Virgil and the Truth about The Writer’s Muse

This month I was in Tunisia at the kind invitation of The Carthage Classical Academy. I was very impressed by the school, which somehow succeeds in combining a warm, friendly atmosphere with a rigorous classical education, including the study of Latin, logic and rhetoric. You would imagine that this deliciously old-fashioned approach might stifle creativity, but on the contrary the pupils there were buzzing with high concept story ideas such as ‘The Five Minute War’ and ‘Aliens on the Titanic’.

There was even time for tourism. The director of the school took me to Tunisia’s largest museum, the Bardo Museum. Built in a fifteenth century palace, the Bardo is home to eight thousand exhibits, including one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman mosaics. I don’t think I have ever said ‘Wow’ so many times in the space of one hour. We walked past a mosaic of Ulysses strapped to his mast as he listened to the song of the sirens. We saw a partially destroyed mosaic of Neptune’s face, whose lively face and glinting eye made up for his incompleteness. Last of all – and best by far – we stood before the Bardo’s most famous mosaic, Virgil and his Muses.

The Virgil mosaic was discovered in 1896 in a garden in Sousse, and is the only visual depiction of Virgil that we have. He looks forty-something with hollow cheeks and widow’s peak, gazing out of the picture into the middle distance. No, not gazing exactly, for there’s an intensity to his regard – the brightest tile in the whole mosaic is the twinkle in the corner of his left eye. He has the vim and vigour of any author near the start of an exciting new project.

We suspect he’s near the start, because the parchment on his lap contains the eighth verse of the Aeneid: Muse, recount to me the reasons, What so wounded the divinity [that she forced a loyal man through so many hardships…] Virgil has paused in his writing, presumably waiting for muse or muses to recount to him some reasons. Luckily for him, two Muses are standing right there on either side of him.

The inscription in the Bardo museum has misidentified these muses as Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Polymnia (muse of pantomime), but the one with the scroll and the toned biceps is much more similar to classical portrayals of Clio (muse of history) than Calliope, whilst the one holding the tragic mask is Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Whatever their specialist subjects, the two muses are inclining towards Virgil and intent on helping him out. Melpomene is clutching her cheek, so either she is overwhelmed by the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas or she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there.

It is fitting that this mosaic of Virgil should be on display so near to the ancient port of Carthage, because of the important role in the Aeneid played by Queen Dido of Carthage. In Book 4, the passionate love affair of Dido and Aeneas is interrupted by a message from Jupiter, reminding Aeneas of his destiny to found a city in Italy. Aeneas sets sail from Carthage and Dido stabs herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword. During her death throes she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and her own, basically predicting the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. “Rise up from my bones, avenging spirit!” she cries, which would have made early readers of the Aeneid think of that most fearsome of all Rome’s enemies, Hannibal himself.

In case his Roman readers missed the allusion, Virgil makes it even more explicit in Book 10 of the Aeneid. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says:

The time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome.

I stood for a long time looking at the Bardo’s mosaic of Virgil and his Muses. This idea of muses hovering at the writer’s shoulder is as insistent as it is ancient. One of the first questions I fielded at the Carthage Classical Academy (like any writer at any school visit) was ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I need to think of a satisfying answer to this question, because I currently find myself roving from the flippant (‘from the ideas shop on the high street’) to the prosaic (‘you need to develop story antennae and be constantly on the lookout for inspiration’) to the honest-but-useless (‘I don’t know’).

For my money, the best modern conception of the writer’s muse is the following paragraph from Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft. It’s just the right mixture of the prosaic and the ephemeral, and it makes me laugh every time I read it.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

When I learned to touch-type in my late twenties, that was the paragraph I used as my ipsum lorem filler text. I must have typed it out hundreds of times. I love his portrayal of a fundamentally antisocial muse that possesses cigars and bowling trophies instead of scrolls or flutes or tragic masks.

Is the capricious, part-time muse of Stephen King incompatible with the intent and softly sighing muses from that Virgil mosaic? By no means. Virgil’s Aeneid did not come to him at night in a flash of divine inspiration – he was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write it. And that commission was not a ‘Write me something beautiful’ sort of commission but rather a ‘Write me some decent propaganda that will unite the empire and Make Rome Great Again’ sort of commission. In accepting the emperor’s bidding, Virgil was already committed to a certain amount of grunt work, no doubt with a deadline to focus his mind.

