Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Voice of the Muse: A Reader's Journey

Rather than offering a traditional ranking and critique, reviewers at The Uncustomary Book Review chronicle their experiences and relationship with the books they write up.

Kat Kiddles's review of The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, which I reprint here from a few years back, offers a too-rare window on the journey you travel, as the book's reader. If you've already made that sojourn, you'll undoubtedly recognize some of Kat's experiences in your own. If you haven't, she offers a movingly personal up-close view of what you might expect.

• Unlike when this review first appeared The Voice of the Muse is now available in ebook form as well as paperback. Get the ebook in the Kindle, Nook, Kobo or iBook/iTunes store; the paperback is at The Voice of the Muse Companion recording of guided meditations is sold on CD at and as an MP3 download from iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby and Google Play.

The Voice of the Muse

Review by Kat Kiddles

Reprinted from The Uncustomary Book Review ~ May 29, 2011
Full Title: The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write
Author: Mark David Gerson
Format: Paperback and ebook
Number of Pages: 248
How long it took me to read: 1 year, 2 weeks, 3 days
Where I got this book: A heavily hinted at Christmas gift
Audio Excerpt: Guided Meditation #10: You Are a Writer

Like a Moth to a Flame
I’m not really sure why I was drawn to this book. I remember watching an interview with the author on a webcast. I think it was during a stage in my development as a writer when I was just warming my mitts to the idea of working with a muse. The creative process was still foreign and uncomfortable; holding my pen brought back ridiculous memories of grade school when we used sausage-sized pencils to learn how to print and the idea of calling myself a writer made me want to cower behind desperate attempts at topic changes so that people would get back to talking about themselves. (Not quite sure how that differs from today, but that’s too large a can of worms to open this late in the evening.)

Favorite Five Quotes
Whittling 13 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “The pain is in the resistance.” (p.113)

4. “You ask why you fear the blank page even as you know that the act of writing will make you feel better. It’s simple: The fear of the void far outweighs any perceived benefit that might arise from allowing it to be filled.” (p.112)

3. “Your imagination is limited by what you think you know. When you let go of that, when you leap off the bridge or cliff with nothing but trust, that’s when you fly.” (p.233)

2. “The fiercest ridicule and loudest, cruelest judgment will come from those who are touched most deeply by your words…Your critics are touched at a place deeper than they feel comfortable going, so their reaction and response is one of cruelty.” (p.69)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “Writers often have the cleanest windows, floors, fridges and toilets, the most up-to-date filing system or the best record for returning calls or e-mails because, in the moment, just about any task seems more palatable than sitting down to write.” (p.136)

New Words
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

• New Word: egress (noun)
Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) (astronomy) the reappearance of a celestial body after an eclipse; 2) the becoming visible; 3) the act of coming (or going) out; becoming apparent
Synonyms: 1) emersion; 2) emergence, issue; 3) egression, emergence
Origins: 1538; from Latin ‘egressus,’ from egredi ‘go out,’ from ex- ‘out’ + -gredi, comb. form of gradi ‘step, go.’
As in: “If you would but open your heart and allow what longs to flow from you easy egress, there would be no block.” (p.113)

Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I so often feel I’m writing books I don’t know about yet. Is it because the words I’m writing are going to be published one day, or because my scribbled notes will become the fuel of future stories? It’s strange, living a life that you know is going to be something someday, but that still isn’t. I suppose it’s akin to being a gardener, sewing seeds in the soil, knowing that one day the garden will be there, its form only visible in the imagination.”

“Gerson’s book is asking me a question, so I suppose I’ll attempt to answer it.
Where are you now? Where are you now in your writing? In your life?
“Well! I can see we’re starting off on an easy note this morning! Alright, where am I now in my life? Well, I’m in a funny place that has me looking to past relationships as I position myself for my next step. I’m in a place of searching and building. I suppose part of that process is about tying up loose ends, taking these last few moments to indulge in reflecting on the unresolved experiences that have made me who I am today, and making sure I’m as ok as I can be about what it took to get me here.

