Thursday, 25 July 2013

A Personal Daemon - by Susan Price

          I was asked to describe 'my muse', and this is what I wrote. It may seem an odd thing to post in a blog about e-books and digital self-publishing, but some things about writing never change...
Winged Daemon on Corinthian Plate: Wiki Commons

Rudyard Kipling, in his autobiography Something of Myself wrote:
           Let us now consider the Personal Daemon of Aristotle and others… Most men, and some most unlikely, keep him under an alias which varies with their literary or scientific attainments. Mine came to me early when I sat bewildered among other notions, and said; ‘Take this and no other.’ I obeyed, and was rewarded....
           After that I learned to lean upon him and recognise the sign of his approach... As an instance, many years later I wrote about a mediaeval artist, a monastery, and the premature discovery of the microscope. Again and again it went dead under my hand, and for the life of me I could not see why. I put it away and waited. Then said my Daemon—and I was meditating something else at the time—‘Treat it as an illuminated manuscript.’ I had ridden off on hard black-and-white decoration, instead of pumicing the whole thing ivory-smooth, and loading it with thick colour and gilt....
My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the water-hammer click of a tap turned off... When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey...

           Whenever it was I first read this – probably in my mid to late 20s - I was already a published writer, and had written several books. This passage gave me a true jolt of recognition. I knew immediately that Kipling wasn't being fanciful, or poetic, but was describing the experience of writing as directly as he could, given the limitations of language. I knew, because I had a daemon too, though I had never mentioned it to anyone. Most men, and some most unlikely, keep him under an alias which varies with their literary or scientific attainments. Some women too, Rudyard.
          As I had progressed from book to book, learning more and more of the craft, I had become aware of the daemon's presence. I had never given him/her/it a name. After reading the passage above, I called it/her/him 'the daemon', at least in my own mind. It was as good a name as any other, and I preferred it to 'muse', which seems too poetic for me and my creature, too Classical, too beautiful.

           'Daemon' is Greek and Classical too, of course, but hasn't been used by centuries of poets in the same way. Its link to the modern 'demon' suggests some of the bloody-mindedness often demonstrated by daemons; and it also makes me think of witches' familiars and shamans' spirit-helpers. Though I in no way aspire to be a witch or a shaman, their more down-to-earth, farmyard associations, with their cures for sore-throats and curses on annoying neighbours, suit me and my daemon better. My daemon does not haunt Elysian Fields – though it may perhaps be found grubbing through the great junk-yard of lost and broken things that, according to the fairy-tale, the Four Winds have blown to the Ends of the Earth and there gathered in a heap.
           Before I ever read about Kipling's daemon, I had learned that all that was best in my writing was not mine. I didn't invent it – rather it was put into my head. Indeed, I couldn't invent it – I had tried. Any plot or situation I invented was tired, trite, and petered out for lack of enthusiasm on my part. The best writing always came 'out of the blue'. Slowly I became aware of that Other, who sometimes seemed to be slightly behind me, leaning over my right shoulder. Surely this sensation is where the whole idea of 'a muse' originated? See also medieval illustrations of Biblical prophets taking dictation from an angelic Muse leaning over their shoulder.
          'Then said my Daemon—and I was meditating something else at the time—' I had come to know that so well: the idea that came out of nowhere; the fresh twist that came when I hadn't given a thought to that particular story for months; the combining of disparate ideas in a way that would ever have occurred to me and took me by surprise. And more:- the perfect phrase that arrives, complete, with no need for polishing – a phrase that I didn't plan or, it seems to me, invent. The moment when a character refuses to act as I had planned, but instead acts in a way much more convincing and interesting.
           I had worked on rewrites where I found sub-texts woven through what I'd written, and carefully set up and prepared for with repeated phrases and echoes – and I had been astonished because I was not conscious of ever having planned it.
           When I wrote Ghost Drum it was as if someone had handed

me a postcard of a very clear, bright picture – a palace from a
Ghost Drum. Art by Andrew Price
Russian fairy-tale, with bright jewel colours, standing in a snow-field and set against a dark, cold, starry sky. ‘Take this and no other.’ Who handed me the picture and gave the order? My daemon.
           I had learned too, from experience, that there was no arguing or bargaining with this Other. 'Again and again it went dead under my hand...' I knew that feeling well too; and I knew it meant that the daemon wasn't with me any longer, or never had been with this piece of work.

