Harmonica Dreams: On Engaging the Muse


Angel, Budapest Cemetery, 2006, photograph by caroline allen

I would especially like to re-court the Muse of poetry, who ran off with the mailman four years ago, and drops me only a scribbled postcard from time to time.
-John Updike

I am in the very final throes of finishing Earth. Most agents and small publishers who accept manuscripts expect only the first three chapters. You send those out and polish the rest while you’re waiting to hear.

I want Earth finished. I want to move into my second novel, Air. So, I decided to enter the entire manuscript into a contest and the deadline is Friday. So, my daily commitment to it has increased in intensity, from my normal four hours of writing a day, to a full daily commitment to the novel. A few days ago, I actually woke at 1:44 a.m. and wrote all the way through to the next evening…something I don’t usually do.

The level of Muse activity has been unbelievable, spirits floating in to guide and help me.

The night before last, I kept dreaming that I had a harmonica in my mouth, but then I looked at it in a mirror and it was actually a book, one of those small hardback classics, brushed green cloth cover, old, musty.

It was stretching my lips, and I couldn’t get it out of my mouth. It was lodged so deep. I had the same dream over and over all night.

Finally, on the third cycle of dreaming, the glowing white pages of the book that was wedged in my mouth flew from my lips. Each two page spread became an iridescent bird, a dove, and flew from my lips into blue sky. Dozens, and hundreds, flying white and lustrous out of my mouth.

At the climax of the green book still wedged in my mouth, about 4/5 of the way through, the pages turned black and were stuck. I saw an eagle with a broken wing stuck between my lips, the wing wedged into the binding of the book cover. It was unable to get free.

I woke up. I knew I’d needed to free the eagle. But the first thought that came to me was about Earth, the novel I’m putting final touches on: It’s not Pearl’s job to heal all of the other characters in the novel. It’s just her job to free herself.

All morning, while I was writing my novel Earth, the dream wouldn’t get out o’ my face. I couldn’t swat it away. I tried. I finally visited the climax.

The broken winged eagle refered to a moment of sheer violence at the climax. I understood I was to have Pearl have a vision at that moment, in which the perpetrator of said violence morphs into some of the other characters that people Earth.

All were one.

So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.
-William S. Burroughs

Many many people I coach and teach ask me: How do I get the muse to visit me, to enter me, to help me write, to give me that magical moment when my hands fly across the page.

I tell them: You have to write. Nearly every day. Then it will happen. I believe the dream about Earth was the Muse visiting me in my sleep. And she came because I was deeply committed to my book, and I worked on it every day, no matter what.

Not only is the bruised eagle an excellent way for me to understand my character, it’s an incredible image for my next novel: Air.

If you don’t write nearly every day, and you just sit down to write every once in a while, perhaps you’ll have an inspiration or two. But I don’t think that’s what people are asking. I think they want the big visit. The MUSE in all its glory.

You must join with your writing as if it were your lover, your best friend, the love of your life, your great passion. It will respond to you as you respond to it. It’s hard work, but the level of love and passion you feel makes it well worth it.

“But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows…
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me; ‘look in thy heart and write.’”
-Sir Philip Sidney



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