“Where am I in my writing? Well, a few months ago, I was struggling to write 500 words every other day. Today, words flow into everything I do. They spill onto the sheets of my notebook and splatter onto the pages of my blogs. I write job proposals and professional profiles. I contribute to magazines and draft content for clients. I’m seeing many value-added opportunities through the marriage of writing and education (my passions); however, what I’m not seeing is the coming along of my book…or books (perhaps it’s better to just use the singular for now). So, wherever I am in my writing, it’s a place wrought with the guilt of not doing more work on it, overgrown with the fear of facing it, and polluted with clouds of uncertainty that make it all the more difficult to see the path ahead.

“When I close my eyes and think of a word that represents where I am in this moment, change gurgles up my creative esophagus, followed by a reflux of transition, metamorphosis, chameleon, creation, building blocks, turning corners, cultivation, honing, fine tuning, tweaking, experimenting, listening, silence, soliloquy, crafting and obstacling.

“Although not a ‘real’ word, obstacling feels as though it encompasses so much of my current reality – the act of overcoming obstacles. Obstacling. Maybe that’s my word of the day.

“Next, Gerson asks about his readers’ expectations,
What do you want from this book?
“My first thoughts are of what I don’t want. I don’t want homework or assignments. I don’t want exercises every few pages or activities that make me stop to reflect. Then again, a wise man recently told me that ‘children don’t always know what’s good for them,’ so perhaps I would benefit from focusing less on what I don’t want.

“What I want from this book, then, is a friend – a friend that reassures me that I’m not alone, that reminds me that I’m not crazy, and that encourages me to keep swimming (a reference that will make sense to those of you who’ve conversed with Goldberg on her Long Quiet Highway.”

“Humph. Is writing really as simple as tuning into the frequency of your heart, putting pen to paper, and then just…transcribing? I think I might have sort of maybe thought of it like that once before, but only now that I’ve read it on Gerson’s page is it really beginning to sink in. It might actually be that simple. I know that I’m not supposed to judge, that I’m supposed to trust, so maybe fine-tuned transcription is the perfect approach. But what do you do when you have pages and pages of writing, files of notes and a partial manuscript, all insisting on getting your attention? What do you do with all the words once you’ve poured them (at least some of them) out?”

“I fear my pen will run out soon. I suddenly see my pen as a powerful wand, a Harry Potter wand, a magical wand of words!”

“Enough dust has collected on the cover for me to be squeamish about picking it up. Although I’m aware that the message of the book is what I’m actually fearful of, I firmly believe that dust bunnies have no place in the literary equation.”

“Demand brings force. Force inspires fear. Fear drowns out the silence and muffles the gentle hum of creativity.”

[In response to Guided Meditation #1 - Meet Your Muse (pp.36-8)]
“I crossed the threshold of my imagined door, a door engraved with mystical carvings on glimmering, ancient wood. It felt cold on the other side. Everything was dark, black. My muse, a muse, something, approached; an outline of white, the skeleton of a winged creature. We stood, face-to-face, being-to-being, in an empty space of resolved (resigned) understanding. The gift I received before making my way back was a blank page and a pen. The unspoken message, something along the lines of, ‘Keep going.’

“The encounter hasn’t left me feeling fulfilled or inspired. It’s made me wonder what’s around the corner. It’s making me more aware of consequences, the way choices impact the courses of our journeys. I had thought, had assumed, that once the first drop dribbled over the cliff’s edge, there would no stopping the cascade. Am I about to experience a drought?”

[In response to the writing exercise on p.51]

“My healing lies in a place of self-embrace, where sizes are stretched and words are dressed in colorful tunics embroidered with lace from foreign lands no map can chart. My healing lies in the space between my breath – a place undisturbed by attempts to control and define. My healing lies outside of me, for everything inside pushes order ahead of the unknown. How can healing have enough room to spread and stretch in a space too small to measure? My healing lies in a place I haven’t found, in a direction I’m forgetting to look. Does healing mean succeeding, or is it just another sequence of letters defining acceptance?”

