The Power of the (Famous) Muses

Until I was asked to write a blog on famous muses, I really never gave the idea much thought. I’ve always used my surroundings or circumstances to rev up my creative juices. But it didn’t take me long to recall those who held my hand as I began my love affair with the written word, as well as the ones who paved the way for me on this journey of self-exploration. Or, my life as a writer.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, is the first author whose words challenged me to break free of the excuses and “take it bird by bird.” In her book, she speaks about her older brother who procrastinated on a book report about birds which was now due the following day. The task ahead of him appeared insurmountable when Lamott’s father “sat down beside him, put his arm around [her] brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Currently, I’m in a season where my writing revolves around blogs and articles. I haven’t sat down and written my novel just yet. So for me, I’m taking it blog by blog. And I’m also avidly following guidance from another one of my muses: Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he reminds writers to read a lot and write a lot. I tend to go in spurts — right now I’ve been reading a lot. My muse was recently rediscovered in between the pages of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Blake Crouch’s Snowbound. Consequently, I’m feeling one step closer to sitting down and tackling the writing a lot part of King’s advice.

Another writer, Lee Gutkind, ASU professor and managing editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, also incites me to explore life’s next adventure. In his essay, “The Five Rs of Creative Nonfiction,” he encourages writers to seize our sense of wonder by immersion, or the “real life” aspect of the writing experience. The four remaining Rs include reflection, research, read (this cannot be stressed enough!) and “writing.” Simple but sage counsel.

With his sardonic, humble wit, David Sedaris inspires me with his edgier pieces, touching on off-the-wall topics that both entertain and challenge. My daughter and I once waited six hours in line to meet the man in person and receive an autographed copy of his book Squirrel Meets Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. He did not disappoint; neither did the book.

But I’ve also discovered that even the underdogs may rise up among the famous. One such muse of mine is a close friend incarcerated for the next few years. He tutors other inmates in math, takes college courses while serving his sentence and studies the craft of memoir writing late into the evening hours. And then he pounds out his daily observations on a typewriter, the kind with ribbons, platen and correction tape. He motivates me as he devours book after book, doing what each of the successful writers who have gone before us have done and continue to do.

I read because I love it. I write because I cannot help it. So I grab onto the shirt tails of those who make it look easy and hope a little of their spunk (and a whole lot of talent) rubs off on me. They are the ones who have paved the way and carved a niche in the literary world. The guiding spirit(s) for my truth.

Do you have a famous — or not so famous — muse that inspires?

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: Writing Sugarless

Sweet Pea

Before I talk about my struggle with rejection letters, it’s important that you know how much I want you to love me. By “you” I don’t mean a general second-person all-encompassing kind of you; I mean you: the person reading these words awash in the light of a computer screen. And by “me” I don’t mean the don’t-assume-the-author-is-the-narrator kind of “me.” I really mean me, here, tapping at the keys in the dark, dog snoring softly at my feet.

My only hope of winning your love is to woo you with my words, to be smart and funny, and whip up a mean metaphor or simile now and again, so that’s what I’ll do if I can. Sometimes I can’t, and if I can’t win your love I will console my sorrow with an ice cream sundae or maybe a chocolate-covered cream puff.

Well, that’s how I would have consoled myself four months ago, before I gave up processed sugar in all of its devilish incarnations.

I gave up sugar because I wanted to know what drove me to eat it, in any form, in the car, and on the beach, in front of the computer or behind a book, after every meal, and just before I brushed my teeth. I thought if I sat quiet and still in that place of craving, the answer would rise to the surface of the abyss, returning like a bottle I tossed into the sea as a young girl. When I had the answer it would be over; no more cravings.

Of course I had the answer all along. I never tossed that bottle into the sea. I swallowed it whole, washed it down with a Coke sipped through a Red Vine, and it’s been sitting in my belly ever since: Sugar = Love.

Except that it doesn’t.

Now I’m working on the part where I love myself so completely that I don’t need your love, or anyone’s. I’m so not there yet. I’m reminded that I’m not there every time I open a rejection letter, and the urge to drive myself to the ice cream stand is so strong I very nearly have to chain myself to the porch rail and sing myself lullabies— because besides eating sugary products, writing is the one thing that I have, at times, done well. It is the basket in which all of my eggs lay. Or is it “lie”? Well, Sometimes those eggs do lie. They say, “This poem is your best yet. It is sure to be scooped up by the editor of [insert name of fabulous journal here] because you and the editor are both fans of skydiving clowns and blue-eyed mares named Maggie.”

Four months later I open the rejection, and it’s not even personalized. Sometimes it’s such a clever form letter that I can’t tell whether or not it’s personalized, and I have to go look it up on Rejection Wiki, which is incredibly humiliating, or would have been if I had ever dared to admit it to anyone before now.

There are very few places where people are rejected outright — romantic relationships, employment, college admissions, immigration, and the submission or audition process— where someone says bluntly, “No, not you; You’re not good enough,” and of those, the latter two are the only rejections that are likely to happen on a daily basis for the rest of our lives, although my rejection letters seem to gang up on the same day, like unwashed teenage boys loafing outside the corner liquor store, emitting a gauntlet of testosterone and cigarette smoke through which I was required to pass for my daily dose of Blow Pop.

