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.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

Ann Patchett

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.

Krista Tippett

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.

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38 Comments

  1. Dan Epright on September 21, 2022 at 1:42 am

    And we’re amazed?

  2. Elizabeth on September 21, 2022 at 2:04 am

    A drop of Amortentia! Kiss me again …

  3. Anonymous on September 21, 2022 at 2:35 am

    I believe it, too, and so do Julia Cameron and Stephen King. Julia mentions it in her book “The Artist’s Way” and King in “On Writing”.

    • Veleka on September 21, 2022 at 8:50 am

      Hmm. Somehow I’m anonymous. No. It’s me, Veleka. 🙂

  4. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 21, 2022 at 2:38 am

    Thank you very much dear Steve,

    well we shouldn’t 😉 and, maybe, we shouldn’t not only kiss, but also fight. Because if we do, we may create the same energy transfer only with an opposite (negative) sign. I observe that, the kids who fight more with their parents, end up being very much like them later in life, while those who keep a distance don’t.

    That’s easier written than done, and it must have more complex connections than I could think of.

    On the other hand, if we hold on tight to our creation, if that is our calling, then even a “kiss” that was meant to take something from us may bring us not in despair and loss of energy field, but in fresh and great dimensions of creation through the soul’s struggle. In the end, it’s all in us. I bet that miss Gilbert was struck by Resistance, not by the kiss of another great person, although that is a very beautiful story. Resistance hides well, e.g. in the form of an almost erotic kiss and the loss of will underneath our energy field pulling us down, making us think that it’s not time for us to create something, making us think it was magic that transfered our will to another person. And it can seduce someone into thinking that they don’t have/feel the “calling” any more. That’s nonsense. I feel that loss of “the calling” for two years now in a row, but I won’t stop. That, like you said, may be where true North lies. Just maybe.

    I have a strange feeling that when we do our work, we are really like those Spartans with faceless, nameless opponents facing us. The same goes with all people who will copy consciously, unconsciously or collectively unconsciously our Road -don’t give them names. It’s only you and the dream and the shadow.

    I wish my best to all of you here! Have a Working Meaningful week.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on September 21, 2022 at 2:44 am

      *a last thought: maybe Resistance can hide behind superstitions too.

      • Faith Watson on September 21, 2022 at 5:58 am

        Wow this one really sparkles for me! The last notion about ideas floating around with consciouness and will, (and maybe a wish to become real?) has always been with me. I used to say that about love, too, and still think it–Love floats around, ready to land anywhere on anyone who will use it and share it. And perhaps that’s how babies are made, each of us was a cosmic idea coming into the vessel chosen at the Source. And what about the multiverse, and the shadow–Robert Johnson tells us there is gold in that shadow, where all the ideas we never act upon, the energy from the choices we didn’t make, the views from our other untravelled paths go to wait (or float around seeking conduit or a lifeline?) Rumi says Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world…. what a cool story this was, so inspiring, thank you for sharing, Steve and Elizabeth G.

  5. Peter Brockwell on September 21, 2022 at 3:47 am

    A very nice post. Liz Gilbert tells this story on her TED talk, but it’s good to hear it again. I’ve read quite a bit by both Gilbert and Patchett, including State of Wonder, which I loved. All their novels are wonderful, quite frankly.

    I love the notion, but playing Devil’s Advocate, it seems a little too similar to the pathetic fallacy, like rainbows appearing ‘above Buckingham Palace’ on day of the Queen’s passing. I feel bound to say that Liz Gilbert and Ann Patchett are very much in accord with one another in their writerly sensibilities and styles and subject matters. They are very much of apiece. So, I would not be surprised to learn that they occasionally had very similar writing ideas.

    Still, it’s an amazing coincidence given the kiss. And I agree that ideas exist ‘out there’ in the infinite ground of ultimate reality, and are looking for a home. They have some relationship with consciousness and find a resonance with it. And we can invite and welcome them.

    I have to say, it could well be that a good kiss is always going to be a source of ideas!

    Peter

  6. Shaun Loynds on September 21, 2022 at 3:57 am

    I read this story in BIG MAGIC a few years back and was amazed by it. It sounds too far fetched NOT to be real and I believe it. I work in advertising and I have had many similar things happen in that environment. About 10/15 years ago we had an idea for a globally recognised wrist watch brand that involved tech that we just dreamed up, as it didn’t currently exist, we were saying things like…’Just imagine being able to… A few years later this tech became known as ‘augmented reality’ and a wrist watch manufacturer used it EXACTLY the way we had ‘Dreamed it would work!’

