ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: M is for Mentors and Muses and Models, Oh My!

Posted by on Jul 18, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Alice Lowe 10-12Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. 

Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses. 
— Amy Tan

The Muses of Greek mythology were the goddesses of inspiration; Mentor was Odysseus’s trusted counselor. Writers today seek modern-day earthly equivalents, people who will serve as guiding spirits, teach us and be our role models, inspire us to stretch and grow. Muses aren’t sprites that float through the window and light on your keyboard every morning when you sit down at your desk with your second cup of coffee. “OK, muse, I’m ready—pour it on!” They’re not servants—they don’t cook or clean or perch at our elbows awaiting our commands. Nor can you find them on Craig’s List under “M.”

OK, you say; so where are they? Muses, mentors and models, whether living or dead, evolve from listening and learning, reading and reflecting (also called musing). Kindred souls emerge, along with preferences and passions, from the poems, novels, stories and essays that accelerate your heartbeat and spur you on. They might be 200-year-old icons (Jane Austen’s followers are legion), current literary pop stars, teachers, contemporaries, people you meet along the way.

I found mine in 1990 during a six-month idyll in England’s West Country while enjoying the luxury of unencumbered time to read, write and ponder. My intent was to explore my long-dormant talent and decide whether the persistent tug toward writing was worth pursuing. On the bookshelves of my temporary home in a Devon village, A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, a fragile first edition with barely-legible lettering on the worn salmon-colored binding, seemed to leap off the shelf and into my hands.

Leonard Woolf compiled and published this volume shortly after his wife’s death and years before the release of her complete diaries. He selected entries in which she reflects on her writing and reading, her influences and inspirations. I’d tried to read Woolf—Mrs. Dalloway? To the Lighthouse?—years earlier, but she was too obscure for my tastes at the time. Now I was swept away, awed by her eloquence and stirred by her skill at capturing a person, place or mood in a few well-chosen words. So why now? Between jobs, between worlds, my life was at a critical juncture, and her words resounded like seismic activity at my core. She was speaking to me.

I followed with her novels, and this time they clicked. Curled up with copious cups of tea and the uniquely British dark-chocolate digestive biscuits that remain my weakness, I marveled at her forays into ever-new territory. I would refer to the entries in A Writer’s Diary where she expressed her goals and strivings, euphoria and doubts as she was generating each novel. I didn’t start writing during that interlude or for several years afterward, but I was besotted with Virginia Woolf. I devoured her five volumes of diaries and six of letters, hundreds of stories and essays, a remarkable memoir. It would become the framework and motivation for my own writing.

Whether aspiring or established writers, we develop our craft as we read and reread good writers and study what they do. We discover authors, past and present, whose writing resonates with us—they may have written the kind of work we aspire to create or trod a similar path to our own. Or maybe we just love their way with words.  When I found Virginia Woolf, I wasn’t searching for a muse, but there she was. I didn’t aim to replicate her unique style or distinctive voice, but I was inspired by her beautiful prose, evocative descriptions, and keen observations, her mastery of the language, sentence structure and balance, even her creative use of punctuation.

Muses have muses too. In A Room of One’s Own and in several essays Woolf speaks admiringly, almost worshipfully, of the women she calls the forerunners. She holds up literature’s “fab four”—Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot—as models for women who want to write. While drafting one of her novels, she notes: “I think the next lap ought to be objective, realistic, in the manner of Jane Austen: carrying the story on all the time.”

Her highest praise was bestowed on the two who epitomized the art for her, William Shakespeare and Michel de Montaigne. While Shakespeare was her model for fiction, she turned to Montaigne—considered the father of the essay—for sustenance in that form. “How many people have succeeded in drawing themselves with a pen?” she asks; “This art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.” Visiting Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon and Montaigne’s tower in France, she expressed her continued awe. In the same way, I bubble over with rapture every time I visit Monks House, Virginia Woolf’s country home in Sussex. “Janeites” report a similar reverence on pilgrimages to Austen’s Chawton.

A recluse of sorts, I flippantly say that “writing isn’t a team sport,” but I’m aware that we do need others. In classes, workshops, and critique sessions we expose ourselves to writers and writing at all levels, and among those we meet, read, and hear about, we may find motivation in the form of someone who provides guidance, support, and encouragement. Or someone who says, “Have you read so-and-so? Your style is a lot like hers.”

Writing manuals and writers’ memoirs can be sources of discovery as well as examples of creative nonfiction. They’re like the bowls of porridge Goldilocks found at the three bears’ cottage: some too cold, some too hot, some just right. I like to read about writing by those whose work I admire, potential mentors. E. M. Forster, Eudora Welty and Stephen King are among those who have written about their craft, their influences, their words of wisdom to writers.

I think about what Virginia Woolf has given me as a writer. She didn’t tell me what to do or not to do, but she made her day-to-day experience relevant to me. She assured me that writing isn’t a smooth and predictable path—it encompasses the highs that encourage us to think we’ve arrived and the lows that make us want to hang up our pens. How reassuring to find that Virginia Woolf, brilliant consummate artist, experienced the same doubts, the same failings and flailings that I go through. And the same love for the written word, the same joy when it’s going well. Making her final revisions to Mrs Dalloway, galloping through her prose, she records “the happiest feeling in the world.”

This essay is adapted from “A Muse of One’s Own: Finding Inspiration for Your Writing Life” in Writing after Retirement: Tips from Successful Retired Writers, ed. Carol Smallwood and Christine Redman-Waldeyer, pub. Rowman & Littlefield 2014.


Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Work on Virginia Woolf includes two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London, Virginia Woolf as Memoirist in 2015 and Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction in 2010. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs here

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