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WRITING ON WRITING: Rick Bragg Laments His Absent Muse

I often wondered if I was doing it right.

Was it romantic, if I did not do it on the veranda, beneath the rustling branches of a weeping willow tree? Was it picturesque, if I did not do it in a smoking jacket, white suit, or riding boots? And should I do it at all, sober? The truly great ones, I hear, did it knee-walkin’ drunk.

(No, not that. I never thought much about that. You just do that, if you are able. I am talking about writing; specifically, writing in the South.)

Here, where the history of writing is so deep and rich that magic, surely, must be involved, the craft comes with a dance card of legend, myth, and pretension. Could mortal men and women tell stories so well? Or, through an open window did inspiration come?

 The accoutrements, the fashion, I can do without, but I have always been intrigued by the notion, the whimsy, that some kind of writing spirit hovers near.

I, myself, have never seen one. But all my writing life I have heard writers speak of it, wistfully, as if it were a lover. “Oh, punkin’, I had planned to write today, but the muse, you see, it just wasn’t on me.”

It’s not that I haven’t looked for it, for its inspiration, like a sinner on his knees at the altar call. But I am as yet unsaved. I fear it is my own fault, for not being better bred.

The muse, it seems to me, is watered in juleps and fanned with old money.

I was born a blue-collar Southerner and always will be, in the same way new money can never be Old Charleston. I am fine with it. Polo shirts wear like sandpaper compared to a twelve-year-old T-shirt from Orange Beach. And nothing looks dumber to me than a fully grown man in a long-sleeved pink button-down and a pair of pressed khaki shorts. If someone dressed me like that, I think I might set myself on fire.

A white suit? I am a man tall and wide, and in one, I would resemble the screen at a drive-in movie. They would be showing Walking Tall II, Popeye cartoons, and dancing hot dogs across my chest. A smoking jacket? Where I come from in Alabama, that is what happens when your cousin goes to sleep with a Pall Mall in his lips. (Don’t even ask me about riding boots or I will commence to twitch and talk to myself.)

I do not have a veranda, just a big porch where the copperheads like to warm their blood, but I have written in some of your nicer Hampton Inns and, once, on an upside-down oil drum. And I don’t write at all, drunk. I can fight drunk and fish drunk, but I have to be clearheaded to drive cars, explain myself to my wife, and move a semicolon.

That muse, though, I would welcome. But where is mine? Did I not get one because my great-great grandmother did not run and hide the silver when she heard the Yankees a’comin’? Did the muse pass me by because none of my relatives speak like Foghorn Leghorn?

Maybe, like in the case of that pilgrim on his knees, you have to believe, really believe, to get one?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all an invention by the rich folks—a kind of pink-buttoned-down plot—to keep this writing thing to themselves.

Think about it. When was the last time you heard a man writing for wages say, “Yep, I need to finish them obits, but, well, the muse has plumb evaded me”?

But to hear some writers talk, it is a glorious spirit. It is a flitting, unpredictable, fairylike creature that falls from heaven, glides twice around the magnolia, and touches lightly down, usually on the “writing porch.” It glows with a kind of elvish energy, and flings a golden glitter of fairy dust across the keys of their old Underwood—because only a Philistine would write on a machine that requires a power cord.

It darts like a hummingbird from ear to ear, whispering sentences of beauty, grace, and power; whole paragraphs that will transform barren pages into poetry, something prettier than real life. And they type as it talks, fast, faster, till the ends of their fingers are a blur, till drops of blood fly into the sticky air—because it’s the damn South—and land on the parchment, feeding the prose, till the whole page grows warm under their hands and they have to rip it out and fling it, smoking now, across the room.

They snatch another sheet and roll it in as fast as they can, but the muse—that hussy—has fled, and all they see is a speck of light, a glimmer of an idea, as it vanishes into the dark.

But that’s okay, because they don’t do it for the money, the contract, the deadline, the rent. They do it for art.

So what if it is just a page? It is all the muse will spare. The trust fund will keep the lights on, till it comes again.

But I don’t think the muse looks like that, or maybe it’s just that the muse is different things to different people.

I think the muse is not a fairy at all but a sharp, prodding thing, like worry, or need.

It is always among us.

You write because you have to and you do not whine about it, because as hard as writing is it is not real work, like roofing, or toting cement blocks, or wiping tables at a Waffle House. But you treat it like real work. You cannot do it, this work, on an antique; you would beat an antique to scrap. You need electricity to write this way, the same way a guitar man in a busted-up juke joint needs juice running to his strings, to be heard.

So, wired, you write; write until you create some space between your peace of mind and some sharp thing in your head, write until you fulfill the contract you have signed or the deadline you are given or until you have mined just one more ton of coal, till you believe you won’t be too far behind the next day, when you go back down into that hole.

Because you know that some days it doesn’t come at all, the words, and you write anyway, gaining just inches instead of yards, write until you can’t feel your legs and your family thinks that you might be dead.

If it had a form, this muse, it would be a hairy, goatlike beast, something you pin down with a boot on its neck, just so you won’t be so goddamn lonely during this hateful process. And at night, when you believe you are done with it, it bumps and growls from underneath your bed.

All in all, I guess, I’d rather have the rich folks’ muse.

I wonder. Do they make a smoking jacket in a fifty-two long?


Art: "Young Woman With a Cupid" (2009) by Fatima Ronquillo, Wally Workman Gallery, Austin.

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