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  • Joan Schweighardt

When the Muse Is in Hiding

We’ve started a new feature here on our Five Directions Press blog. In addition to publishing our monthly short reviews (only books we fell in love with qualify!), our Spotlight interviews of other authors, and our occasional group musings on particular topics, we have set up a stage where individual members of the press can shine. Joan Schweighardt elected to go first, so here are her thoughts about what to do when the Muse takes a break.

When I was a little kid I loved to draw. I drew all the time. The problem was that sometimes there were things I wanted to draw, badly, and sometimes I was at my wits end trying to come up with new ideas. I would ask my mother, What should I draw? Cooking, cleaning, doing for my siblings or my father, she could not take the time to sit down at the table and puzzle out a vision for me. She would say the first thing that came into her head. For example, she might come to a half-halt midway through the living room, blue plastic laundry basket full and crushed to her chest, and glance out the window and see our neighbor Mr. D. outside with his hedge cutters, again (he was a fanatic, out there all the time). “Draw Mr. D.,” she’d say, and in a flash, before I had time to protest, she’d be gone.

Her ideas were almost always that bad. But if nothing else occurred to me, then I would eventually take my pad and pencils outside and sit in a place where Mr. D. wasn’t likely to notice me and start drawing. Since the subject matter (imagine it: old Mr. D., visible from his skinny chest up, his eyes ablaze with concentration, the awful slow-slicing scissors that would doubtless find their way into my dreams that night) was outside my scope of interest, the finished drawing might be second rate. On the other hand, it might be okay. Sometimes I would come to notice details that weren’t obvious at the start (the glint of sunlight on those long sharp blades, the shadow from his house falling over half of his face…) and surprise myself.

But my favorite times were when I knew exactly what I wanted to draw, when I had closed in on my subject matter of preference with the ferocity of a dog closing in on a bone. I drew my father’s profile in pastels that way. He was the perfect model. He sat for two hours without moving on night one, and two hours more on night two, his expression never altering. (Both nights he was watching TV; he never even knew I was drawing him!) When I got oil paints for my birthday one year, I did my first still life: a wine bottle, a wine glass and some lemons set out on a cutting board against a dark red background. No one in my family drank, so that bottle had been sitting out on the kitchen counter teasing me with its lovely highlights for weeks before I received the oil paints. (Ironically, the wine was a gift from Mr. D; he brought a bottle over every Christmas. It was the only time we ever saw him up close and without his shears.) Once I discovered the wineglass—I had to climb up on the counter and dig the dusty thing out from the back of an upper cabinet—and the lemons, I couldn’t wait to set them up together. I couldn’t wait to paint that glass, the thin gleam along the brim. I couldn’t wait to mix the colors that would bring the lemons to life. And I found I loved the breadth of the experience of working with oils too. They took forever to dry. There were endless opportunities to tweak, to add more details, to right all wrongs.

Writing has been more or less the same for me. When I know what I want to write about, I am unstoppable and happy to labor (luxuriate?) over the smallest details. My most recent project—a three-novel historical series entitled Rivers, is the perfect example. The idea for the series began when I learned about the rubber boom in South America that started in the late 1800s and ended, abruptly, in 1913. Sounds kind of dry, a few people said to me early on, but for me it was that wine bottle, that glinting glass, those lemons; I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would superimpose characters already stirring in my head over the rich tableaux the historical moment offered. I began to research to learn more; I traveled to the South American rainforests twice, to get the feel of things. What began as one novel about two young rubber tappers in Brazil in 1908 became a three-book saga regarding two main character groups—an Irish American family from Hoboken, New Jersey, and an Indian/Brazilian contingent from Manaus, Brazil—spanning two continents and some twenty-one years. Client work and other commitments kept me from being able to work on the books nonstop, but that only made the time I could steal for them more delicious.

Writing the Rivers trilogy took ten years, from conception to the publication of the last book: a decade of creative bliss. I’ve worked on a few other projects like that (most notably, a novel called The Last Wife of Attila the Hun), but I’ve also written some books that have been the equivalent of drawing Mr. D, books that took an effort to get started, and while I put heart, craft, and determination into them and was happy with the outcome, I cannot say I experienced the “intense living, fulfillment, and great happiness in creation” that American painter Robert Henri (1865–1929) insists is the object of all art.

A friend of mine, a wonderful writer, once asked me what she should write her next book about. She’d had a collection of essays published not long before, and it was very well received. For her it was the oil painting she couldn’t wait to start and hated to complete. Now she wanted to write something new, because it was time, but nothing had occurred to her. This friend loves cats, so I suggested she start with a cat and work out from there. It was the kind of suggestion my mother might have made, but my friend thought it was a good one.

My friend and I are good examples of writers who must write all the time whether we are obsessed with a subject or not. In a TV interview I once heard Isabel Allende say she starts each new novel on the first January 8 following the completion of the previous one. If she doesn’t have an idea when the eighth rolls around, she starts anyway, and the ideas always follow. Some of us just can’t go years waiting for the perfect idea to float down into our laps.

Then again, there are the people who continuously have fresh ideas of equal value, who are contemplating their next book even as they are putting the finishing touches on its predecessor. Jodi Pocoult once said in an interview that she starts her books one after the other. Unfortunately, that’s not me. While I feel compelled to write nonstop, I must sometimes satisfy myself with the light on Mr. D’s hedge cutters while I wait for the brighter light of true inspiration to shine.

Photographs: wine bottle by Paolo Chiabrando, wine glass by Markus Spiske, lemon by Chris Liverani—all from Unsplash; rain forest © Michael Dooley.

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