My mother wanted a parakeet instead of me. That’s what she told my father the year after they were married. So they went out to the local pet store, bought a parakeet, a cage, and food, and set up the new bird’s home in our family room off the kitchen. Two months later, the bird flew out the window after my mother forgot to close the cage following his evening feeding.
My mom cried for days after the bird flew away. Dad tried telling her that kids also fly away, but only after 18 years or so. My father was adamant about having children, especially after losing most of his family in the Holocaust. Somehow he convinced her to have me, but that was it. She did not want any more kids.
Being born to a mother who preferred birds to kids, and who related much better to animals than people, left an indelible impression on my young mind and formulated a foundation of stories for this budding writer. Actually, I didn’t realize it at the time, but only now in my sixth decade do I see how early childhood experiences can serve as muses for a lifetime of writing.
As an only child of immigrant parents who worked long hours, I spent a great deal of time by myself. In general, writers are loners, but we cannot write in a vacuum and need to get out and be a part of the world to find our inspiration.
My love for writing was born during those early childhood years, as my mother believed that children should be seen and not heard. From an early age, I felt frustrated by my mother’s continual desire to silence me. The problem was that I desperately yearned to be heard. I wanted to share what was going on inside my developing head. I wanted to share my observations of people and the world around me. Oftentimes I felt like an old soul locked up inside a child’s body. To cope with my frustrations, I journaled, showered my dolls with my words by sitting them in a row on the edge of my bed, and read to them.
I began journaling as soon as I learned the alphabet and figured out how to string words together. I started by expressing my feelings, what I did that day, my relationships with others, and what my dreams were. I also wrote poems and articles. Each day I retreated into my walk-in-closet with the string hanging in the middle of the ceiling leading up to the single 60-watt bulb. I pulled the cord and pushed my hanging clothes aside. I yanked down a sweater, deformed from the wire hanger, wrapped it around my shoulders, and plopped down on the cold and often-dusty wooden floor.
Looking back at that scene in the closet, I wonder if I was born a writer or if I became one as a result of my circumstances. I suppose many writers ponder this philosophical question, and I imagine that there are as many answers as there are writers.
I believe that writers are not only influenced by their circumstances, but also by their muses. After more than 50 of writing, both personally and professionally, I’m convinced that every creative person has had at least one muse during his or her life.
A muse, according to The New World Dictionary (1986), is the “spirit that is thought to inspire a poet or other artist; source of genius or inspiration.” A muse is someone who stands behind the writing and inspires it. Sometimes the muse is a spirit, other times it is a real person. At times, this muse figuratively rests on the writer’s shoulder; other times it is in another room or even in another home . . . but it is forever present. When I sit down to write, these muses or higher forces speak to me. In return, I talk back to them. These muses are food for my soul and the inspiration behind my writing. They help ignite and keep the writing flame burning.
There’s also another type of muse, as in the case of my mother, who has injected controversy into my life. From an early age, she contradicted whatever I said. In a sense, she was my devil’s advocate. So, my mother was the type of muse who elicited enough emotion in me to generate my creative flow. Sometimes this creativity was a result of anger, and other times a result of wonder. In a distorted way, someone like my mom can be a source of huge creative inspiration.
In his book The Writer’s Mentor, Ian Jackman says in his chapter on inspiration:
The inspiration is the writer’s sense of self—it comes from him or her or it is of him or her. It is axiomatic that first novels often are autobiographical, and even the most fantastic created realms are conceived in the here-and-now.
Writers look for their own reality, however unusual or deranged it may be. At some point, they begin to assess and elaborate upon their experiences not simply as an observance or a participant, but as a writer.
This may explain why the interesting situations in our childhoods can inspire young people to become writers. As a child I did not understand many of the strange occurrences around me, but rather, thought they were normal—it was just the way our family lived. However, as I progress in years, I’m able to look back upon my youth to evaluate and elaborate on many of my childhood’s absurdities. The distance has provided the necessary perspective.
