Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write
Mark David Gerson
Paperback: 248 pages, Feb 2008, ISBN: 9780979547553
The hardest part about being a writer is accepting it. Even if you’ve been writing all your life, to actually step forward and allow yourself the freedom; even the indulgence, of calling yourself a writer, is not easy. Even after three published books, one of which was an award winning novel, I tend to shrug and dismiss my writing as an all-consuming hobby, rather than a vocation or career. Mark David Gerson isn’t having any of that. He’s adamant that not only am I a writer who can write coherently, flowingly, engagingly, with ease, able to change the world; but also that you are too. The key is linking into what he calls the “muse stream.” The Muse Stream is the welter of unwritten stories (the “ocean of stories”) that, Gerson suggests, we all have within us. It’s our creative subconscious; our intuition and sensual experiences; the magic in our perceptions. We need only listen, open our hearts, and keep writing, and those stories will naturally take shape.
Much of Voice of the Muse is an incantation. There are a number of guided meditations designed to help you listen to your voice, rather than fight it, so you can approach the place inside of you where creativity begins. For those that prefer a pragmatic ‘how-to’ book full of check lists and rules, this might be a hard approach to swallow. It’s much softer than that. The first rule is that there are no rules. The second is that you must get out of your own way. Leap into the void, and then just write. It doesn’t much matter what you write, as your “muse”, which you can call by any name that suits, from the collective unconscious if you like Jung, to God if you’re religious, to the “muse” if you like the idea of a female spirit, to your own inner voice if you don’t like labels:
You believe your inner place is devoid of ideas? Trust in the darkness and silence of the earth. Trust in the fertility of your creative process. Trust in the seeds that lie dormant beneath the surface. (139)
The key message here, and it’s repeated in many ways, is that you must write, and that if you do surrender and listen, and keep writing, you will succeed in your writing. It’s a good message and one which Gerson delivers particularly well, sometimes with a subtle, underlying humour:
Don’t turn the page.
Pick up your pen or touch your fingers to the keyboard.
Start writing. Now.(137)
There is a warmth and an affirmative coaching quality to this book, but it isn’t only about urging you on. There are also some useful suggestions and exercises designed to help you work through your fears, and find out exactly what you need to write. There are exercises for overcoming block, even when it seems overwhelming, ways of coping with distraction and transition, and ideas you can use to deepen your characters, enrich your settings, and extend your plot. The book contains chapters for working in writing groups, and also a chapter on how to edit your work without being too brutal to your ego or ideas. The book contains a number of anecdotes and suggestions from things that worked, and didn’t work, while Gerson was writing his novel The MoonQuest. Gerson isn’t afraid to share his own experiences as a writer, a teacher, and as a person, and his honesty with the reader encourages trust, as he effectively practices what he preaches.
Voice of the Muse is certainly a spiritual approach to writing, and it may not be suitable for every kind of writer. Some people may dismiss the book as being too much of an incantation – continually pushing the reader away from the page and into the (foul) rag and bone shop of the heart (where all ladders start…), but Gerson’s point is that there is little that a writing teacher can provide in the way of pragmatic advice because, as Yeats himself said so beautifully, the true voice comes from within the writer. The one thing that you can do is encourage and coach, and Gerson has been doing this for fifteen years in his successful classes, and does this very well in Voice of the Muse. The book provides the tools to guide us towards our own stories, urging us that we must open our hearts and allow ourselves the space, and the self-trust, to do so. We not only have the ability; we have the responsibility.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.