If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, you’ve felt the misery, however brief, so I don’t have to tell you. My trouble is that I’m eternally optimistic, so when those poetry eggs whisper their sweet nothings, I believe them every time, no matter how often they’ve been proven wrong.

The rejection letter is the price I have to pay for that optimism, and indulging in a little snort of post-rejection sugary goodness was like paying that price with credit. Sure, the sting was still out there, but “I’ll get to it later,” I’d say. “Pass the cookies.” Now my credit’s run out, and it’s all cash on delivery, Baby. So what do I do instead of sucking whipped cream straight from the can? I write about it, and then I write some more, and the cycle repeats.

Do you love me yet?

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 9

In my last dispatch, I ended on the premise of trying to understand my culture through interaction with one of its holy men, posing the query: what is the functionality of a guru? After meeting my grandmother’s guru, Swami Grishanand Saraswati, the answer became quite simple. A guru is a man who forsakes the banality and materialism of everyday life (in Swami Grishanand’s case, at 18 years old) for a purely spiritual existence, fulfilled through total dedication to studying the Vedas, Bhagavat Gita, Manu Smriti, Srimad Bhagavat, and various other canonical Hindu texts in order to achieve a greater comprehension of the celestial workings of the universe. But this comprehension is not a paltry tool used to pull the wool over the eyes of those lost in the world, seeking guidance or direction in lives they cannot seem to properly helm. Just as water seeks nobody to consume it, a guru does not seek followers to thirst for his knowledge. He doesn’t place money or praise or control as motive. His goal is the achievement of self-betterment through conscious reflection and the genuine care for his fellow man.

Swami Grishanand Saraswati

To put it bluntly, a guru is a wise man, but he does not care whether or not you listen to him.

Some people only come to a guru when they want something, whether a blessing to cure a particular ailment or well wishes for monetary income or simply to act like they’re doing their guru a favor by being his student. These are the kind of people on whom Guru-ji spends little to no time in a one-on-one setting. But come to him without reservations or material desires, armed with a willing heart and an open mind, and see what a powerful individual he becomes with his knowledge.

On Swami Grishanand’s birthday, hundreds of his disciples from all over India came to pay their respects. They brought food, gifts, and money to show their devotion to him for changing their thoughts and lives with his teachings. But Guru-ji gave the sweets to the hungry; he found ways to dispense the gifts among the poor; and contrary to my ideas of religious figures’ unscrupulous attitudes towards monetary accumulation, all of the money that was given for Guru-ji’s birthday was to be spent entirely on building and maintaining ashrams and orphanages.

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the effort people put into these things, but material goods take nothing to cultivate when compared to the simple spiritual connection of being with one’s guru just because one appreciates his person, wants to hear what he has to say, and desires to apply that higher knowledge to his or her own life.

Hundreds of disciples celebrating.

For example, while I was in Jabalpur for Guru Purnima, a holiday celebrating gurus across India, I spent the day going to various points along the holy Narmada river with a friend of my grandmother’s, a man I will call P. P was born poor (and I mean Indian poor), finished high school through correspondence, and started working at 12 years old. Today, at 44 years old, he is a highly successful businessman who owns and operates his own steel import/export business in Dubai with offices all over the world. He wants for absolutely nothing. To put this in perspective, if he wished to expand his operations by moving stateside (which would be laughably easy at this point in his life), he could be pulling $200,000 a month without breaking a sweat. But material concerns aren’t his primary motive, which is why P is one of Swami Grishanand’s closest disciples despite only knowing him for five years.

Birthday Celebration.

What makes a wealthy businessman and a holy man so strongly connected? Again, the answer is simple. They desire nothing material, except the trust and faith of one another, the pleasure of one another’s company and the discussion of their thoughts. P told me that he never once tried to achieve wealth for himself; he wanted to be rich since he was 12 years old so he could provide for his family and ensure they would never want for anything. Swami Grishanand did not seek spiritual knowledge for praise, money, or to trick people into worshipping him through accruement of false virtue; he left his home and family at 18 years old for the ashram because he was seeking personal fulfillment, a fulfillment through which he could help his fellow man. Both men have great lives and extraordinary physical and spiritual presence, but they both also concede wholeheartedly that the greatness of their lives, though shaped by selfish and logical choices, are only made possible through selfless devotion to something greater than their individual selves. And that selflessness feeds their selfishness. And their selfishness powers their selflessness. And so it goes.

 

Birthday offerings for the Swami.

THAT is the beauty of Hinduism. The serenity of true spirituality is rooted in the power of logical decision-making. And the greatest logic comes from understanding that to achieve an enlightened state of mind, one must be willing to forgo the hubris of human reason for the calm maturity of spirituality. There are no musts or must-nots. Choice is duty, duty is love, love is freedom, and freedom is choice. Hinduism rejects duality and says that all things are one. That’s why a guru both cares for his fellow man, but does not care enough to force them towards enlightenment. That’s why a wealthy businessman and a humble holy man can be the best of friends. I’m young, so I can’t grasp it fully yet, but the fact that separation is just a human invention is a very powerful idea that is now firmly implanted in my mind.