In her book The Lives of Muses, Francine Prose says, “The desire to explain the mystery of inspiration, to determine who or what the ‘moving cause of art,’ resembles the impulse to find out a magician’s secrets.” Sometimes artists can easily identify the source of their inspiration for particular pieces of work, but other times the source is more nebulous. The artist may not know the muse’s role until the project is well underway or even completed.
In the section where Prose discusses Yoko Ono as John Lennon’s muse, she says, “Artists know there is no clear path on which to trace one’s steps back to the wellspring of a work. To attempt to analyze or quantify inspiration is as futile as trying to describe a mystical state, which is what inspiration is.”
In his poignant book, The Zen of Writing, Ray Bradbury has an entire chapter called “How to Keep and Feed the Muse.” He says:
What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse. They are two names for one thing. But not matter what we call it, here is the core of the individual we pretend to extol, to whom we build shrines and hold lip service in our democratic society. Here is the stuff of originality.
Bradbury goes on to say, “To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child.” I was a very hungry child, as evidenced by my need to write at an early age.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve reaped many benefits from the muses in my writing life. They have comprised spirits, family members, friends, and lovers. Although many of them have come and gone, I believe that childhood muses live with us for rest of our lives. My mother, for example, has been my longest-living muse. Now, at the age of 91, she has provided me—through her complicated and eccentric life—with endless musings. Although there were many times when I was angry with her for not being there for me, I believe that subconsciously she freed the writer from within me.
Many believe that some of the best writers in the world emerged from troubled childhoods. In my case, there was always something going on in my home to write about. Sometimes the words exchanged between the adults were spoken with daggers, but most often there was an underlying sense of someone’s discontent, whether it was my mother’s, my father’s, my grandmother’s, my grandfather’s, or my cat, Pixie’s. Someone was often mad or complaining about something or somebody. Anyway, that’s how I remember it. The cloud of anger drove me to the written word. In this way, writing became my savior.
A love of books often permeates a writer’s life way before the actual act of writing does. When I was a young child, my mother surrounded me with books. She was an avid reader, perhaps as a result of her undergraduate English degree from New York University. Once a week she drove me to the local public library, and I’d spend hours in the children’s section reading biographies. It’s no wonder I grew up to be a memoirist and poet.
My childhood stresses often revolved around the loneliness of being an only child. I quickly figured out that in order to survive in my home with my hardworking immigrant parents. I had to learn early to be in touch with my heart center and do what brought me joy . . . and writing has always done just that.
When I was ten years old, my grandmother, who lived with us, took her own life. My mother bought me a Kahlil Gibran Journal and told me to write down what I was feeling. The book was about the size of those black-and-white speckled school notebooks used by young schoolchildren, except it was thicker, maroon in color, and had a protective plastic sheath. On the top of each page were Gibran’s most famous sayings.
Each day, the words usually poured out of me. I really didn’t understand the writing process, but I knew that whatever I was doing felt right. I made a habit of writing on a daily basis, similar to others who might gulp down their morning vitamins. On those rare days when I was stumped about what to write, I would glance at the saying at the top of the page and allow Gibran to guide my thoughts. Each writing session had one thing in common, and that was how elated I felt after writing.
Here is one of my favorite passages from Gibran’s The Prophet:
Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee,
For to the bee a flower is a foundation of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.
Another thing about my mother that was unusual during my childhood was that before its growing popularity, she was an avid environmentalist. One of the first books she ever bought me was marine biologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which she encouraged me to read more than once. The book launched the modern environmental movement. It also earned Carson a slot on Time’s “Most Influential People of the Century” list.
After reading Carson’s book, my mother began recycling paper, glass, and aluminum cans, some of which she found lying on the street while walking or driving. After shaking out whatever liquid was left in the can, she tossed it into her carpeted trunk. My mother also kept a compost heap in our backyard, where she piled everything from coffee grains to orange peels. We did not use aerosol cans, as she proclaimed that they destroyed the ozone layer. To minimize our contribution to pollution, instead of driving to the grocery story, we walked. We usually bought enough food for just that day.
