The Asphalt Muse
I was a ridiculously incurious teenager – so much so that I hadn’t learned or even heard about the Muses from Greek mythology until Olivia Newton-John showed up on the silver screen playing one in the movie Xanadu, sometime around 1980. But ever since Olivia filled my head with the movie’s catchy tunes and educated me on the subject of muses, I’ve often wondered at the true origins of creative thought.
As a writer, I’ve had the uncanny experience of reading my own work in utter confusion over how it could have possibly found its way out of my brain. Or that it was in there in the first place. I am not being disingenuous when I say it just doesn’t seem like writing is something I ought to be able to do.
In fact, a memory has stayed with me of a thought I had while walking through the field of my junior high school when I was in the seventh grade, nearly fifty years ago.
I had begun to read by then and had marveled at writers like Roger Zelazny and J.R.R. Tolkien, finding their writing both amazing and mesmerizing. But the thought I had that day was not at how wonderful it must be to be a writer, but how terrible it must be.
I thought writing page after page after page after page and being forced to come up with new ideas for every one of those pages must be some horrible kind of torture. I concluded that no matter how much I might admire writers, I certainly did not want to be one.
Of course, that’s because I had yet to find a muse.
The concept of the creative muse sounds like magic, some mental alchemy that turns the lead of ordinary thought into a golden artifact of expression. The corollary, of course, is that if the muse doesn’t deign to make an appearance, creativity will stay stuck in the subconscious like a mammoth in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Last Saturday, I was musing on muses again, as I periodically have since Olivia Newton-John gave me my first lesson in Greek mythology. Like most Saturdays, I was running through the woods with my dog, Charlie. (Since I cut my literary teeth on Steinbeck back in the day, it should come as no surprise that I have a dog named Charlie, even if I changed the spelling so it wouldn’t be too much like Steinbeck’s “Charley.”)
It wasn’t “the woods” like the wild woods untouched by civilization by any means. It was the Forest Preserve District woods in the middle of the suburbs, complete with a meandering asphalt trail. So the threat of being attacked by “real woods” mountain lions or bears was non-existent.
It’s relaxing in a way, the knowledge that there is nothing nearby that might try to eat you. Your mind can wander and go about its business unimpeded by the survival instinct.
Since I was safe from animals more dangerous than the occasional bunny or deer, my thoughts turned to my current writing project: the sequel to my novel The Things in Heaven and Earth, which releases in July. I mapped out the major points of the new book running on the same trail a few months ago, but that map only shows me point A to point B and gives me just the roughest ideas about my characters and what has to happen to them.
Saturday, I was doing more serious “creative” work – delving into the minds and motivations of my characters, deciding where readers should find certain characters despicable and where they should find others heroic.
I was building the characters’ personalities, too, because I have to know who my characters truly are to write them into the story. More importantly, I was finding the action that would explain the despicable and plant the seeds of the characters’ growth and even redemption.
With that “creative” progress came a certain excitement and satisfaction that I was getting things right, seeing them as they must be portrayed on the written page. Yet, rather unpoetically, I found myself thinking, “How do I come up with this shit?”
Olivia Newton-John hadn’t magically appeared on a pair of roller skates to plant the muse’s kiss on my lips like she had in Xanadu, kissing the artistically frustrated Michael Beck to unleash his creative potential. It was just me, Charlie, and the asphalt trail. And while Charlie plants the occasional “kiss” on my lips, it’s always a surprise that has me spitting and wiping her slobber away, not rushing to the keyboard to write.
Since dog slobber doesn’t have the muse’s effect, and no child of Zeus has skated up on the trail to plant a kiss on me, what muse is out there helping me conjure up “this shit”?
To my mind, creativity is an alchemy of sorts, the stuff floating around in my grey matter that finds a way to mix together. It’s everything I’ve ever read, every song I’ve heard, the joyous and terrible experiences in life, every emotion and philosophy that has raged in my mind, every love, every hate.
All of that is the raw material that will coalesce and become the written words I put down on the page. But the raw material needs a catalyst, something to focus the reaction caused by the mental alchemy.
We all have the same sort of raw material in our brains. So the muse is whatever serves as the catalyst. I don’t think it has to be the same thing in every instance, but it has to be something.
For a long while now, my primary muse has been made of asphalt. It appears when
I’m looking ahead on the blacktop trail and letting my mind wander free from predators – the literal kind and the metaphorical kind that do their best to tear into us during the days of the week.
On the trail, my mind slips free from conflict, problems, and tasks that have to be accomplished. It is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a sensuous kind of boredom, when there isn’t much else to intrude on my thinking, yet my brain wants to do something to drive the boredom away.
The catalyst is the trail itself, running on the asphalt until I’ve covered the miles I intended to run, with only the occasional distraction of bagging up Charlie’s poop for the trashcan.
Over the years, I’ve learned writing is a lot like I thought it was that day when I walked across the field in seventh grade. It is writing page after page, and it requires a whole arsenal of ideas to fill those pages. Worse, the ideas have to flow and fit together like the pieces of a very complicated puzzle.
So, yeah. Writing would be a horrible kind of torture without something to draw ideas I don’t even know I have out of me, like scattered puzzle pieces. That’s how the muse works. It puts a box of puzzle pieces within reach and shows me how they should fit together onto the otherwise blank pages.
But there is always the feeling it isn’t really me doing it. It’s the Asphalt Muse dragging stuff out of my brain without my knowing it was there in the first place.
The Asphalt Muse might not be as pretty as Olivia Newton-John, but it seems to do the trick.