I have a muse named Charley. I call him a muse but honestly I’m not sure what he is. More than likely he’s a product of my imagination, except that sometimes he says stuff I would never say or even think. Like he tells me I’m sexy, which is one of the last adjectives I’d use to describe my soon to be fifty-four-year-old self. He also seems to love me with an unconditional passion that I find frankly embarrassing. All of which leaves me wondering, who is this guy?
Charley first arrived shortly after I turned forty and joined Turtle Studios, a collective art studio then under the leadership of Kate Ransohoff. Kate used the name “Charley” as a shorthand reference for the creative essence that lives inside all of us. She described him most often as shy and easily frightened away by criticism. But my Charley introduced himself to me in a dream dressed as a soldier in army fatigues.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll be fighting for your creativity,” he said in all seriousness.
I don’t have dreams like this. I have stress dreams filled with tedious “to do” lists that never get accomplished. So dreaming about a soldier fighting for my creativity sounded good to me. Except in my waking hours I didn’t feel the need for creative protection then. Writing was sheer bliss at that point. It was the cheapest, quickest and most complete vacation from my work as a psychologist and parent of two young kids. I showed up at a cafe, spent two hours and two bucks on a coffee and got to go on a ride into a whole other world. I had no idea what I was doing, but who cared? I hadn’t planned to write a novel. It just appeared, like Charley.
Sadly, that phase ended close to the end of the first draft. It was only then that I realized the draft was pretty terrible and not knowing what I was doing was no longer all that much fun. I didn’t have a clue how to put a novel together. Around that time Charley showed up in another dream. Dressed as a Roman warrior, on this occasion he was clad in full armor and one of those cute skirts you see gladiators wearing in old movies. In one hand, he held an enormous battle-ax, in the other, a sword with a really long blade. This guy meant business. No bad draft was getting in his way.
When I got up the next morning I tried talking to Charley. He talked back. I asked him questions and he answered. He said good stuff, gave good advice. But honestly, there’s no way this guy could be real. I had to be talking to myself, right? After all, I have a vivid imagination. I read fairy tales and fantasy. I write stories with magic in them. So most of the time I forgot about Charley, despite the fact that he showed up instantly whenever I said, “Hey Charley, are you there?”
During a Reiki treatment in Newton Centre, Charley appeared again, this time as a handsome and irreverent English/French aristocrat type. While my body lay peacefully on a massage table, Charley wrapped the rest of me in his arms and flew me out of the therapist’s office. We rose in the air over Newton Centre, above J.P. Licks and the Bigelow Cleaner sign, above the rich smell of Peet’s Coffee and the driver honking at the corner of Beacon and Langley. The light turned green as we soared away into the morning sky.
After a surprisingly short trip, Charley set me down at the edge of a high cliff by the sea, in a place that looked a lot like the coast of England or maybe Ireland. Green grass blew on a headland behind us. Sparkling blue ocean spread out in front. Charley held my hand and we floated down to the curved lip of a beach at the bottom of the cliff. The sand was warm. The air smelled fresh and salty. Charley led me into a seaside cave where sunlight filtered in through cracks in the rock and lit up a large wooden chest that looked remarkably like the pirate’s chest you’d find in a children’s book. Charley knelt beside it and lifted the lid. Inside a mass of jewels gleamed in every possible color – pearls and gold coins, silver goblets, and precious gems.
He smiled at me and said, “These are your works. These are all your creative endeavors.”
On the way home from the Reiki treatment, my senses returned. Wait a minute, I thought. Gems? I scribble in ratty notebooks bought on sale at CVS. I have a really bad draft of a too long novel and a few other assorted partial bad drafts. And obviously I have an embarrassing Harlequin romance kind of imagination – a pirate chest and a handsome imaginary man who compares my writing to treasure. Please.
Despite my disbelief, I continued to talk to Charley on and off. I took classes at Grub Street. I learned more about writing. I did Grub Street’s Novel Incubator Program, which came with a boatload full of marvelous writing companions and two incredible teachers dedicated to turning my bad draft into something respectable. Charley faded into the background.
But the Incubator Program has ended now and I am faced with one more revision. I’m close to being done. I know what it needs and I have the tools to tackle it. But frankly, getting back into my novel feels a little like taking a long trip to the dentist.
On a recent walk with my dog I remember Charley. “Hey Charley, are you there?” I ask.
“Of course,” he answers. And indeed there he is in my mind’s eye, lounging in a white terrycloth bathrobe. He’s balancing a cup of coffee on his knee and reading a book.
“What are you reading?” I ask.
“A great book,” he says engrossed in the pages.
I honestly cannot imagine what Charley would read. “Whose is it?” I ask.
“Yours.” He lifts his eyes from the page and smiles rakishly at me.
“Yeah, right,” I say. But I laugh.
My dog whines to be let off the leash. Just then a golden leaf floats down out of the sky. It lands on me and sticks. I pluck it off my shoulder – all buttery yellow and delicately veined with a small imperfection at the edge. An insect has chewed it. For a moment I am disappointed, but when I look closer I see it’s been nibbled into the shape of a perfect heart.