Addressing Artistic Despair

I wrote the final draft of this book in October 2005, largely in the Bibliothèque St. Jean-Baptiste in Quebec City, Canada, a six-hour drive north from my home in Portland, Maine. In the neighborhood where my husband and I sublet a chilly, weatherworn apartment with a single floor lamp and a half-broken fridge, we were the only Anglophones. Dan and I woke every day to the sound of schoolchildren squabbling in French on their way to school, and went to sleep every night to the metronomic beat of French hip-hop funneling down our narrow street from one of the other whitewashed brick buildings with gaily painted doors. Even though my home kitchen—with its double-insulated windows and working appliances—was but a half day’s drive away; even though I spoke serviceable French and could get most of what I needed on the first try; even though the province of Quebec was the friend and neighbor with whom we Mainers shared a geographical border, several TV stations, and generations’ worth of family connections, I felt a foreigner’s discombobulation for a solid week, a homesickness so profound it felt like a literal weight in my body.

Dan, who speaks about thirty words of French, no more than three of which can logically appear in the same sentence, is a far more equable soul than I. He did what he always does when faced with discombobulation: he went to work. On our first evening in the city of wine and chocolate, he relieved the tiny apartment freezer of four inches of packed ice, then fixed its broken door with, I’m not kidding, the clicker-thing from a ballpoint pen and a U-shaped spacer cut out of his mousepad. Then he filled the freshly denuded freezer with ice cream. He found a hardware store and installed brighter bulbs in the kitchen and a three-way for the lamp so that two people could read a book at the same time. Meanwhile, I was fretting about how cold we might get by month’s end (you could stick your pinky through the window gaps) and wondering aloud whether the cat, a portly gent with double paws, was drinking too much water, a sure sign that we’d agreed to care for a diabetic short-timer who would die on our watch. I feared that our neighbors would not understand my French, and that I would not understand theirs. (On our second day, Dan bought some baking chocolate and informed the chocolatier in French that he planned to drive a cake.) And the car—oh, horrors, the car!—what were we to do about the car, for which we’d arranged no parking sticker, not anticipating the baffling Québecois interdictions on overnight parking, rush-hour parking, weekend parking, and parking on high holy days and full-moon Tuesdays?

You know the end of this story. The cat did not die. We did not freeze to death. The Francophones did not spit in our faces for puréeing verb tenses beyond recognition. In fact, the cat adored us, and lost a little weight. And after a handful of cold-nose days, we enjoyed one of the loveliest Indian summers in the history of weather. Our neighbors proved unfailingly decent and helpful and warmhearted. Even the parking garage turned up a sunny attendant who, with the patience of a kindergarten teacher, walked us through the hokey-pokey of securing a monthly pass from a malevolent machine. In the drafty kitchen we toasted our good fortune with a hefty red wine from the local wine shop. We walked everywhere, worked well and hard on our respective projects, and when it came time to go home, I was the one who wanted most to stay.

This introduction is not, of course, about how lucky I was to have married Mr. Fixit. Or even about how stupid I was to spend seven precious days of my one and only life in Henny Penny mode, jumpy and fretful and unyielding when faced with the uncertain and unfamiliar. This story, like most stories, exists as metaphor: what is writing if not the great land of the unknown? The foreign tongue we’ll never master? The teetery, trembling foray into a realm that might hurt us in private, or humiliate us in public, or, worse, uncover our thudding limitations? 

The first Pocket Muse came to me as I was finishing a book of linked stories, the only easily won fiction I’d ever written; I don’t remember ever being happier as a writer. The second Pocket Muse arrived on grimmer terms, as I faced mortal combat with a novel in progress, feeling stranded and miserable with my sheaf of false starts and dead ends. How, I wondered, after writing so many books—proof, surely, that I knew my way in, and out—could I once again be facing the familiar void, the same old blank page? Wasn’t this supposed to get easier? But there I was, back at the gate, hoping that the thing for which I had no name, no form, and no hope would nevertheless become, sooner or later, a story that held.

And so, unsurprisingly, The Pocket Muse: Endless Inspiration addresses the subject of artistic despair far more often than its predecessor. There’s more here about what it means to attempt a creative life when everything around us pulls in the opposite direction. Also more than my usual trickle of self-revelation—I who so rarely venture into nonfiction and approach other people’s memoirs with a touch of dread. In the end, I left the pages that bleed, because I wrote this book as much for myself, dear reader, as for you. The advice on technique, the writing prompts and exercises, the provocative photographs, the tales of the absurd, the quotations from other writers, the moral support and marching orders—they’re for both of us. The advice on managing your time, your work, and your emotions—I’m speaking to myself as well as to you. You can open this book at random and, I hope, find comfort; or, absent that, good counsel; or, absent that, a shove out the door, or in the door, whichever applies.

Which is to say that I hope this book will do for you what it did for me. I composed this book as I failed to compose my novel in progress; I organized this book as I lost, utterly, my new novel’s shape; I finished this book as I gave up on my novel in despair, ditching all those hard-won pages and starting over again. Writing this book of advice and inspiration kept me looking forward, not back, as I tried to reconnect with a novel that is still such a long way (years, I mean) from finding itself.

But I trust it will. I trust that sooner or later I’ll reread this introduction and think, If only I’d known then what I know now. But of course I did know. Don’t we always know? We keep writing until we find the story. Which brings me back to my sojourn in Quebec, and the time I wasted before finally giving in to the experience. The turning point came when I found a library, the aforementioned Bibliothèque St. Jean-Baptiste, which for two centuries lived as a church and still looked almost exactly like the gilt-and-alabaster thing it always was. It smelled like church and sounded like church, and I surely did not overlook the significance of all those books residing in a consecrated place. It is faith, finally, that saves us: faith that our words will matter enough—if only to ourselves alone—to risk humiliation, or rejection, or failure.

This is no small thing we do.

Welcome to the journey!

Find out more about Pocket Muse: Endless Inspiration.

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