Muse, recount to me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive this man tum tumty tum…and even if you don’t recount a word I’ll write it anyway cos that’s what writers do.

For more on Dido conjuring Hannibal, see here.

For more on the nine Muses of classical mythology, see here.

And for more pics of my time in Carthage, see here:

Margate Stories

I went to Margate last week to run an Able Writers Day at Holy Trinity and St John’s Primary School. After a rollicking day of story writing with Years 1 and 2, I shambled along the sea front towards the station and was very struck by a long stretch of ‘Margate Food Stories’ murals.

These murals were painted LIVE by artist Sophie Herxheimer, in conversation with local people. What a dynamic, exhilirating, terrifying way to paint.

Sophie’s art got me thinking about the importance of location in our lives. Although I set most of my stories in West Africa, story settings don’t need to be exotic. If you write what you know, your stories will be vibrant, authentic, local and emotive. If you write about places and people you aren’t familiar with, you will produce insipid settings and flat characters. It happened in Marrakech but it might just as well have been Margate.

And how about these graven poems? Writer Suzannah Dunn did a writing workshop with local children back in 1997, and these standing stones were the result.

Those were some of the murals and standing stones I fell in love with in Margate. What about your own home town? What are the unique local memories and feelings which you could commit to wall, canvas, stone or paper?

How to Write a Chase Scene

Have you ever walked down a deserted street and had the feeling of being followed?
Have you ever dreamed you were being chased?
Have you ever had to run away from real danger?

In addition to my other school sessions, I now offer an hour-long secondary workshop on how to write an exciting chase scene. This works well with years 7 to 9, particularly boys. The aim is to provide an enjoyable writing experience whilst also imparting useful fiction tips.

The session begins with a three minute montage of chase scenes from films: The Matrix, District 13, Walking with Beasts and the now-famous iguana vs racing snake scene from Planet Earth 2. This stimulates general discussion of chase scenes in fiction: Why do we enjoy them and how do storytellers maximize the excitement of these scenes? I elicit from the students a set of instructions for writing an exciting foot chase. We discuss techniques such as close POV, show-don’t-tell and maintaining pace.

Students work in groups to create a chase scenario for the beginning of a thriller, and then do ten minutes of speed writing, employing the techniques we discussed. Four students read their work aloud. We discuss what is already effective and what could be even better.

For more details on my writing workshops, please email Trevor Wilson at Authors Abroad: trevor@caboodlebooks.co.uk

The Complete Walk : a celebration of 400 years since Shakespeare’s death

Went on the Complete Walk along the South Bank of the river today. Wasn’t sure how many screenings I would be able to see, due to having a three year-old in tow. As it turned out, the problem was never the three year old, but the technical difficulties which beset the whole event. The Globe blamed Obama’s visit for the many blank screens. A few of the screens were working, though. We got to see Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King John. And the sun was shining.

The breakout novel and writerly obsession

I used to obsess about writing the breakout novel. ‘When I write The Breakout,’ I used to think, ‘then I’ll stop drinking instant coffee and start drinking real coffee.’ I was living in the future, and obsessing about the idea of what my legacy as a writer would be.

Which is ironic, because my favourite poem has long been Ozymandias by Percy Shelley. ‘I met a traveller from an antique land, who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert…’ The poem conveys the fleeting nature of human power, fame and achievement. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Too right. (I used to recite the poem to my daughter Liberty when she was a colicy six-week old, to try and pacify her. Probably just made it worse.)

So imagine my delight to find these colossal disembodied fingers at the Amman Citadel this morning. Along with one sorry-looking elbow, they are all that remains of a thirteen metre high statue of (probably) Hercules. I am so grateful to Shannon O’Donnell for her permission to reproduce her wonderful pictures here.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

Beside the fingers of Hercules stands the Jordan Archaeological Museum. It’s full of treasures. For me the highlight was seeing the mindmeldingly ancient Ain Ghazal statues, the oldest statues ever made (circa 7000 – 10000 BCE). Some have one head, some have two. The significance of the two-headed ones is not known. I just love their expressions.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

As I walked back down Citadel Hill, I remembered STACKS, a David Harper art installation, and perhaps a literary equivalent to the fingers of Hercules. Stacks is a homage to trees and to the environment, but it also reminds me that ‘of the making of many books there is no end’. The grass grows around the bookshelves, as it does around the fingers of Hercules.

stacks

Let’s live and love and write while we still can. And if the ‘breakout novel’ never comes, that’s okay! Hercules and Ozymandias can testify that breakout isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

John Finnemore’s Three Little Pigs

john finnemore

Hooray! I’ve found a transcript of John Finnemore’s brilliant Three Little Pigs skit.

