My Frenemy the Muse

- by Lillian Stewart Carl

            The word “frenemy” is a relatively recent neo-logism, a portmanteau word meaning a partner with whom you have a love/hate relationship. “Frenemy” works better than “eniend”, which sounds like some sort of abstruse mathematical function.

            Although even the most basic mathematical function is abstruse to me. My skills lie in the other part of the brain, the one that not only appreciates five-dollar words like neo-logism, portmanteau, and abstruse, but also worries about the proper usage of “lie” and “lay”, or the historical definition of “to decimate”, which is not “to demolish”.

            That creative part of the brain can be anthropomorphized (look, Mom, another five-dollar word!) as “the muse”.

            My muse isn’t a scrawny lass plinking a lyre with manicured fingernails. He’s a punk bagpiper, with red hair, an earring, a kilt, combat boots, and an instrument of war tucked beneath his arm, the drones that lie (not lay!)against his shoulder flying tattered battle flags.

            (The English once banned the Scots’ Great Highland Pipes, calling them instruments of war, since that ear-splitting skirl inspired many a fearless and [and often kilt-less] charge.)

            So why, then, is my handsome muse not entirely my friend? I mean, writing is a nice, quiet occupation, isn’t it? The leisurely crafting of golden prose, the reliable and substantial income, the hours of glorious solitude. (Supposedly Agatha Christie once said: “I became a writer because I don’t like being around other people.”)

            Right. To the above misconceptions, not to whether Christie made that statement.

            Enemy: When I have a deadline—and I’ve had some killers—I’ll wake up in the middle of the night calculating how many words I have left to write, and how that number factors into the time remaining. (This may be my one math skill.) At times like that I’ll pace up and down the driveway in the evening, dazed and tired, groping desperately after the next plot twist.

            No surprise that a gathering of pro writers looks like a doctor’s waiting room. Neck pain. Back pain. Arm, wrist, and hand pain. Eyestrain. Headaches.

            Friend: If not for all of the above, I might not have taken up tai chi. Even if you don’t necessarily believe the Chinese energy-flow concepts (I have come to believe in them), learning the different forms is good exercise for both body and mind. Besides, my tai chi group consists of such likeable people my classes are great social outings, too.

            Enemy: A graphic imagination can be dangerous. Once, when writing about a character suffering from morning sickness, I grew so nauseated I had to break off and lie (not lay!) down. Another time I was listening to a CD of peaceful nature noises—shrubs rustling, birds chirping—until I suddenly envisioned a Jurassic Park scenario, those rustling shrubs hiding a large, hungry, carnivore. I never again found that CD relaxing.

            Friend: A review will mention “vivid characters” or people will tell me I scared the heck out of them with one of my ghost stories. (Stories, I hasten to add, of things that go bump in the night, not of horror splatterfests.) Well all right then—high five the punk piper!

            Enemy: Nowadays writing has very little to do with glorious solitude and leisurely crafting (or a reliable income, but that’s another issue). It’s all about promotion and public relations. The 24/7 clamor of the internet and other media (Over here! Look at me!) means getting your own work to stand out is a daunting task. A bashful person like me has real problems with, say, sitting in a bookstore accosting strangers. To me, it’s the equivalent of an Inquisition torture.

        The Blue Hackle    I’m a good writer. I’m not a good saleswoman.

            Friend: It’s quite surprising what skills I’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, into learning—not just people/promotional skills, but things like cover design and computer work. (Admittedly, this last has produced lots of eye-rolling from my son the Microsoft techie. No. MS Word is not his fault.)

            Enemy: With e-books, POD reprints, and more, managing the back-list has become very complicated and time-consuming.

            Friend: Just because the first edition of a book goes out of print doesn’t mean it can no longer earn money for you—or lead readers into your other books.

            Enemy: I can’t read anything without editing as I go. Even my life-long favorites aren’t immune from my muse’s analysis. He’s even had the unmitigated gall to criticize The Lord of the Rings!

            Grammatical blunders (“Looking out of the window, the mountain was covered with snow.” or “The tents were erected with the doors facing the mountain which some of them had climbed.”) will stop me cold, no matter how entertaining the rest of the piece. So will the mis-use of “it’s” for “its” (and, occasionally, vice versa)—especially in, say, e-publishing formatting directions. (Sigh.) I’ve been known to wail at the television, “Mystique is pronounced mysteek, not mystic!” and “It’s fewer taxes, not less taxes!”

            Friend: You know, I’m not sure there’s much of an up-side to this. I have to keep reminding my muse that know-it-alls can be very annoying.

            Enemy: Well-meaning people often ask you where you get your ideas. It’s a valid question, but one that’s difficult to answer with more than a vague wave of the hand and a mutter of “Everywhere”. That answer goes down better in social situations than the truth: “Watch out, you may end up in my novel.”

            Friend: All the world is your research library. An encounter in a bookstore near Loch Ness turned into a scene in The Murder Hole. A couple asking questions of a food vendor in Colonial Williamsburg became a bit of business in The Charm Stone. Hugh Munro, the musician who appears in all five books of the Fairbairn/Cameron series, is an only slightly fictionalized version of Brian McNeill, a Scottish musician I’ve come to know and love. (Yes, he’s aware he’s Hugh, and is very disappointed he hasn’t become the victim of a grisly murder.)

            (That’s grisly, not grizzly—even if the murder was committed by a large bear.)

            Our piano tuner is the physical model for Fergie MacDonald in The Blue Hackle. A friend was joking about an advertisement—buy a square foot of land in Bonny Scotland, home of your ancestors—and the next thing you knew, I had some dialog for the same book. (“Can you see a Yank wanting to be buried standing up in his one square foot?”) Only the muse knows whether there would be any Australian characters in The Blue Hackle if I didn’t have Aussie friends.

            Enemy . . . Well, uh, there is no enemy for this one. It’s all friend.

            I wouldn’t know those Aussies, let alone a lot of other very fine people, if I hadn’t been writing, going to conventions, sitting in bookstores, and on and on and on. Having made so many friends along the way compensates for anything else that punk piper can throw at me.

            *High five*

           (PS. Some years ago, my piper demanded his own story. It’s titled, oddly enough, “The Muse”, and was first published in a magazine, Realms of Fantasy, in late 2001—in the same issue that had a photo-feature on the new Lord of the Rings movie. I’m quite sure that was his thank-you.)

One comments

  1. Once again Lillian makes me first stand back in awe at what she has to say and how she says it, and second peruse the closest dictionary to look up some of the terms she uses! I always love a spirited discussion on the use and misuse of words. Lots of “grrrr”-ing going on! But, oh yes, I do completely understand the ubiquitous “frenemy”. I bet we can even look that up in Funk & Wagnalls these days! Thanks, Lillian!
    Garda