Trusting the Muse

by Louise Marley

August 2016

By the time I was five years old, I knew I wanted to be a singer. I didn’t know any singers, or indeed, any professional musicians. I didn’t have any idea how a person became a singer. I had no clue how to start, but the impulse refused to subside. When it was time for college, I wanted to study voice performance. I conferred with my wise mother. “Am I good enough?” Her honest answer was, “I don’t know,” but she didn’t try to talk me out of it. There were any number of reasons I shouldn’t have done it: I had no high notes; I had no way to make a living if I didn’t succeed; my musical background was sparse; I had no idea how a singer’s life worked.

I did it anyway. I couldn’t not do it, in truth, which is the first signal the muse sends us. With some good luck and years of hard work, I reached my goal. I worked as an actual, get-paid-for-it singer and teacher of voice for a satisfyingly long time.

The muse whispered to me again in the midst of my musical career. I had an idea for a book, and the urge to write it, but I still didn’t trust that creative instinct. I wrote in secret, more or less. I didn’t call myself a writer. I treated my writing – which I was doing every day, just as we all should – as self-indulgence. A hobby.

Then lightning struck. That first novel was published. I was no longer pretending to be a writer – I was a writer, an actual, get-paid-for-it pro. As every writer who longs to publish will understand, I was thrilled and amazed. I was also convinced at last, by my writing experience, to respect the creative impulse regardless of the outcome.

I’ve come to revere all types of creativity. Cooks, gardeners, fashion designers, square dancers, architects, buskers – all creative people have a muse, by which I mean their own individual, idiosyncratic instinct. They work in different mediums, and with different goals, but they share a respect for the impulse. And they act on it.

The muse, of course, makes no promises. I didn’t sing at the Met. I haven’t (yet) made the New York Times bestseller list. I have, however, had the pleasure of exercising my creative muscles through the publication (so far) of eighteen novels and twenty or so short stories. In retrospect, that has given more lasting satisfaction than any commercial success.

I questioned myself incessantly when I was singing. Why didn’t I get better contracts? Why weren’t opera companies calling me every day? Why did I feel every other year or so that my career was over?

Not until I retired from working as a professional musician did I understand that my decades of singing were their own reward. No, I didn’t sing at the Met, but I did sing at Seattle Opera. I didn’t always get great contracts, but I did have contracts. I made music. I sang for years: good repertoire, with fine musicians, before appreciative audiences. Those are the elements of a satisfying creative life.

The business of publishing is a kind of showbiz, not unlike the business of music. Much of what happens is inexplicable. Why does one book break out and another doesn’t? As my first editor said, everyone wants to buy the next bestseller, but no one has a clue what it will be. Traditional publishing is threatened by small presses, by micro-presses, by the leviathan of Amazon. Bookstores are up, they’re down. E-books are everything, then paper book sales rise again. In other words, publishing is in turmoil. Ursula K. LeGuin assures us ’twas ever thus.

So what’s a writer to do? Find an agent? Flog your own manuscript? Grit your teeth while you await answers to your queries? Self-publish? These are big decisions, and they revolve around one essential: doing the work. Write the novel, the story, the poem, the memoir. As long as the muse is whispering in your ear, you should be writing. And you should be enjoying it.

I think a lot about legacy these days, because I’ve recently lost my wise and wonderful mother. When it’s my turn to follow her into eternity, I want to leave behind a body of work I can be proud of. Checks are great, but they will have been cashed and spent. Awards are gratifying, but they will have been forgotten. The contracts, the career worries, the self-doubt, will all be, in Mom’s words, “washed clean.” It will be the books and the stories that remain, and the memory of having created them. That’s a great thing.

Louise MarleyComment