Howard’s Muse: Some ruminations by historical fiction author Steven Pressfield
Thursday, April 15, 2010
posted by Brian Murphy
Historical fiction author Steven Pressfield, perhaps best known for Gates of Fire, a magnificent re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, writes about the art (or more accurately, the hard labor) of writing every Wednesday on his Web site, stevenpressfield.com. This week’s installment references our favorite author ‘round these parts, Robert E. Howard.
In The War of Art, his non-fiction treatise about the writing profession (and upon which Writing Wednesdays are based), Pressfield describes writing as the product of grit and effort, accomplished by overcoming the demon of resistance. In other words, writing is largely an unromantic slog and the result of hard work. But Pressfield also believes that ideas are an entirely different animal: Inspiration like Howard’s arrives from the wings of angels, a kind of divine insight that alights on our shoulders as we set pen to paper. Pressfield calls this the spirit of the Muse.
As Pressfield notes in his blog post, Howard himself said something similar in a letter:
While I don’t go as far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything), I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present—or even the future—work through the thoughts and actions of living men.
This occurred to me, especially, when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series. For months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything salable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen—or rather, off my typewriter—almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.
Perhaps there is some truth to this. How else to explain creations like Bêlit, or Yag-kosha, or the waking statues of Iron Shadows of the Moon? Surely they weren’t all the products of Howard’s voluminous reading habits, or his Texas environment. I note that J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a similar sentiment in a letter when describing the creation of Faramir:
A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.
Creations like the Hyborian Age and Middle-earth are the closest thing we’ll ever get to magic, a glimpse at the product of some divine spark of invention. But what authors like Tolkien and Howard do with that spark largely determines their success or failure. After the Muse speaks, hard work must translate that voice to the written page. The image that comes to mind is Howard pounding out line after line on his typewriter for up to 18 hours a day on occasion. Says Pressfield:
We can’t control the Muse. We can’t command her. But we can serve her, and we can invoke her. The qualities that I call “professionalism”–patience, hard work, perseverance, humility, drive, generosity, ambition, tough-mindedness and so forth–are simply those virtues that seek to please the Muse, to bring her out of her shell and get her to do a little whispering.
Inspired thoughts like those above are why I highly recommend Pressfield’s Web site, and Writing Wednesdays in particular.