Trickster Muses at Hedgebrook–Summer 2009

By Sara Campos

Categories: Alum Experiences,

I saw it one day while walking from my cottage to the farmhouse and it startled me. It was a clear day and its snowy peaks, crags, and ridges were visible in all their magnificent glory. Mt. Rainier. It was so stunning; it hardly looked real. It was as though a magician had sketched it with fine pastels. The next day it wasn’t there. Perhaps the artist who’d put it there erased it. During my three weeks at Hedgebrook in the summer of 2009, I glimpsed it only three times.

That mountain was a fickle trickster–sometimes it showed up; sometimes it didn’t. Like my writing muse. In the middle of the night when I least wanted its company, it blared like raucous rock music, robbing me of sleep. Other times, when I pressed my temples and sat before the computer begging for a visit, it shot out of sight. Not even a whimper.

Before I went to Hedgebrook, I worried about this. Friends teased me about it; they cringed at the very idea of living alone in the woods for three weeks. Suppose I got a cottage and no ideas came. Suppose I sat alone with a blank screen before me with nothing to do.

Aha! You are a fraud after all!

That summer, I was (and still am) writing a novel set in 1940’s Guatemala. I carted up an enormous suitcase filled with books. I also shipped a large box of them for research as well as inspiration. If nothing else, I thought, I can read. When everything else fails, do research.

I had decided to begin my novel again, entering it at a different time and place in my protagonist’s life. I gave myself permission to write badly, load the clichés, and use childish prose–all so I could get the story out. See Spot and Jane run. I could handle that. For the first few days, I wrote freely, absorbed with the ideas for my new beginning.

But a moment did come when I reached empty. It frightened me. I turned to my books for comfort. Later, I read the journals written by women who’d occupied my cottage. Within those pages I recognized my own vulnerabilities. Those old, perhaps ancient-as-Eve voices telling us we’re not good enough. Fears that swell and paralyze.

When I’d read a good number of entries, I sat still. I gazed at the greenery outside. And, I let myself simply be.

It was in that quiet that ideas began floating in again. They came timidly. It was as though they were as afraid of me as I was of them. I accepted them as the gifts they were and wrote them down without judgment.

Over those three weeks, the writing came in cycles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it came like a bucking bronco, in spurts and jerks. Sometimes I brimmed with ideas; other times, I idled. Not for too long, but every moment that I didn’t write felt like an eternity. Yet, I resisted the temptation to press too hard.

I took walks in the woods. There was a space in the forest behind the cottages that my fellow Hedgebrookians and I took to calling the cathedral. It was a small circular clearing surrounded by tall, thin cedars. A hollowed out log lay on its side and provided excellent seating. I sat there many times and simply listened–to nature as it spoke; to the voice in my heart.

I don’t know how many pages I wrote during my residency; I don’t have a word count. In all honesty, the experience can’t be measured. It was invaluable. But the greatest gift Hedgebrook gave me was the comfort I gained in solitude. I know now that if I’m still and listen, the muse will come. It’s like Mt. Rainier; always there. You just don’t always see it.

2 Comments

  • Lesley McClurg
    6:36 PM - 30 May, 2011

    Beautiful entry. This is an amazing lecture given at the Ted Talks that captures the moodiness of the muse perfectly! Check it out… http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

  • Sara
    4:36 AM - 14 June, 2011

    Thanks for the suggestion, Lesley. I’ve actually seen that lecture and you are right, it does speak to the muse. It also inspires us to keep on writing no matter what. For those among us who feel stymied at times, watch that terrific video and write til the end.

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