A Message from the Muse

A beautiful sunriseThe office for my psychiatric practice is on the first floor of the Victorian house that has been my home for forty-seven years. This morning, I walked down the stairs early to work, glanced through a window and saw the car of my first patient parked in the driveway. She’s usually early, often sits in her car using her phone — and may be still talking as she walks in the front door. Sometimes I hear her say, “I’ve got to hang up now. My meeting is about to start.”

This morning, I was surprised, with a flush of pleasure, to find her sitting and reading in the waiting room — no phone in sight. She’s here. She’s HERE. Now.

She’s here for the fifty minutes of work that we will do together.

But she’s been cheating herself.

If she had resisted the distraction of blue tooth and phone, her session could have begun when she got into the car to drive to my office. Or even last night, when she remembered that we would be meeting first thing in the morning.

In his terrific book “The Spooky Art: Thoughts On Writing,” Norman Mailer made the observation that a writer would do well to plan a specific time to write — a time that serves as a signal to the psyche to be ready for the task. Having written four books myself, I can attest to this. First of all, I must have something that presses for written expression. Rilke was right: “Don’t write unless you have to.” I must have something to work with. I have found my personal muse to be a demanding one, requiring for her cooperation that I clear the day, from waking to sleeping, for writing. I may quit writing at any time. But I don’t do my best writing unless the day ahead is clear.

Unconscious processes work in other mysterious ways. Like some folks, I’ve always loved doing crossword puzzles. Doing the crossword, I learned that, when I’m stuck, there are two ways (without cheating) to get on with it. One is simply to give up for a while. Really give up. When, at some point, I venture to pick up the puzzle again, I can count on it that solutions will simply present themselves — as though my brain has been working on the puzzle unconsciously.

A second mysterious remedy for being stuck involves something a bit more complex. It requires the willingness to do the puzzle in ink (a sign both of commitment and of some comfort with A Message from the Muse messiness), and the willingness to ink in an incorrect answer. What is meant by an “incorrect” answer is somewhat ambiguous, although crossword aficionados will understand what I am getting at. This has to be an answer that fits, an answer that could be correct, but that in our heart of hearts we simply know is not right. Still, we must have the temerity to ink it in.

Very soon, we will find ourselves knowing the correct answer to contiguous crosswords, and, eventually, to the original word itself.

Our brain appears to need, in a major way, the commitment to the task at hand, and is hungry for something to work with.

The most inspired breakthrough moments in the creative work of psychotherapy come unexpectedly and cannot be forced. My patient and I have to show up, chop wood and carry water, and, in the words of my early mentor, Dr. Elvin Semrad, investigate, investigate, investigate. We can give the work its best chance by committing ourselves and putting our psyches on notice that we have dedicated time. Protected time. To be here now.

~ Susan Rako