Early this past February (doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago?), I was on a personal writing retreat in San Diego. One night, I dreamed that my aunt had invited multitudes of family members to a reunion at her house. Once there, we realized that she was dying. She’d summoned us to say goodbye. She asked us to gather around her bed (in dreams, multitudes can easily do that). She handed us a very old book with a turquoise cover. Its text was handwritten in ink on parchment. The title was For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing. As my relatives and I read the book aloud (in dreams, multitudes can easily do that together), we discovered that it was a long, meditative poem. The words of the poem evoked in us a profound sense of love and kinship. The intensity of that shared feeling woke me up.
“Write down the words,” a voice said to me, not in a voice I could hear, but a voice nevertheless. (I’ll call this voice the Muse.)
“It’s too cold to get out of bed,” I said.
“Write them down.”
“I want to go back to sleep. I’ll write them down in the morning.”
“You’ll never remember. Write them down now.”
I gave up arguing and reached for a journal and a pen. I wrote as fast as I could, in whatever order the lines of the poem came, until I couldn’t remember any more. Then I dropped back to sleep, as if somebody had pulled my plug.
Once I returned home from my retreat, I shaped the poem—arranging the lines, adding words or phrases to fill gaps in the flow, deleting what made no sense. I sent my draft to several poet friends for feedback. Their overwhelming response was, “You must find a way to share this.”
I have no idea why the Muse brought this poem to me. But a month later, COVID-19 hit the U.S. hard. I don’t think that’s mere coincidence. Especially now, with the pandemic often preventing us from being with those we love as they’re dying, or from gathering as we’d like to mourn their loss, this poem can help us help us grieve.
Creative inspiration—what I’m calling the Muse—often comes as a surprise visitor, as if from beyond ourselves. Here are a few suggestions for what to do when the Muse visits you.
- Welcome the Muse as a dear friend and esteemed guest, even if inconvenient. Would you ever leave such a friend standing on your stoop in the middle of the night because you didn’t want to be bothered? Of course not. Hearing their voice, you’d run to the door.
- Trust that the Muse is bringing you something important. She won’t knock on your door at three in the morning to remind you to do the dishes. She wants to deliver something of value—maybe so valuable, you feel unworthy or incapable of it. Suspend self-doubt. The Muse only brings what you’re ready for.
- Immediately honor the Muse’s gift. Jot down the inspiration in your journal. Talk it into your phone. Confide it to a trusted friend. Just don’t push it away, making excuses like I did in San Diego, saying, “I’ll do it later.” The Muse of Procrastination is no muse at all, but a trickster.
- Work with whatever the Muse has brought you. Sometimes the Muse brings only threads of an idea when you want an elaborate tapestry. Be prepared to collaborate with her, bringing all your skills to the work. Whatever the Muse brings will be enough to get you started.
- Spare the Muse any cravings you might have for personal gain. The Muse doesn’t come to you out of her own need. She doesn’t come to you to meet your needs, either. She comes to meet the needs of a wounded, if wondrous, world.
- Keep asking the Muse for help. Don’t sit around waiting for the Muse to drop by again. Like any relationship, this one takes work. The more you seek out the Muse’s help, the more you’ll find it.
- Allow the Muse to change you. Every creative project that I’ve ever undertaken has changed me; by the time I finish, I’m more myself than when I began. Follow the Muse’s inspiration, and the same will be true for you.
Be alert for the Muse’s nudge. It will come. Be swift to acknowledge it. Be grateful enough to trust it and brave enough to follow it. Say to your friend the Muse, with humility, “Teach me. Show me the way.”