My Rather Unorthodox Muse
By Richard Grunert
Completed August 20, 2012
Closing the book, I sighed, standing up. The maze-like tranquility of Roland's Books had always given me the greatest sense of peace but, frustrated as I was, could at the moment do nothing to improve my mood. On many occasions prior I had come to this place – my little escape from the real world, as it was – to cheer myself up, the rows upon rows upon rows of books stacked high to the ceiling throughout the store's many corridors of shelving resembled to me a sort of bibliophillic Minotaur's labyrinth in which I could lose myself in a never ending stream of escapist fantasies. I had once spent an entire day hidden away in a far, dark corner of the language section digesting a chronicle of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt; away from the agitating eyes of the old store manager (whom I had never spoken to at length but could only guess to be the eponymous Roland) allowing myself to be safely and securely removed from reality. Ever since I had finally decided that I was going to finally stop merely reading and become a writer myself however, my former den of solitude had become one of the greatest sources of discord in my life.
The tome returned back to its rightful place on the shelf marked 'fantasy,' I retreated to a darker corner of the room. The first two chapters had been an interesting little tale to be sure, and I could tell that the author had worked very hard on it, but my problem with the book stemmed from the fact that it was horribly, horribly generic. I couldn't count the number of books I had already read about a boy from a small village in some stock world of elves, goblins and dwarves who discovers he is some long lost hero and rises up to overthrow some evil wizard or tyrannical king. No, that had been done to absolute death, and I wasn't about to stomach another one. Since my decision my reasons for coming to the store had become much less about merely seeking an escape, what I now sought was nothing less than pure inspiration, I wanted a story to tell, but I just couldn't for the life of me think of anything I considered sufficiently original; that was the reason I was there that hot evening in late August, I wanted, no, needed to understand how a writer came up with a great story.
Pulling a few other books down from nearby shelves at random, I briefly skimmed both their backs and first chapters. One was a neat little story about a talking mouse who lived in an abbey and had to fend off an assault of evil rats and vermin; a cute twist on an old concept, I liked it and made a mental note to read it someday. Another turned out to be one from a series about a young, beautiful nun who roamed America in a Ferrari solving mysteries for the CIA; creative, but stupid. I returned it to the shelf. The third relayed the tale of a space marine in the far future on some strange planet where he battled an army of space orcs; this one seemed somewhat familiar to me, and I tried in vain to remember if I had read it sometime before. Three books, three completely different stories; what I endeavored to understand as I turned the corner into the classical section was how the authors had come up with them, what their inspirations had been and how I could capture it as they had.
I knew every inch of Roland's, from the brightly colored books on Native American religions to the much more drab shelves on the Czech language, but this part had always been my favorite. When I first stepped into the store and rediscovered my love of reading three years prior, it had been these shelves that first introduced me to the likes of Wilde, Huxley and Poe, whose works I now admired more than any other. As the familiar ambient music hummed through the cheap speakers overhead I scanned the walls for something new to take my mind off my troubles, but somewhere between Joyce and Conrad I found myself stuck staring at the old photographs of great authors decorating the walls. Of course I recognized some of them, but far greater was the number of those with whom I wasn't, and would probably never be, acquainted. One of the greatest regrets of my life is the fact that I will never be able to read all the great books by these authors, of the huge volume of great literature I will never get to experience. My thoughts and my solitude were abruptly interrupted, however, when Roland rounded the corner, chastised me for still being in the store half an hour after closing and shoved me out the door into the oppressively hot summer dusk.
The trek home wasn't something I'd been looking forward to. Forced out into the awful heat (still 84 degrees at 10:30?!) I mentally muttered a curse at myself for picking today, of all days, to wear heavy jeans, and grudgingly began the long, uphill walk home.
Late on a Tuesday as it was, Bellingham was still bustling with it's usual nighttime activity. Two foreign men stood outside a dark strip mall convenience store, arguing in a language I couldn't hope to comprehend. They yelled and yelled as the low, red light from the sign high above the parking lot illuminated their angry hand gestures and venomous expressions. Right as it looked as if one was about to swing, they calmed down and shook hands. One laughed as he climbed into his bright green Cadillac and sped off into the night.
Outside the record store near the bus station a jersey-clad group with wild haircuts stood in a tight circle, muttering numbers to each other in a hushed whisper. Arms entered and left of the circle quickly, into and out of the open mouths of heavy black backpacks. An older man with ghost-white, slicked hair and a leather vest looked up from the organized chaos of the circle to make eye contact. His dark-rimmed, sagging eyes told me something that didn't need much interpretation, I hurried on my way, making sure not to look back lest he get an even better view of my face.
