O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
—William Shakespeare, Henry V
One of the things I love about exploring Greek and Roman mythology with 6th graders is discussing its lasting influence in our culture today. One such remnant is an artist’s reliance on a creative muse, an enduring notion that true inspiration only followed a visit from one of nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
For a long time, I bought into this idea myself, both as a writer and as a teacher, that there was magic involved in creative writing. Either the muse came or she didn’t, and it was her visit that made the difference between good and great story telling. Thanks to several opportunities I’ve had to learn from children’s and Young Adult authors, the muse has become a myth, and a dangerous one at that.
Lauren Tarshis, author of the popular I Survived series and a vice president at Scholastic, visited our school last week in order to research South Louisiana’s recent 1,000 year flood. She met with some of our students and shared this: you don’t need a special gift to be a writer. “The gift is being able to work hard, write a terrible book, and keep going.”
The first time I encountered this truth, that writing was enormous work rather than magic, was in a workshop with Walter Dean Myers. He started the morning by drawing out his formula on chart paper. With each stroke of his Sharpie, I felt a sharp pain in my reader’s soul. A formula? The grandaddy of YA lit uses a formula? This is like learning Santa relies on Amazon Prime. After my disillusionment dulled, I thought about the implications of this new truth. Absent the muse, I could be a Writer. And so could any of my students. Even the ones who weren’t in love with writing.
A recurring message I hear from celebrated authors is that as children, they never would have expected to become professional writers. “I was the least likely in my school to grow up to be a writer,” explains Tarshis. “I was 100% certain it was impossible.” Throughout much of her schooling, she held tightly to a secret: she couldn’t read. In fact, it wasn’t until the 10th grade that she finished an entire book on her own.
Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and award-winning graphic novelist, nearly abandoned his passion because he’d been advised he’d never get a girlfriend if he kept up his infatuation with comics. He used the money he would have spent on comic books to buy a blue jean jacket (which, lucky for us, didn’t end up being the chick magnet he’d hoped for).
Matt de la Pena began his Newbery acceptance speech with his surprise about becoming an author. “Growing up, I never could’ve imagined anything like this. Me and books? Reading? Nah, man, I was a working-class kid. A half-Mexican hoop head. I spent all my afterschool hours playing ball down at the local pickup spot off Birmingham. I dreamed of pretty girls and finger rolls over outstretched hands.”
Even students who define themselves as writers face an uphill climb in claiming their writer’s identity. Coe Booth, author of Tyrell and Kinda Like Brothers, wrote constantly as a kid. So much so that she’d get in trouble for writing in school. When she tells this part of her history, there’s still confusion on her face. How could one get in trouble for writing? At school? Consequently, she didn’t view writing as a legitimate career choice until adulthood.
Just once, she wished aloud, a teacher could have encouraged her. Could have seen and acknowledged the hard work she was doing. Addressing a group of educators, she begged us to look out for those kids, those quirky ones, the ones writing subversively. Ask them about their writing, she said. Encourage them.
At Booth’s urging, I started asking kids about their personal writing as we’d confer about some academic piece they were working on. I’d whisper, “And do you like to write?” They’d look surprised, like I’d discovered their secret identity. Yes, they’d nod, I write stories. I write poems. I write comic books.
We decided to start a writing club. At our meetings, we update each other on projects, play with language, and laugh a lot. The biggest surprise? The students who show up are not necessarily the kids earning top marks for their school writing. They aren’t the ones who talk my ear off during English class. I’d never have known about their writing ambitions if I hadn’t thought to ask.
We need these voices, now more than ever. In today’s climate of division and fear, we need the next Matt de la Pena to remind us that even where there is dirt, there is beauty. We need the next Gene Luen Yang to help us think about our own cultural identity. The people of Louisiana need the next Lauren Tarshis, who tells stories of people’s resilience, even in the face of great tragedies.
As teachers, the greatest thing we can do to help students discover their voices is to reframe the myth. Is there a muse? Maybe so, but she’s the child of hard work and persistence.