And as such, I learned that the purpose of a guru is to help reform his disciples’ idea of duality into non-duality, to remove barriers of separation for the open space of unity.

Overall, here’s what I have to say: What a trip! And I mean that literally and figuratively.

Matthew Gavin Frank discusses “Warranty In Zulu” and other projects

Superstition Review was pleased to feature Matthew Gavin Frank’s poems in our very first Issue. Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with Frank to discuss his latest published work, Warranty In Zulu. Frank has published several poetry manuscripts including, AardvarkSagittarius AgitpropFour Hours To Mpumalanga, and 6 X 6. His prose has also been published in Blue Earth Review, Plate Magazine, Brevity, Transfinite, and elsewhere.

Superstition Review: How is Warranty In Zulu different from your other works?

Matthew Gavin Frank: Warranty is far more research-based than my previous collection, Sagittarius AgitpropWarranty began as a project to engage the ways in which the exhibits of South African museums and galleries have changed since the fall of apartheid in 1994, documenting how the “landscape” of the South African art scene has changed in style, substance, and accessibility with the socio-political landscape, with the aim of uncovering a larger statement about the interaction between politics and aesthetics.

SR: What has it been like working with Barrow Street Press?

MGF: Risking overstatement: heavenly. Barrow Street is wonderfully hands-on when it comes to the editing process, design, lay-out, etc. They’re very involved, continually offering feedback and suggestion, which contributes to the rare, essential dialogue between writer and editors (who, in the case of Barrow Street, are brilliant writers themselves). The experience of working with them will likely save me a crap-load of time when it comes to self-editing future manuscripts before submitting.

SR: What was the most difficult part about writing Warranty In Zulu?

MGF: Avoiding “othering” or “exoticising” the various cultures of South Africa. In order to aid in this, I felt I had to immerse myself in the country via research and travel, many-handed observations. After numerous trips to South Africa, my wife’s homeland, and her family’s country of residence, the project became laced with the personal, the various narrators herein (many inspired by unofficial interviews, casual conversations, and folklore) engaging issues of history, identity, confused observation, the nature of healing, irrational fear, irrational love and the collision between insider and outsider voices. While not every poem in the manuscript is set specifically within South Africa (most are), each struggles with similar thematic strains.

SR: How have your life experiences (such as working the Barolo wine harvest) shaped your views in your writing?

MGF: I’ve been incorporating things from my own life into the work, more than I have in the past. In the past, I always had a great time wearing masks, playing the asshole, protecting myself. But lately, I’ve been finding greater fulfillment in taking a risk, meaning: being honest. Or more honest at least. This desire ignited at about the same time I began to feel a draw to return to the Midwest, my roots, after wandering and traveling quite a bit. Both desires can, I think, be leashed to my mother’s recent illness. In 2006, Louisa (my wife) and I had just, on a road trip (after leaving Tempe), landed in Montpelier, Vermont, and decided we wanted to live there for a stretch. On the day we were to sign our lease, we received a phone call from my sister in Chicago telling us that my mom was sick. We fled Vermont, returned to Chicago for a year, lived in my parents’ house, and took care of the family while she battled illness (and won, thankfully). This infected my writing with the honesty I mentioned earlier. Does this mean I’m being merely confessional? Attracted solely to the Midwest and the actual? It’s complicated, but no way. As if to balance this, I’m presently working on a series of short essays based on photographs I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a poetry manuscript based on couching the bad joke in verse. Its working title is “Your Mother.”

SR: What are you currently working on creatively?

MGF: Well, the Oaxaca book, tentatively titled, SELF-HELP, MEXICO, deals with the aftermath of living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for over a year, helping my family during my mother’s battle with cancer. Louisa, and I, struggling to rediscover our footing as a married-couple-in-love, fled to Mexico. Our search for ourselves, our sanctuary, our relationship, took us from the wild crowds and violent social protests of Mexico City, to the culinary jewel of Oaxaca City, and finally to a tiny indigenous Zapotec village in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountains. The manuscript, which is still in-progress (I’m hoping to finish my final tinkering before 2010 ends), is fusing the narrative storytelling techniques typical of memoir with historical and folkloric research, becoming a series of sort-of lyric essays, and situating the sense of loss and confused search of one particular young married couple within a larger socio-cultural context. In this village, we discovered an unlikely band of U.S.-American expatriates of various demographics, on grappling journeys of their own, contributing to a community both unique and ubiquitous in its quest for some version of fulfillment. I’m going to go back to the “Your Mother” project after I’ve finished SELF-HELP, MEXICO. My nonfiction book, POT FARM, about my work on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California will be coming out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2011 or 2012.

SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

MGF: Travel. Eat things that scare you: cock’s combs, for example. Force perspective onto your life. Allow your memory to distort things. Write a lot, even if it’s crappy. Read a lot. Be vulnerable. Allow the act of writing to play various roles in your life: mother, father, son, daughter, lover, pet goldfish. Argue with all of them, even though you love them. I will not say, be persistent. I swear to you: I will not say it.