I’ve written before about the Rule of Three in storytelling, and Finnemore’s skit is a hilarious sidelong look at that rule.

So many good lines, but I really love this one:

REPORTER: Aren’t you afraid the apparent stability of the bricks makes them all the more at risk from a narrative twist?

THIRD PIG: …No. Are you afraid of that with your house?

7 tips for starting a writing session

writing_on_keyboard

I received a question this morning via the blog:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!

Great question. Starting off a writing session is not easy. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head.

1. Write until you write
If you are only losing the first 10 to 15 minutes, you’re doing well! The first lines (or even pages) you write in any one session will probably end up being deleted anyway, so don’t spend too much time trying to hone them! Just see those first words as a fluency exercise. Write until you write. Persevere and the good stuff will come. Many people (not just writers) find ‘morning pages’ a good discipline – writing a three page stream of consciousness every morning to process thoughts. Sites like 750 words can help you with this.

2. Gravity Boots
Dan Brown hangs upside-down from time to time. “Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my entire perspective.” I’ve never tried gravity boots, but I do find that the weeks when I do some physical exercise tend to be better writing weeks.

3. Freedom
If, like me, procrastination is your enemy, invest in a little app called Freedom. It blocks your computer’s internet access entirely for the length of time you specify, forcing you to focus on the task at hand.

4. Coffee
I would never have completed NaNoWriMo in November without a mug or two of the beautiful bean. I drink instant coffee, but I have promised myself that when I write my breakthrough novel I’m graduating to the real thing.

5. Prayer
Not for everyone, of course, but if prayer forms part of your belief system, this is a good time for it. In fact, I probably should have put this above gravity boots. You talk about ‘centering yourself’. Different people will do this in different ways. I try to see the work of writing as a sacrament, not a burden. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human publishers masters.” (Colossians 3:23)

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” (Margaret Atwood) Be playful. Use words like imbroglio, flugelbinder and ratatouille. Let frogs rain from the sky. Don’t put pressure on yourself by imagining that everything needs to be perfect. And start sentences with And. Who’s going to stop you?

7. Rhetoric is your friend
I very much enjoyed The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. It is a jolly (but incredibly useful) tour of the various rhetorical devices at the writer’s disposal. “In an age unhealthily obsessed with substance” he writes, “this is a book on the importance of pure style.” Hehe. Felicitous rhetoric releases endomorphins, of course, which (combined with caffeine) produce a pleasurable and focussed writing session.

Use these tips and before you know it you’ll have racked up four thousand words in three hours and wonder where the time went. Either that or you’ll be hanging upside-down, trying to remember how to extract yourself from those gravity boots.

Bon courage!

8 Terrible Reasons to be a Writer

Great blog post from James Cary over at Sitcom Geek, detailing 8 terrible reasons to be a writer. You want to make money, it sounds fun, you want to be famous, you want to meet famous people, you’re pretty sure you have a good idea for a movie or novel that would be successful, people have told you you’re funny, you have things to say, you write because you have to (also a bad reason, says James, but also the best!)

NaNoWriMo Day 28: Inspiration from TS Eliot

TS Eliot
TS Eliot, thinking about NaNoWriMo by the looks of it

Yesterday was terrible – a day of distraction, procrastination and plot problems.

Today was much better. 2544 good words in the bag, and some really enjoyable scenes. One scene made me cry – I know, I know, I’m overtired!

One of today’s highlights was an unexpected motivational email from a friend, quoting this wonderful poem by TS Eliot about the act of ‘trying to learn to use words’. Great inspiration for the final push towards a possible NaNoWriMo win.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Sublime, isn’t it? And that last line ‘For us, there is only the trying’ – that’s going to be my #NaNoWriMo motto!

Current wordcount in this ill-advised Raid on the Inarticulate: 46,202!

NaNoWriMo-Day28