The Nudge of the Muse

– by Donique McIntosh


I tend to write when I feel moved by something I’ve seen or heard. In other words, I write when I’ve found my muse or inspiration. For most of my writing life, this approach has served me well. Articles and poems have emerged from this muse-inspired approach. However, when I was preparing to write my dissertation, scores of people suggested that that approach to writing would not serve me well in writing a dissertation. I was advised to write daily without the prompting of anything but a desire to progress toward a completed dissertation.

I was skeptical at first, I admit, about their advice. I had questions. How could I just get up everyday and write? Would my creative juices flow? Would they take all day to flow? Had I been doing this “all wrong” all these years? What sense do I make of the muse? Is she a myth?

Skepticism buckled firmly in my mind’s backseat, I decided to try their suggestions. I got up everyday and wrote. Some days I wrote pages and pages. Other days I barely put five words together. But I wrote. I wrote in the mornings, I wrote in between meetings, on trains, and I wrote after my workday had ended. To my surprise, I was able to do what I’d previously relegated to needing to be inspired to do. I wrote my dissertation in six months.

I finished writing the dissertation years ago but there’s still a part of me that has questions about the writing process. Not to be ignored, skepticism periodically asks if the advice I’d been given about writing daily without inspiration only applies to academic writing. I can go for long periods of time without wanting or needing to write and then something happens, and I feel like I need to write about it. It’s as if writing is the only way to address it.

I use the gym at my apartment complex almost daily and usually in the mornings. It’s a short quiet walk from my apartment to the clubhouse where the gym is housed. One day early last week as I walked over to the clubhouse, I couldn’t help but notice a car parked in a spot reserved for people with disabilities. While it’s uncommon for that space to be occupied, that wasn’t why I was drawn to the car. The first thing I noticed was that there were two sets of shoes sitting just under the passenger’s side front door. I thought it odd that these two sets of shoes were there. I wondered why somebody or two somebodies had left their shoes outside their car. And then I realized that the car I’d assumed was empty was, in fact, occupied by two people sleeping in the front seats.

I walked past the car and into the clubhouse, disturbed. I was disturbed by all the thoughts and feelings I was having about the car and its inhabitants. I wondered who they were and what circumstances had led them to that parking lot. I felt relieved, to some extent, that they felt like the lot in my complex was a safe place to rest for the night. I speculated that they might be homeless or people traveling who didn’t have money for a hotel. That led me to think about poverty and homelessness and my role as a Christian in addressing classism and housing insecurity. For days afterward, I thought about the pair in the car, but I didn’t sit down and write anything as I typically would.

I arrived in New Orleans for a conference a few days ago. On the shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel I’m staying at, I looked out the window to take in the sights of a city I hadn’t visited in a while. Along a stretch of a main street, there were tents set up and people appeared to be living there. I heard the woman across from me remark about how “unfortunate” it was that the people were living there in the tents. I sensed a bit of anger in her tone, too. It didn’t seem to stem from the oppression that had led or contributed to the housing insecurity, but rather from a sense that the people had chosen to sleep out on the street in a tent when they had a lot of other viable options from which to choose. Her anger grew as she looked to the left side and saw a camp with tents set up across the street that was twice the size of the one we were passing on the right.

I was aware of my feelings as well. I was angry about her response and angry about a lack of affordable housing for people in New Orleans and in other cities across the country. I was angry about poverty. I was uncomfortable, as I typically am, with seeing human need so clearly on display. And I was uncomfortable about riding past the need as if I had just witnessed something mundane or humane or just. And it wasn’t lost on me that this was happening only a few days after seeing the two people asleep in a car just a few feet away from where I sleep. I thought again of the muse.

I thought again about writing about poverty and housing insecurity. While I could choose to see these incidents as unrelated or as part and parcel of what it means to live in cities, I choose to see them as related. They’re linked to my call as a Christian. My call as a Christian is to notice, just as Jesus noticed blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road in the gospel of Mark. Not only did Jesus notice him, but he interrupted his plans to tend to Bartimaeus. Without the nudge of the muse to call my attention to these injustices, I’m not sure I’d be thinking about my role in addressing poverty and housing insecurity today. Maybe my skepticism was warranted. Maybe the muse is a sacred tool.