  7. Jackie on September 21, 2022 at 4:03 am

    Or we can sit our ass in a chair to do the work before we lose the idea. I know what I’m working on today. No excuses. What I need but don’t yet have will come to me when it’s needed. Thanks Steve, I’ve always loved this story for the magic. As I watch the sun rise from the window, I appreciate the nuggets of insight from you and appreciate the community you’ve created.

    • Lin Keeling on September 21, 2022 at 9:51 pm

      “What I need but don’t yet have will come to me when it’s needed.” Being open to that is hard sometimes, but it’s so true! I have left pieces to sit for a long time but when what’s needed comes the wait was worth it and the result is often something I would never have imagined.

  8. Jackie on September 21, 2022 at 4:19 am

    Something funny going on here. When writing the above, I felt the need to express my appreciation for this community. It was just brought to my attention that today is World Gratitude Day. Who knew there was such a thing! LOL.

  9. JJ Hicks on September 21, 2022 at 4:35 am

    This is amazing. We shouldn’t be surprised but in our realistic secular world we reserve the right to dismissive of such things. But what else can you attribute it to be a shared consciousness in one form or another.

    “Tell me the causes now, O Muse, how galled in her divine pride, and how sore at heart from her old wound, the queen of gods compelled him-” Virgil

  10. Sam Luna on September 21, 2022 at 5:11 am

    Whenever an idea I’ve developed pops up somewhere else fully formed by another writer (happened just last week matter of fact) I take it as a sign of “yep, you’ve got a writer’s brain, keep working.”

  11. InGenious Guru on September 21, 2022 at 5:25 am

    Modern man already knows how much of what was once attributed only to angels: to rush faster than wind and sound, to transmit his voice and thought at a distance. A person still lacks freedom from specific physiological needs, the ability to cross the boundaries of different worlds, to go into other dimensions. But a person gradually learns to change the composition of his body, to put on a thinner, ethereal flesh – and thereby turns into an angeloid , an angel-like creature.

  12. Gerry Lantz on September 21, 2022 at 6:45 am

    HA! The best story within a story (post!) told to date. “Ours is not to reason why …” (mangling Tennyson here). It strains credibility but who cares, it’s a great story–teasing the reader or listener to open all the doors and windows to see what or who might come in. We are not very good at creating space for whatever to enter usually. We are too crowded in our lives. Maybe, put your ass where your heart wants to be. Or maybe just take a walk. And kiss whoever is willing.

  13. omwow on September 21, 2022 at 7:34 am

    That’s just mindboggling. I’d love to see Gilbert’s draft, because there’s a part of me that almost can’t believe it. It would make for such a compelling story with the contracts and book advance and pitch everything documented.
    Either way, what I take away more than anything from this is to not let my ideas go stale if I care about them. It’s been my experience that many times, temporarily snoozing a project was only my way to abandon it without really having to admit defeat. The result? A huge backlog of unfinished work, that nonetheless still takes up space in the back of my mind. Much better to bring an idea to fruition, or honestly part ways.

  14. Lyn on September 21, 2022 at 7:45 am

    Love this post. The last line about the moral made me laugh. Ideas work like this with inventors too, where two or more inventors start working on the same or a very similar invention at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. Maybe it’s the quantum entanglement. But to me, thought is life; it powers and shapes what manifests in the physical world.

  15. Joe Jansen on September 21, 2022 at 7:51 am

    That’s one of my favorite stories out of Liz’s book, “Big Magic.”

    I was digging around for other examples of “ideas floating around ‘out there,’ waiting for someone to flip on the runway landing lights” (by virtue of being in your seat/at your easel/etc). Even I was surprised to find a long, LONG list, covering centuries, of “multiple/simultaneous discoveries.” Rather than mention one or two, just scroll here and be amazed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_multiple_discoveries

    And the page ends with a quote from Thomas Edison:

    “I never had an idea in my life. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment – I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside.”

  16. Brian Nelson on September 21, 2022 at 11:25 am

    “I believe it.”

