Every writer has a muse, whether we put much thought into it or not. When we start out and are struggling to find our creative sources, we run a thumb across the worn out coin of that ancient Muse. I don’t think the idea has much value anymore, but occasionally I do find myself pulling out that notion and looking at it. Most people think of the muse in the singular. If you look at the myth there’s a tradition that held to three Muses, though writers like Homer thought there were nine. He himself would have believed what he was doing was mostly recording history, but he was clearly also a poet and a novelist. I’m sure back in his day he wrote little missives that could be sent around from friend to friend, and they each might have made a comment – so he was also Homer the Blogger. There wasn’t the same kind of separation in his day between the various forms of writing. Now we have poets, we have screenwriters, we have novelists, short story writers, journalists, and other specialists. So it’s kind of ironic that we only ever think of a Muse in the singular, when there are various sources for different ideas, and there are disparate methods of developing them and particular talents for communication.
Few writers lay claim to more than one muse but you have always been a poet and short story writer and will soon be published in both Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories in the same year. I know you’re working on your first novel at the moment so I’m also wondering how easy that particular muse has been to seduce. What are your thoughts on the differences of these forms of expression and is there any currency in an idea like the muse for you?
The notion of the muse is not one that has ever really struck a chord with me.
Of course there are days when I’m more inspired. Days when I’m more articulate and productive and have greater faith in whatever I’m working on. And there are other, more listless days when the words don’t come and I’m left chasing punctuation around the page.
But I wouldn’t chalk up my more prolific stretches to any sort of higher power concerned with a particular art or science. Generally I look to other factors – how much sleep I’ve had, whether I have the house to myself, whatever else is going on in my life at the time. Not whether or not Kalliope has seen fit to come knocking.
In regards to different forms of writing, as you’ve said before, the boundries between these can be quite porous, and many writers I know move between them effortlessly (Anna Krien, for instance, who is also in both Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories).
For me, the approach to any form of writing – whether it be poetry, fiction or non-fiction – is fundamentally the same, and that is to pare back as far as possible, to get to the heart of the matter and set up a little camp there. Never wander so far away that you lose sight of it. Otherwise horses will come and eat your tent (this happened to me once).
I try to tell only as much as needs to be told, and many times I’ve hacked entire stories back to seven or eight line poems.
So the novel is slow going, but that’s something I expected.
I’ll confess I don’t spend much time thinking about Calliope or her sisters either, but I still find the idea opens up avenues for discussion. I wouldn’t look to a higher power but I think I’ve always been aware of an unknown in that process of emerging from the blank page with something alive. I’ve never understood how so many writers can spend their whole lives engaged with literary craft yet only ever produce dead things laid out on paper like laboratory frogs. I can only guess that something isn’t happening at the source. I suppose I’m a mystic at heart because that ‘source’ doesn’t feel to me like a psychological place within which childhood traumas and last week’s argument with the boss will generate poetry and prose. I know it does for some writers but that derivative quality is always apparent.
Your writing never feels that way, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to why so much of the writing that we see being published has the taste of dead matter. In the best of your writing there is often a feeling that the most crucial elements of our lives are on the verge of being understood yet never come into full focus. There’s a potent sense of mystery in these pieces, both as a menace and a lyrical ambient, which makes me wonder whether that’s an aesthetic or philosophy.
That placement at the verge of understanding is probably more of a philosophy than an aesthetic, though often not a consciously presented philosophy. Really it’s more of a base note – we are always seemingly on the verge of understanding ourselves, and generally overlooking the obvious.
Nearly every story in my last book focused on a transitional phase – with the characters either situated at the point of that transition, or viewing it retrospectively.
However, I didn’t realise this until after the stories had been collated, which made me wonder to what extent aspects of our own lives slip into our creative work, whether or not we mean for them to do so.
Again, this is something that can only be measured retrospectively.
The stories we choose to tell – whether they be fictional or anecdotal, written or verbal – these stories define us as people.
The writing that strikes me as being dead matter is that which does nothing to define its author. But the fact is that many writers work to a formula, keeping well inside the parameters of marketable material and allowing little of their own style to disrupt that formula. And many of them do very well from it, at least financially. So perhaps for some of these writers, it doesn’t matter at all that they’re kicking a dead thing around; so long as their books are selling.
Frankly I’d rather keep my day job (or several day jobs, at the moment) than have to worry about whether my writing is marketable.