By the time I turned 15, my mother had also converted me into an avid environmentalist. While my friends were rushing out to get their driver’s licenses, I was busy picking up aluminum cans on the street, redeeming them for a hard-earned five cents at the corner store. On a larger scale, I began community-recycling programs.
All this environmentalism served as interesting material to write about in my journal and for the high school newspaper. I only decided to learn how to drive when heading out of town for my junior year of college. Until then I’d zipped around the neighborhood on my ten-speed bike that I named Artemis after the Greek goddess of the hunt. Artemis was a green Raleigh bicycle that I once took on a 500-mile bike trip with a group of other teens in New York, across the state of Maine. There was an article in the local newspaper about our bike trip, and like most teens, I delighted in the attention. I also think the article served as a major turning point for me. For the first time, I understood the power of the written word, as many at school and in the community approached me with questions about my bicycle trip.
It was about that time when I was assigned the position of yearbook editor, a job that fascinated me for a long time and ended up sparking my interest in journalism, which I minored in during college.
My next childhood muse was my sixth-grade English teacher at P.S. 173 in Queens, New York. Mr. O. was a huge part of my writing career, and like many muses, he was a little out of the ordinary. He was an animated, thirtysomething-year-old teacher from Brazil who loved dancing. Every Friday afternoon he locked the classroom door, pulled out his tape player, and gave the class a private performance. We all gathered on one side of the classroom while he stood up on the double desks to perform a Flamenco dance. Mr. O held castanets in both hands while twirling himself around. We all giggled, thinking he was a hoot. He was a rather diminutive blond man, standing only about five feet six inches tall. He was so adorable, and I fantasized about being 20 years older so we could date.
Mr. O. loved everything I wrote, and I received an A+ on all of my writing assignments. I now realize that adults can make or break a child’s creativity, and this becomes more apparent as I raise my own three children. We can have such a huge impact on what they become. I also believe that strengths such as writing can be identified quite early in life.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my maternal grandfather, Samuel, was my next muse, as he taught me the fine art of people watching. Each year he took me on trips to either Miami or Paris. On our Parisian getaways, we would sit for hours in the cafés talking about and watching all the eccentric passersby. We played this game where we’d guess their professions and personal situations. We fabricated a story about any interesting-looking stranger. This daily ritual sparked my interest in fiction writing, and I loved the fact that I would make my grandfather laugh with all my concocted scenarios.
Traveling was an integral part of my childhood. On my father’s meager salary as a store manager, my parents saved enough money for a few international trips. It was the sixties, way before it was vogue to travel overseas. I felt quite lucky, plus it gave me more fodder to write about. Traveling served as a wonderful muse.
For me, Vienna served as a particularly important muse because it aroused a huge emotional response in me. I found the Viennese to be an extremely cold group of people who held little respect for youth. Consistent with my mother’s philosophy that children should be seen and not heard, the Austrians paid little attention to me or the other kids, either in stores or hotels. Plus, Hitler was Austrian. How could I reap pleasure from visiting his homeland even though my mother had been born there? I’d lost so much of my father’s side of the family in the Holocaust. The truth is that my mother was born in Austria, but our heritage is not Austrian. Her parents only lived there for eight years after she was born. They had originally emigrated from Poland between the two world wars.
Education is very important to the European people, and my family was no different. This characteristic of Europeans was imprinted deep inside my mother’s soul and truly rubbed off on me. She wanted more than anything else to instill in me a sense of worldliness. My first international trip was when I was 11. None of my friends had traveled to Europe. We went to Israel, and I remember driving for miles on the highways with my dad holding his movie camera glued to the front window, and how boring it was to look at the reels upon arriving home.