“What would you say if someone were to tell you that the book you were about to start reading was equivalent to a yoga class for writers, where the words were the teacher and the writing activities were the poses? How would you feel holding a verbal asana for minutes at a time, meditating on the imagery of the author’s vision, while trying to maintain a deep, even breath? To me, it feels as though I’m wobbling my way through tree pose, desperately trying not to fall on my face, not because of the inevitable pain but to avoid having to publicly admit that I couldn’t do it. When reading words turns into a strenuous exercise, it’s difficult to want to get back to the verbal gym the next day.”

[In response to the writing exercise on p.98]
“I follow my pen wherever it carries me. Today it carries me to…

“…the ends of the earth, where I can tickle the stars with the tips of my lashes and caress the sands with a hand touched by the mercy of a moment’s repose.

“…the center of the softest of all marshmallows, where there’s none of the stickiness and all of the joy these puffs bestow upon good girls and boys when the time comes to greet the forest and count the leaves and feel the freedom of sleeping outside.

“…a place with no walls and no keys and not even ripe cheese. All that exists is the nothingness in between.”

“I trusted today. I trusted, despite time constraints and inner fears. I trusted. I sat in front of the computer, and I trusted. What poured out was a story I discovered for the first time as it filled the screen. I trusted words today, and now I think I believe that words trust me. They trust me to carry them with me each day. They trust me not to lose them as I rifle through my bag for a piece of gum and dig through my change purse for my office key. They trust me to share them with you. It is for trust that I am grateful today.”

“Reading this book can be restful, which isn’t an adjective I expected to use when I started it. I expected a tormented experience that thrashed me against the waves of my resistance. Instead, or rather, in addition to what I expected, I also got a reminder to breathe, encouragement to withdraw from the tension and to splash in my frothing pool of unused words.

“I wouldn’t recommend this book to commuters who spend their time reading on trains, not unless you have a very steady hand when inspiration strikes. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t assume people still write with quill on parchment. Gerson does inspire, but more than encouraging me to write, he continuously reminds me to relax – a welcome reminder he seems to have known I would need nearly each day of the year it took me to complete my journey with him. For that, I am thankful.”

“Near the end of the book, Gerson reflects on how the meaning of words is defined more by the meaning we put into them than by the meaning we find in the dictionary. He talks about what the word feedback means to him.

“On first thought, feedback is something I feel as though I’m supposed to like, supposed to be open to, supposed to want to invite into my writing process. On second thought, I admit to fearing the process – fearing being told to go back and rewrite what I thought had already taken full form. But if I’m honest with myself, if I open up to the core of my truth, then the process of receiving feedback is akin to (slowly and patiently) unwrapping a present.

“Even when you know you’re going to get a gift, that first moment of receipt is so often filled with excitement. You see the beautiful promise of potential coming your way. There is so much possibility in that moment, so much fuel for the imagination.

“Then you begin to unwrap it. You notice the slightly ripped paper, the uneven folds, the off-centered ribbon, the strips of wrinkled tape. You disregard them, refusing to give them permission to ruin the perfect image of your first impression.

“Once you get past the paper and bows, you reach the box – undecorated, unimaginative, disappointing. You may even discover that it’s a recycled box of crackers or of discounted muffin mix that’s been forming the shape of your gift.

“It’s only when you work through the process of unwrapping your present, tearing apart its shell of generic packaging, that you begin to capture a glimpse of the true gift hidden inside. The more you unwrap, the closer you get to your truth.

“The best part of feedback is the realization that the real gift was better than what you first expected. Yes, sometimes you get a gift you don’t want or that you don’t think you need, but that’s just life’s way of helping you learn acceptance. And, as is often the case when the festivities are over, you’re left with lots of used wrapping paper, some of which will get tossed, and some that can be salvaged for future gifts.”

• Reprinted from The Uncustomary Book Review: A Conversation with the Reader, 5/29/2011

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