Someone once asked the poet, Mary Oliver, what she did when inspiration just wouldn’t come. She replied, “Grab a notebook and pen, go to the woods and look and listen, sit under a tree and the grace of an idea usually comes.” I love that phrase: the grace of an idea.
If you ever read any advice for writers, you will see over and over variations on the suggestion that one must simply sit down and write. Writers are those who put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and produce. Do that, and you’ll be a writer. It’s a literary version of the Nike shoe ad: Just do it.
And there’s some value to that advice. Often, as you tap out those first halting sentences (OK, sometimes, those first halting paragraphs, pages, sections), your brain warms up and you figure out what you want to say — or, at least, what you don’t want to say (you know, that thing you spent all morning writing). And, the advice has the benefit of being comfortably Calvinistic. Discipline! Hard work! Five hundred words before lunch. And little, as all writers know, concentrates the mind quite so much as an impending deadline.
But I like Ms. Oliver’s notion, too.
Sure, like any worker, a writer can sit down at a work station and produce. I often jokingly call my job producing prose for pay. Writing for my supper. Five hundred words, a lunch break, two hundred and fifty and you can get a cup of tea, another two hundred and fifty and you can quit for the day, clean the ink off of your quill, and head home for drinks and dinner. Five days a week, four weeks a month, with Augusts and a week in December for holiday. But that ignores the element of grace. We writers know, though we don’t always like to admit, that it’s grace that lets you write and a slippery, trickery, misty grace, at that, well, at least most times.
The group Emerald Rose has a lovely song, based upon the tale of Ceridwen. Ceridwen set her nephew, Gwion Bach, to stir the Awen, her cauldron of inspiration. She warned him not to take a sip, but he managed to taste three drops. A magical chase ensued, during which time both Gwion and Ceridwen continually shape shifted. Finally, he shifts into a seed, she swallows him, and he is reborn, through her, as the poet, Taliesin. Emerald Rose sings:
And since that day I’ve chased my muse, a thousand songs to hear and play,
although the Lady does refuse to lift her veil on certain days. . .
But when I feel my well’s run dry, those precious drops I bring to mind,
and then I hear the crickets cry
and that brings me my next three lines.
I like to think Ms. Oliver is listening to the crickets in the woods. You can’t always hear them when you’re chained to your workstation, desperately trying to get from word 300 to word 425.
May we all have the grace of an idea.
Picture found here.