In both The Odyssey and The Iliad, Homer invokes the muse to help him tell his tale. Virgil does the same in The Aeneid and so does Milton in the first book of Paradise Lost. My guess—for I am not a scholar—is that other epic poets follow this pattern. As I recall, when I first took up Paradise Lost as a sophomore at college, the instruction was that the invocation of the muse was a poetic convention. I guess it is. At the time, I took that to mean that it was a mere formality, something you had to do if you were going to make one of those long poems. I took it as a nod to the poets who had come before, most notably Homer as well as a declaration of modesty: I can’t do this on my own; I’ll need divine help. Maybe false modesty, I thought, since after that first invocation I saw no further reliance upon muses; the poets were at the business of telling the story and seemed to be doing fine without heavenly help. Then, later on I ran into Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” which seems to be nothing if not an invocation of the muse, but this time it doesn’t feel like mere convention. Shelley’s serious. He’s feeling punky, worn out, full of dreary autumnal tones and wants the wind, destroyer and creator both, to blow though him in order to perk him up. Here’s the final stanza:Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, 60
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse, 65

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 70

Fiery stuff. Way too fiery to be dull convention, a mere nod to Homer. Nope. Shelley’s asking for something real here. He’s on to something about writing. In her amusing book on writing, bird by bird, Annie Lamott claims that she doesn’t do the writing at all. It’s really composed by little men in the attic of her house; she’s just the stenographer. Well, that’s a paraphrase. As I said, I’m not a scholar and I did not chase down the quote, but you get the idea. She’s talking like Shelley, only without the flamboyance.
Discovering the muse, or the west wind, or those little men in my own attic was one of the finest and happiest surprises about writing. There have been moments—many of them—in the composition of every one of the dozen novels when I go on autopilot. Oh, I’m present, in a way. I’m concentrated and focused but it’s as if I am a mere conduit, the means by which the words appear on the screen. The fingers fly and for some time I am sustained in a kind of happy trance. And when I return to my right mind and look back on what I’ve done, it’s usually pretty good. (Which is not to say that it doesn’t need patching. The writing always needs patching. The patching is endless—and a little boring—compared to singing with the muses, or the wind, or those odd little men.) The trance times come usually once a story is established, which occurs somewhere near the middle. It varies; it’s unpredictable. As I am not a scholar, I am also not an athlete, but I suspect that my “musings,” let’s call them, share much of the quality of mind experienced by athletes in the midst of play or dancers given over to movement, or perhaps musicians lost in sound. I think James Baldwin is talking about this experience at the end of his fine story “Sonny’s Blues.” At any rate, these musings, while not the only reasons I write, are surely a large part of what keeps me at it.

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