It is almost a universal experience of writers, painters, and other artists–and, I suspect craftsmen, and cooks, and anyone who creates–that when the work is going well the experience is not "I am doing this," but "something is doing this through me."
Like others, I had experienced this for myself, but vaguely thought of it as special, maybe reserved only for those who are "serious" about their writing. I found out how pervasive it is through an odd source, the late and largely unlamented magazine for mercernaries, Soldier Of Fortune.
During the 80s, in the period I lived in Amsterdam, I worked in a wonderful American bookstore, American Discount Center. The owners believed in selling anything someone wanted to read, from feminist manifestoes to porn, from gay books to Fundamentalism.
One evening I had little to do and so picked up SOF. They had an interview with a popular writer, someone who turned out book after book in a violent action series, with titles like Exterminator 32. In the the interview the writer said something like "When the writing is going well, it's like I'm not doing it, something is doing it through me."
If this sense of artistic creation is nearly universal why do we insist that I have written my book? Is the "I" who works on a book really only a channel for an energy?
Then what is the energy? Does it have a purpose? That is, does it want to tell a particular story and find me for that need? Or is it just available for any story, and I get to choose what tale will receive the energy? For writers choose the subject, which is often their own life history.
In older cultures, people seemed clear that a divine figure was telling the story. The Iliad begins "Sing in me, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles… " The energy that passes through the poet was personified as a Muse (nine of them, actually).
And yet, at the same time, Greek tradition attributed that poem, and its companion piece, The Odyssey, to an individual poet, a legendary blind singer named Homer.
The more important the text, the more extreme are the two positions. The founding text of Judaism is The Torah. Jews (and Christians) refer to it as The Five Books of Moses, on the absolute belief that a founding figure named Moses, for whom there is no historical evidence outside the Torah, wrote it all down.
At the same time, they insist that God composed every word, with Moses actually a sort of secretary. If we take this literally (as Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians do), Moses is writing down things that will happen after the event of writing them.
That is, the giving of the Torah–the dictation–happens about a third of the way through the story, in book 2, Exodus (followed by Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
The later part of the story includes serious mistakes that Moses will make. If he was writing them down before they happened, in the book that declares free will for humans, wouldn't he know not to do them?
This is a kind of time paradox. If Moses learns, from God's dictation, of a mistake he will make then he can avoid doing it. But if he avoids doing it, then it won't appear in the text. If it doesn't appear in the text, then Moses won't know to be careful, and he will do it, so that it should be in the text.
This mental merry-go-round arises from taking literally the two contradictory claims, that a person who is part of the story is writing the book, and at the same time God is really writing it, so every word is infallibly true.
Today, we have the cult of the individual creator. Despite the fact that almost all writers and artists say that "something" is moving through them we still insist that I own the book I write.
We prize originality. Instead of telling cultural stories, as "Homer" or anonymous poets and village story tellers did for millenia, modern writers not only claim authorship for their work, they write about their own lives.
Maybe modern writers should begin their work "Sing in me, Muse, of the pain of my childhood."
So what, then, is the relationship between the writer, her life that is being described, and that energy that moves through her and makes the actual writing possible?
Is the energy–the Muse–a kind of delusion? Is it just the subconscious–safely a part of me–that somehow just feels like something outside of me?
But what is a subconscious? You can't see it or touch it, you don't find it in the brain when you do an autopsy. I suspect that terms like subconscious, or higher self, are simply modern terms for old names we no longer feel comfortable saying, such as muse, angel, daimon. But substituting "subconscious" for "muse" doesn't actually tell us anything about what it is.
My friend, Callan, brilliant essayist and blogger (callan.wordpress.com), writes the following:
"Writing is like any choice, it lets us make ourselves visible in the world. We can no more see our true selves than we can see the back of our head. We need either mirrors or models, and when we make art we expose ourselves."
I love this. i will quote it to my writing students. And yet how does it happen? Who is revealing these things? Am I just tricking myself, getting past my filters?
Or should we take seriously that powerful sense that writing opens the way for something else to move through us? I will leave the last comment to Callan:
"I am a piece of her, a facet of God, connected & separate, unique & the same.
And that's what we feel when we tap into those inner voices."