‘The First Page Again’ – Problems of Finishing the CW PhD

Alison Habens

When I started my PhD novel I already knew how to write one. My experience is different to that of some fellow post-graduates; I’m a long term Creative Writing lecturer and author of three mainstream novels that sold well and got good reviews. So I knew how to write a book; just not this one. The theme was ‘divine inspiration’; my interest in it personal. I had written those three previous novels with an increasing awe and amazement at how the creative process happened. Over hundreds of pages I watched ideas come from nowhere, characters pop into my head fully formed and take on lives of their own, and miraculous solutions to narrative problems appear when I wasn’t even thinking about them. Don’t get me wrong, I also brainstormed and did spider diagrams, scenarios and character studies; the conscious drafting and crafting of normal writing practice. But there were moments when I laughed or cried like any other first-time reader, surprised by the next line.

‘Where writers get their ideas from’; that was starting point for both the novel and the thesis. My aim for the essay was to compile an argument based on primary evidence, the testament of the literary canon, whose witnesses are poets and philosophers and prophets; whose evidence is empirical, the words carved or scrawled on the pages of ages.

Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Horace (it just so happens that the literary timeline starts at H); a catalogue of invocations to the Muses, most of them would never have started to write without an invocation, a prayer, a prod, a plea for some supernatural literary assistance to help find the perfect words for the job. Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Shelley (no, I’m just being silly now); chart the ups and downs of the muses’ influence as fashion in poetry changed. My research has involved nothing less elegant than a trawl of the literary canon for mentions of the muses; and a sweep of literary criticism for deconstructions of their mythical power.

It was not just the fanciful poets who invoked the nine muses at the start of every creative endeavour; philosophers kept the faith too. Plato writes both the myths and the maths of the muses. Socrates tells him, in Phaedrus, that grasshoppers used to be men till the muses came along, when certain guys got so hooked on music they forgot to stop and eat or sleep; their devotion to the goddesses of dance and song secured them a musical eternity, on a miniature scale. But in Ion, there is a more scientific explanation of muses as magnetic lodestones, each inspiring a chain of writers, linked by creative attraction, all responding to the generic imperative of their own particular muse.

Hesiod also gives a factual account of the nine, in his Theogony; how they lived on mount Helicon and guarded the Hippocrene spring, whose water poets drunk for inspiration. In The White Goddess Robert Graves suggests the muses were slightly high on hellebore, an hallucinogenic mountain plant, which they chewed like laurel leaves for a similar effect. In later antiquity, when sober Apollo had been put in charge of the entranced muse priestesses, the tradition was to simply wear the laurel wreath as a crown for creative skill. Down the mountainside, the town of Thespies held ‘Mouseai’ festivals every five years from the 6th century BC. The Thespians played host to poets and musicians from all over Greece, who competed in epic, rhapsodic or satiric poetry. A literary Olympic games, it hasn’t lasted as long as the javelin, or gone as far as the discus; but the legacy of verbal sparring lives.

This PhD answer to the popular question, asked of authors perhaps since we wrote in the sand with sticks, follows Coleridge’s ‘damsel with a dulcimer’ and other muse archetypes on a writing spree through history. Case studies of ‘divine inspiration’ include Yeats’ poem The Gift of Harun al-Rashid (Finneran, Ed., 1983: 445), whose narrator has a young bride given to ‘automatic writing’ in the middle of the night; Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, another kind of miraculous talking bird (Rhys Jones, Ed. op.cit: 148); and Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem another midnight writing session, with an angel and a book of gold (ibid: 60).

Having established an epistemology of inspiration personified by the Muses in the mainstream literary canon, my work turns to a series of chapters inspired by each of their characters. There’s a muse for history, comedy and tragedy, even erotica and sci-fi; most student writers find one to invoke in my classes.

Calliope is the eldest and most distinguished of the Muses, identified with philosophy and epic poetry. Legend claims her as the mother of the great poet Orpheus, with Apollo as his father. Calliope’s emblems are stylus and wax tablets. Her name means beautiful voice.

Then with ivy twining her neglected hair, Calliope began [the song], first of her group … [Ovid, Metamorphosis Book Two, [http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/MousaKalliope.html]] Her chapter serves as the introduction to my thesis; and though in time I will write all nine for a book [with Powerpoint images!], for the doctorate I’ll be submitting six.

Clio is the Muse of historical and heroic poetry. Credited with introducing the Phoenician alphabet into Greece, her attribute is usually a parchment scroll. Clio’s name means proclaimer.

Clio’s chapter is called ‘Women, Writing and the Original Web’. It explores the sister subjects of sirens, sybils and spinsters; the weavers of tales from when we used needles instead of pens. All the spinning princess of fairy tale, the embroidering heroines of Greek myth; Arachne, Procne, Penelope, Pamela, the girl from Rumplestiltskin and of course Sleeping Beauty. They trace back to Spiderwoman who spun the world, according to aboriginal creation myths. The web is a metaphor for narrative structure, and a key image at the climax of my novel where I use it to describe the computer which links two sets of characters from widely different worlds: [‘strung between the muscular metal branches of this machine is a cobweb message; a lattice of laser-fine lines, a network of iridescence’?]