The sidewalk under the radiant neon glow of the 'SUPER BOWLING' sign found itself host to a heated battle of drunken honor. A grotesquely muscular man without a shirt swung a huge right fist at the right side of his much smaller opponent's head, which the blond man in a crimson shirt dodged nimbly by ducking to the right. He retaliated with a quick punch to the larger man's abdomen followed by a loud, cracking uppercut to the underside of the jaw, bringing the behemoth to the ground in a dazed, bloody mess. The encircling crowd cheered, and the victor let out an intoxicated roar. As the roar of sirens approached, I left; looking back in time to see the swarm of police run into the group with batons held high.
I passed all these things in as much a state as anyone else drenched head-to-toe in sweat would have, and that's the only reason I can think of to justify my missing of the obvious. Near the top of the hill there's a small park on the west side. Needing a rest, I stepped up onto the grass and headed for the park's only bench, only to find it already occupied. There under the dull yellow glow of the light from a building about ten feet back sat an old man wearing ripped blue jeans and a plaid gray jacket over a stained white t-shirt; he sat there, hunched over in a daze with a half-empty 40-ounce bottle in his hand. Tired as I was, I didn't really look forward to the prospect of sitting down next to this man, but since he seemed to be quite well enough asleep, I decided to chance a brief rest. About eight seconds later, the man leaned over and shoved the bottle under my nose with a smile.
'Have some, it's good,' he said calmly with a cough.
The yellow liquor swished flatly inside the bottle. I sat up and took it from him, chuckling. It might be nice to have a drink, even one that wasn't cold. Sipping, I returned it, thanking him.
'Have you figured out the answer to your problem yet?'
I was startled.
'What problem?' I asked as he took a long drink, head back.
' Your problem,' he dropped the bottle down in his hand, gripping the mouth with just the tips of his fingers. 'That whole "inspiration" thing.'
'How'd you know about that?' At this point I was legitimately creeped out.
'Just shut up and listen to me for a second.' Before I could protest further he had shushed me multiple times into submission. 'I know you say you want to write, but can't figure out how to come up with a story. The answer is really simple, I thought you would have finally understood after I threw three perfectly good ones right at you.'
'What do you mean? Three stories?' I'm not able to tell you why I didn't just leave, but the off chance that this crazy drunken bum, creepy or not, might actually have some good advice was enough to get me to stay.
He sighed, visibly frustrated. 'Think about it. The two Pakistani guys? the fight? the meth deal? Can you really tell me you don't get it? We'll have to start at the basic level. Tell me, what are the three things every story needs?'
He didn't give me very much time to answer.
'I didn't think so. And I'm only going to say this once so you'd better listen. A story needs these three things: characters, a conflict and good setting. Without all of these that assemblage of letters you've forced onto the page is just that: text. Think back to what happened tonight, you saw two men yell at each other in a language you didn't understand; what do you think their argument was about? what did he say to calm the other down? Invent the conflict. Who were they? what are their names? do they work together? The same goes for the others: what drug were they all go eager about? who were those two men and why were they fighting? Maybe the smaller one insulted the larger's girlfriend, or maybe Randal (as you've named the bigger one) just happened to spill his rum and coke on Kenny's shirt by accident, causing little drunk Kenny to attack? Maybe Old Bill (the man eying you from the crowd) had just come across a great new kind of drug, one so great he could barely keep up with demand. What if his stare hadn't been menacing, as you perceived it, and was merely his way of inviting you over for a taste? There's no excuse for writer's block when there's so much inspiration all around you every day. If you're stuck, take a walk around town at night, watch people, make them into your characters and give them personality.'
'What about setting? You mentioned that.' I asked when he finally paused for long enough for me to get a word in.
He responded by throwing his patched arms out completely, as if pointing to all that existed around him at the same time. 'Can you really not see it? I thought you were smarter than that. This is your setting! What could be better than a humid night on a seedy street in August?'
'Lots of things.' I sipped the bottle again.
He sighed, relaxing his arms. 'Fine! Set it wherever you want. The desert, the jungle, wherever! Just try to remember this much before I go: any combination of conflicts, characters and settings has the potential to be both wonderfully amazing or woefully boring; it all comes down to the writing and whether done well or not.' He stopped, wiping a sweaty brow. The heat was still just as uncomfortable as it had been when I'd started. 'I'm going to go. Try not to forget what I've told you alright? I've got much more important people to help. Goodbye.' The moment he finished he was gone, vanished in the blink of an eye.
The morning bird's chatter woke me up, slouched on the bench with a sick stomach with an empty bottle in hand.