          One certain way to drive away the Daemon was, I'd learned, to argue with It. If Its dictum was that a certain character should die, and I said, no, that's too sad, or too horrible, or I don't want to kill that person – then the Daemon stalked away and left me to do what I could on my own. Which was nothing good. Left to myself, it seemed, all I could produce was the most obvious, uninspired, dull verbiage.
          There was only one way to persuade the Daemon to return – give in to all Its demands. Find a way to make Its suggestions work, however outrageous, cruel, unlikely and difficult to research. Daemons, I learned, never argue or bargain. They simply leave.
           I learned to work with It instead of fighting against it. When I needed an idea, I would appeal to the Daemon - “Give me something to work on!” When I was stuck in a story and didn't know how to proceed, I would run through what I had written in my mind, and outline where I was hoping the story might go, as if briefing the Daemon. Then I would say, 'Over to you. Sort something out and get back to me.'
          This was embarrassing at first: I felt foolish, pretentious. But the results were so good that I soon overcame that. The more I trusted the Daemon, the more I gave It a free hand, the more quickly It returned to me with a solution. Very rarely did It fail. So when I read this account of Kipling's, I had already learned the truth of what he says: Resist the daemon, and it will kill your story and leave. Obey it, and it will help you.
           'When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey...' I knew this for the simple truth too. I concluded, from experience, that the Daemon always knows the detail and construction of a piece It has decided you will work on, but It cannot tell you directly. Or chooses not to tell. You are guided by images and feelings, steered along the path it wants you to follow by nudges and hints. When we are 'stuck' in a story, we have simply wandered from the path. If we stop trying to find it, if we try not to think consciously, but wait and let our thoughts drift – then the Daemon will guide us back to the path with more hints and nudges. When we struggle to find the way ourselves, we fall into mires and thorns, we get further and further from where we want to be, and the story 'goes dead under our hand'.
           But what does my Daemon look like, if it's not a classically draped Goddess, or a demon stinking of sulphur? While aware of its presence and its assistance, I've never examined it too closely before – just as I never argue with it any more.
           My Daemon is elusive – it skulks, it slinks. It peers briefly from the piles of lost things at the World's End, and ducks out of sight again. It isn't human or, at least, not wholly human. It's dark in colour, brindled, perhaps covered in fur. I glimpse pricked ears and a curve or hump of back. Is it an ape? Or are those the ears and back of some cat-like animal? But it moves less fluidly than a cat, and I see no tail, though perhaps it has a bobbed one, like a lynx. I don't know what it is – and I dare not be so presumptuous as to ask. I only hope that writing this piece hasn't offended it. I would never venture to thank it. That would certainly ensure I’d never hear from it again.
          This piece was originally written for Katherine Roberts' Muse Monday series on her blog.

          The Ghost Drum is the first book in the Ghost World Sequence. Book 2 is Ghost Song, and Book 3, Ghost Dance. 


Bill Kirton said...

I loved this, Susan. You're right, it's such a clear, simple way of describing how writing works. At first as I read it I began to get a cosy feeling that it might be a good excuse for my innate laziness (as in 'OK, I'll go and do a bit of carving and leave the next chapter for my daemon to sort out'), but that's not it. There's got to be a part of you that's working at the issue, even if you're unaware of it. Knowing there's a daemon there helps you to trust yourself as a writer, because it's not just a passing, itinerant daemon, it's yours. Thank you.

madwippitt said...

Sounds like a polecat or possibly a pine marten ... :-)

How nice to have a muse or daemon. I have wippitts instead, which I have to admit I prefer personally: more amenable to being stroked and petted, encourage breaks away from the keyboard, and you don't have to wait for them to deign to visit!

Lee said...

Lovely post. However, my daemons tend to whisper, you're mad to keep going. And they're not very elusive either. Perhaps it's all those bytes I feed them...

julia jones said...

Such a relief to read this post. Was put on the spot this morning - what's your new book ABOUT? Er, dunno. (Possible excuse that I'm still doing final rewrite and, yes, I'm finding subplots and subtexts just waiting there for me to recognise and possibly highlight with a word or two). I needed to answer the question and I couldn't be then as I was rowing down the river all sorts of odd little scenes came nudging into my mind. The scene that needed have been there, the ones that arrived ready made, the ones I read with a sigh of relief - though I still don't know what they 'mean'. Drift, wait and obey. Thanks Sue - and Rudyard

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely post Sue. I was ploughing through a particularly difficult biography and going nowhere, and then I woke up suddenly about 3am one morning with a voice in my head saying, 'do it like this', so I got up and I did and it worked! Never thought of it as a Daemon, but its certainly there.
Thank you.

Susan Price said...

I don't know exactly what 'the daemon' is - but I do know it exists! Maybe it's just a well-developed part of your subconscious - maybe it's the right hemisphere. I dunno. But forty years of experience have made me very familiar with that voice that suddenly speaks up and says, 'Like this.' Or 'Write about this.' Or, (quite often) 'Stop! Stop! You're going wrong!' - Even if it says nothing else, it saves me time. But it usually does point out a better way.

Elizabeth Kay said...

...the combining of disparate ideas in a way that would never have occurred to me and took me by surprise.

That really resonated with me, as it's the way I describe creativity. One of the exercises I do with students is to get them to shut their eyes, open a book, and stab at three words at random - excluding it, by, the, etc. And then to construct a plot. Those not in the know are pleased when they get something like, smoke, flames, terror. But that's hard, as it's only one idea. Try smoke, slug, and destiny, and it gets much more exciting. My daemon is the one that pulls the unrelated idea out of thin air and says, stick this in the mix. I wish he/she/it turned up more often, though!

Lydia Bennet said...

Socrates had a daemon too, he's a great hero of mine. Fascinating post Sue. I too have that, sometimes it's just like a voice in your head, a sentence or phrase, other times a poem, say, just seems to pour out, not really though as once you see it there you realise it's been forming in your head for ages. Those are often the most successful poems. I don't know if it's part of our subconscious or part of the universal consciousness we can tap into. Mountaineers are often aware of someone walking with them when they are far away from other people and in danger. Perhaps that's a similar phenomenon.

Nick Green said...

I suppose it makes a kind of sense that, since our outward-facing personality is basically a construct (the face we choose to show to the world), it would be foolish to suppose that this 'self' is the only one we have.

In writers, alternate 'selves' are likely to be especially vivid and/or numerous, I would suppose. Personally I have nothing like the 'daemon' you describe, Sue, but I am very much aware that the person who writes my books is not the person who talks to people in shops or at parties. Or indeed at 'Meet the Author' events. You can never really meet the author.

p.s. I've just read The Bearwood Witch. And I NEVER want to meet your daemon.