In Greece, I recall the men whistling at my mother as we walked down the city streets. I remember the wonderful dancers in the streets of Yugoslavia wearing festive clothes, and these flat leather shoes turned up at the toes and tied around the ankle. I can still hear the noisy shoes of Holland. I was completely taken by the footwear of faraway lands. That year I began collecting miniature shoes from all over the world. I have since moved on and collect real adult shoes. My husband gave me the nickname Imelda Marcos.
Back then, and even today, shoes continue to be a muse of sorts for me. At times, I feel so obsessed with shoes that when sitting in a bookstore café or some other public place, I’ll glance down at everyone’s feet. You can learn a lot about people by the shoes they wear. Looking at shoes has also helped me dodge writer’s block. When sitting and writing in public places, I often keep my eyes glued to the feet walking by. Similar to bodies, they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. This momentary fixation of watching feet transports me to the next part of my story or essay.
When I was 15, my mother sent me for two summers to an international teen camp in Lausanne, Switzerland. Those two summers were the best of my life. The people I met there served as muses for much of my writing during my adolescence. Although many of the campers were American, there were many others from all over the world. I was exposed to a multitude of languages and cultures, and I was amazed by how many of the foreigners were fluent in English.
I came to understand the extent of their fluency during the first week of camp and how much better everyone’s English became by the end of the summer, and I realized how proud I was to be an American. On July 20, 1969, we were all asked to assemble in the large meeting room for a very special news report. On that Sunday afternoon, two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, piloted the Apollo lunar module named Eagle and landed it on the moon. The time was 4:17 p.m. EST. I still remember the first words they uttered from the moon—“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The campers and counselors gathered to watch the news on a 26-inch television suspended from the wood-beamed ceiling. We sat on the hard wooden floors and listened attentively. The acoustics were horrible, so we were told to remain extremely quiet. One American girl didn’t care about the news broadcast and didn’t stop talking. The camp director approached her and motioned for her to follow him. They ended up in the camp office with the director phoning her parents in New York. The following day she was put on restriction because of her lack of respect for her country. I found it fascinating to muse about that girl and why she would have acted that way. I loved trying to figure out the reason why people did and said the things they did. From a very young age, this was a constant source of musing for me, and it greatly empowered my writing.
During my second summer at camp, I met my first foreign muse. He was an Arab from Kuwait. Although my family was Jewish, we were not extremely religious. Similar to many other Jews, we focused on celebrating mainly during the high holy days such as Passover and Yom Kippur. My mother was apathetic about religion, but my father never wanted to forget his Jewish roots. He survived for five years in Dachau’s concentration camp and respected Israel more than any other country in the world.
Rasheed was a suave 18-year-old with intense dark brown eyes. He wore brown leather sandals that flopped as he walked. We often met after curfew in the courtyard and engaged in some heavy kissing and petting. One time he came to my room when both of us stayed behind during a field trip. The chemistry between us could have powered a car. I’m sure it had something to do with the stars we were both born under.
Rasheed and I corresponded for a short time after camp until his last letter said that he would soon be drafted into the army. I never heard from again. I shudder to think about whatever happened to him. For a while when watching the evening news, I thought I might see a photo of Rasheed when they showed images of the casualties in Kuwait.
My next muse was another boyfriend—Michael, a Spanish beau who drove a blue Volkswagen beetle. Something about the way he shifted its gears really turned me on. One day, his flirtations led me to his attic bedroom after his mother, who was a nurse, left for her evening shift at the hospital. I swore I would remain a virgin until my wedding night, but Michael didn’t let me keep that promise to myself. Somehow as things often happen, I became smitten and lost my sense of control. Michael was my last childhood boyfriend, and my mother’s wish came true when I decided not to marry him.
Writing is my passion and life purpose. I have now published more than ten books and thousands of articles and poems. My mother is still alive, and I must admit that I spent a good amount of my adulthood complaining about how unloving and insensitive she was throughout my life. But what I now realize is that all that strife gave me fodder for my writing, and that muses, in general, are contradictory, and they know how to both motivate and hurt. My mother has certainly elicited a lot of emotion in me—and inspired me by conflict—and for this I now have the wisdom to be grateful.