I don’t know if ever writer has a muse, but I suspect that in some way we do. We all have those triggers—whether they are people or topics or passions—that cause the words to flow and somehow make them better than they would be otherwise. I address the subject today because this is the birthday of one of literature’s more famous muses, Alice Pleasance Liddell, for whom Lewis Carroll narrated and wrote down his story that later became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He had told Alice and her sisters stories many times before the famous July 4, 1862 rowing trip on the Thames when he “sent his heroine straight down a rabbit hole.” Certainly Lorina and Edith Liddell might have been equally responsible for inspiring him that day, but he named his heroine Alice and he wrote out the story, in a manuscript book that is now on permanent display in the British Library, for Alice.
I think, perhaps, the idea of a muse is a little more complicated than just a person who inspires a writer. For Lewis Carroll it took not just the inspiration of Alice and her sisters, but the perfect summer day, a boat gliding along the cool waters of the Thames, and a rather desperate need for a new story. Sometimes that can be a good formula—environment plus audience plus desperation.
I’ll be honest, it’s a formula that has worked for me in writing plays for children. I wrote twenty of them in my eleven years as a writer-in-residence at Summit School, and while each stemmed from a creative idea, the work, the details, and ultimately the quality of the script was a result of knowing an audience was waiting (passing those expectant children in the hall every day), having a great place to write (see a future blog about my office), and being at least a little desperate about meeting a deadline. I honestly believe if I had simply set out to write children’s plays for no particular reason, I wouldn’t have accomplished much.
In my work now, my muses are many. I write for my wife, Janice, who is often my first reader. I write for my agent and my editor—knowing they will read my work makes writing much easier. But I write most passionately when I am writing from my own passions—whether the English countryside, or great literature, or rare books. But I often wonder, if you put me in a boat on the Thames on a hot summer day with some children and told me I had to tell them a story, what would happen. I’m certainly not saying I’d write Alice in Wonderland, but I think any of us might weave tales at our very best under such circumstances.