dog and the two women sprinted up the slope to the trail and ran on.
After all of the depictions of Muses, what is your favorite? Which one are you most affected by? How do you get past your own blocks and lure the Muses back into your life?