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  • Elise V Allan

Offending the Muse

First posted February 2018


Creative block is hell. I’ve offended my Muse many times, and she’s stormed off. I’m going to share part of a letter here that my late friend, Lionel Miskin, sent to me when I was in my twenties.  I’d returned home a couple of years earlier from Cyprus College of Art where I’d enjoyed a post-graduate academic year living with fellow students, painting; going to the beach; playing; watching the sun set - looking like it was falling into the sea; and then watching for the first shooting stars. And there had been one memorable night when, surprised by a lunar eclipse, which was vivid with the absence of light pollution, I’d been so excited about making work about it that I’d stayed alone at the college rather than joining the others on a jaunt to the taverna in the next village. Lionel lived in Paphos every winter, making satirical ceramic figures, and he befriended the students each year.  He was an eccentric and tremendously enthusiastic presence, born in the same year as my mother, but with an irreverent, sometimes outrageous, sense of humour. He drove back to Cornwall each summer, stopping off in Cannes, where, from the open door of his camper van, he would paint unflattering watercolours of unsuspecting tourists. Back in rainy Glasgow, living alone and missing the warmth of being part of a community, I wrote a lot of letters. Lionel’s replies were beautiful, often illustrated in watercolour, and they were warm, wise and supportive. I had written to him in the state of distress that arises for many of us when we’re creatively blocked. Painting was my way of keeping my mind relatively balanced, and without it I was not on good form. He wrote “… you can take it from me, you don’t lose that sort of gift. All it’s possible to do is INSULT the MUSE. When you insult the Muse she packs up and goes…. around the corner! Let me tell you how to make it up with her. It is infallible. You put aside all your grand notions. You make it clear to yourself that you are LOST and having nothing to say any more and now you begin again IN THE SMALLEST WAY possible, tiny, miniature efforts that must achieve nothing – this is critical. They must be done entirely for love. You can send them to me. But not if they are impressive and certainly not to impress me. For fun. For love. For yourself. And little by little you will coax her back. Because she has not far to come. She is fuming around the corner. I expect you set your sights a bit high, hoped to take the National Gallery by storm. Fatal. Unless of course you are complete shit as some artists manage to be. It’s no good trying to be such a shit: you are born one.” I followed his advice, sent him some tiny, miniature efforts – he wrote back, of course, with his usual incredibly supportive enthusiasm that they were SPLENDID! - and my offended Muse forgave me. Then I forgot about the letter for many years. I went looking for it about six or seven years ago, and now, re-reading this letter from over thirty years ago, I’m struck as much by his kindness and generosity, as by the wisdom in his words. The relationship with our Muse is a tender one. She’s said to be capricious, because she appears to go AWOL for long periods, but she’s endlessly forgiving. We treat her badly. We ignore her, deny her beauty, stimulation, attention and respect, we take credit for what she’s given us, and use it to feed our arrogance. And still she waits – perhaps, as Lionel wrote, fuming around the corner – but still she waits… for us call her back with love and a little humility.  Image; ceramics by Lionel Miskin: "Woman and Handbag Husband and me, my teddy, and Nurse"

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