The Muse Strikes Again
I’ve been collecting Muse stories. Here’s an amazing one from Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being” (which I highly recommend subscribing to). It’s an exchange between the host, Ms. Tippett, and her guest, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, Big Magic, and many more—and a great and deep believer in forces that “are not dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
Here’s the exchange, verbatim:
MS. GILBERT: Yeah, this is the most magical thing that’s ever — and when I say “magical,” I mean it very much in the Hogwartsian sense of “magical.” I had an idea for a novel, and it was to be about a — I’ll just summarize it very quickly — a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who had been working at the same company for 25 years and was quietly in love with her married boss, who sort of — she was invisible to him. He gets involved in a very ill-advised scheme down in the Amazon jungle and sends a bunch of money and a person down there, and the money and the person disappear. And then he sends her down there to figure out what happens, at which point her orderly life is flipped upside down into chaos. And it’s also a love story. And I wrote a proposal for this novel. I got a book advance for it. I started working on it. I was doing research for it. And then I got waylaid by some other things that were going on in my life and ended up writing a completely different book, and I left it aside. And when I came back a few years later, I found that the life force energy, for lack of a better term, the spirit of that book was no longer there.
And around that same time, I met and made friends with the novelist, Ann Patchett. And we had this very dynamic and exciting meeting where we admitted that we loved each other’s work, and she gave me a big kiss right on the lips. And we became pen pals, and we started writing letters to each other. And about a month later, she wrote me a letter saying she had just started working on a book about the Amazon jungle. And I told her, “Well, that’s so strange. I had been working on one too, but it’s gone.” And then a few months later, we met, and she said, “Tell me what your Amazon book was about.” And now she was 100 pages into hers. And her book, which of course became the extraordinary novel State of Wonder, was a book about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’d been working for this company for 25 years and had been quietly in love with her married boss to whom she was invisible. And it was exactly the same story. And then we did that thing that pregnant women do, where they count backward to figure out when conception occurred, right?
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Who got pregnant first. Right.
MS. GILBERT: And so we did the math, and it was really at the same time that I had lost mine that she had gotten hers. And we like to think that the idea jumped from my mind to hers during our little kiss that we had when we met. That’s our magical thinking around it. But it’s — there is no explanation for that other than the one that I’ve always abided by, which is that ideas are conscious and living, and they have will, and they have great desire to be made, and they spin through the cosmos, looking for human collaborators.
In last week’s post we were talking about Story and Understory. It’s the Understory here that’s a mind-blower to me. On some unseen dimension, did the goddess set a sell-by date onto Elizabeth Gilbert’s original story idea? And when that date expired, did she, the Muse, look around for another brilliant female mind to “pass it on” to?
I believe it.
And then how about the mode of passage? A kiss. What inspired this gesture? Or more precisely, WHO inspired it?
I guess the moral is: if you want to hang onto your story, don’t kiss anyone on the lips.