    That sentence is so refreshing to me. Over time, I had adopted the skeptic’s view, but it is an unnatural fit for me. I am gullible and overly trusting by nature. I am a dreamer, and believe in things without ‘evidence’. I cry in movies and books, get completely sucked into stories. It is impossible for me to hold onto a skeptical view when confronting the humanities.

    When my willingness to believe in something was shot down by rationalists throughout my life–it has always hurt just a bit. Probably be the certainty and hubris the rationalist carried, making me feel like a fool.

    Rationality is great, but at its tips are monstrosities like eugenics, communism, gross architecture we saw littered all over Eastern Europe and Russia in the 20th Century, and currently vaccine mandates for healthy young people.

    Math is fun and amazing. Science is fascinating. But they cannot explain everything, and the belief that it can has killed 100s of millions. I have dismissed my unnatural skin of total skepticism for the wonder of mystery and beliefs in the unprovable.

    Maybe it was a kiss that passed on an idea fully intact. Who knows? And that is the beauty of mystery and the bane of ‘science’.
    bsn

    • Maureen Anderson on September 21, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      What Color Is Your Parachute? author Dick Bolles was fond of explaining his belief in God with something like, “There are too many coincidences for my taste.”

      My feeling is that if your worldview works, if it helps you be better and kinder and happier, whatever!

  17. Kate Stanton on September 21, 2022 at 12:51 pm

    I recently added a quote to my blog by Elizabeth Gilbert where she says, “I thought about one of my favorite Sufi poems, which says that God long ago drew a circle in the sand exactly around the spot where you are standing right now. I was never not coming here. This was never not going to happen.”
    https://katestantonsings.wordpress.com/2022/04/01/april-is-national-poetry-month/

    I think this rings true here. Inspiring. A pick-me-up type of Wednesday!!!

  18. Stephanie Clayton on September 21, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    I LOVE this.

  19. Eilish Bouchier on September 21, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    Love this post and your writing and love Krista’s On Being though I think the price of not kissing is too high to hang onto one’s ideas. Afterall in my experience every nurtures and realises ideas so very very differently because while ideas aren’t unique – no shade intended on anyone’s brilliance – how we nurture and realise them is unique.

  20. Lin Keeling on September 21, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    Maybe Elizabeth Gilbert was given the idea to hold until she met Ann Patchett. Their paths converging may have been part of the plan all along.

  21. Kat on September 22, 2022 at 10:01 am

    In another interview, Gilbert said something about perfectionism just being fear dressed up in fancy shoes. Yup.

  22. Sharyn G. Jordan on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    In the Cosmic World, a Sage is forever seeding Mind Flashes into HeARTS & Imaginations. Those who are fertile, open to BEcoming Pregnant with themselves REceive these Muse•Worthy Star Seeds. As they brilliantly constellate in an ethereal Stoytelling galaxy, Creatives will conceive its luminosity. Yet, only a select birth momma/daddy will do the writerly magic & gloriously deliver their divine book baby into life.
    ~True Story.

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  26. Gwen on September 28, 2022 at 5:21 am

    My experience is not so much about a magical kiss as the profound shock when hearing about the death of a friend. She was dynamic in life and her death drove me to immortalize her dynamic spirit the minute I received a call from the west coast telling my She was gone. I was at a memoir seminar in Key West – sharing my completed memoir. The news of my friend’s death sent me back to my room tearing every shred of story that contained my friend and our coming of age in our freshman year on our Northern California campus in 1969 – the music, the protests, the campus protests — I am finished (one is truly never finished but after two years…) and I can say WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL is the Big Chill – only with a diverse (African American) cast of characters.

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  29. Jesse on October 2, 2022 at 12:02 pm

    Phenomenal story, very inspiring. Thank you.

  30. Sandra Lee on October 5, 2022 at 8:33 am

    I am reminded of the movie Prelude to a Kiss, “At Peter and Rita’s wedding, an old man (Sydney Walker) appears, congratulates the couple, and asks to kiss the bride. The kiss has cosmic proportions – the sun eclipses, a wind passes through – and the old man and Rita exchange bodies.” There is a lot in that kiss.
    On a more morbid note, I have extraordinary involved dreams, full-blown sagas each night, drama, intrigues, rock-climbing, vampires… If I could mind dump these dreams I would have dozens of stories. I have thought, what will happen to these dreams when I die? This story from Gilbert gives me comfort… dreams don’t die, and story ideas linger in the ethers for a person willing to receive the kiss.

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