Erato is the Muse of lyric poetry, particularly love and erotic poetry. She is also Goddess of mimicry. Her name means lovely, and she is usually depicted with a lyre. She traditionally turns those who follow her into men worthy of desire.

We hear her voice in the modern ‘Interval with Erato’ by American poet, Scott Cairns. ‘That’s what I like best about you, Erato sighed in bed, that’s why/ You’ve become one of my favorites and why you will always be so…. I feel like singing when you do that, she said with more than a hint/Of music already in her voice. So sing, I said…’ [http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-94639737.html] - This poem led to Cairns’ ‘ceremonious unhiring’ by Seattle Pacific University.]

My own interval with Erato is a chapter that explores the sexual dynamics in the poet/muse relationship; does the Jungian marriage of animus and anima means that the writer has to be a man, or that female poets can’t invoke the same heavenly nine. Famous literary sex scenes are analysed for traces of the mythical chemistry between man and muse.

Euterpe is the Muse whose name means delight; and music is her domain, particularly the flute that she invented. She is often pictured playing a double flute, her own speciality.

Euterpe’s chapter is called ‘The Voices and the Voice’. This devotion to the goddess considers a range of musical imagery found at the crescendos of poetry. The lute, the lyre, even the bamboo reed through which the breath of the divine blows are mentioned by many writers, who clearly see themselves as instruments.

I follow the sound of music from Milton’s clumsy invocation to ‘Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well/ That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;/ Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string’ in Lycidas (Darbishire, ed. 1958: lines 15-17); to Kahlil Gibran’s modest ‘Once I too deemed myself a poet, but when I stood before Him in Bethany, I knew what it is to hold an instrument with but a single string before one who commands all instruments’ in Jesus (Rumanous, a Greek Poet in - Gibran, (1997)
The Aolian Harp, with strings played by ‘the god of winds’ is the perfect metaphor for divine inspiration and is used by many Romantic writers, including Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. It is taken up by Coleridge, who overblows it;

‘And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweep
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze…’
(Grigson: 1943;127)

And as the music swells, so madness is stirred. A history of authors with mental illness, and some psychoanalysis of their work, is read to see if genius can be heard in the babble of auditory hallucination. Against these voices, I will set the notion of ‘the voice’; that singular, unique tone advocated by teachers and theorists of Creative Writing in the most famous handbooks in our field (Wandor: 2004).

Melpomene is the Muse of tragedy. She wears a tragic mask or the ‘cothurnus’, which were heavy boots traditionally worn by tragic actors. Her name loosely translates as ‘choir’, because of the chanting which charms and inspires her listeners.

Some sources say she was the mother of the sirens, half woman, half bird (the wrong halves) who lured sailors to their deaths with singing.

My chapter to Melpomene is about mourning and melancholy in writers who lived in my home city of Portsmouth. Called ‘The Literary Leyline’, it positions four famous nineteenth century authors along one straight road in Southsea, and follows a melancholic thread in the fiction that Dickens, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and Rudyard Kipling wrote either while living there or looking back later (from a safe distance).

Polyhymnia is goddess of the sublime and sacred hymn. She is shown in a pensive or meditating position without any props. ‘Many songs of praise’ brings honour and distinction to writers and poets whose works have won for them immortal fame.
In my essay, Polyhymnia gives her name to a history of ‘channelled writing’ in the Christian tradition. I compare and contrast three tellings of the Jesus story: Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus, The Son of Man; Patience Worth’s The Sorry Tale and Ann Rice’s Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt; variously inspired and written by a visionary poet, dictated by a dead one, or perspired over by the modern author.

From words heard in the wilderness, to those carved in runes on stone crosses; from words scratched on leaves by the sibyls, to those scratched on the calf-skin of early English literature; from words dreamed by Piers Plowman and Caedmon the Cowman, to those of a modern ‘Madman’. There’s an internet website called New-Birth.net which has pages of channelled messages including some in 1999 received from the late Kahlil Gibran, author of The Madman and The Prophet. [Miscellaneous Celestial Messages, on March 19th 1999, channelled by Amada Reza.]

But for a voice less easily assimilated to a heavenly chorus, I use Nietszche. His book Thus Spake Zarathustra has the same prophetic tone as Gibran’s Almustafa, and the same ominous style as Moses and Elijah, though his message is contrary to the Christian hymn sheet: God is dead.

Terpischore is the Muse of dance. Surprisingly she is often shown seated, but her special connection with educational and choral dance may imply she is teacher rather than performer. The dances she likes best are the ones that pay homage to her, the spirit of dance itself.

In this chapter, an ‘autobiographical bit’ discusses my own inspiration for writing The Translation; my personal experience of the whispering voices, the singing Muses, the poetry and the prophesy that sometimes seem to come not from me but through me, the so-called author. My sister is a dancer, and as we grew up I used to sit and watch, wishing it was me who was that good at it. Finding my own route to beauty and grace are also part of the writing process described in this essay called The Original and the Translation, inspired by the muse of dance, seated. In the detailed discussion of my drafting and crafting here is empirical evidence for my central argument that God or goddesses are the real storytellers and we are just their feather pens.

Thalia presides over comedy and pastoral, merry and idyllic poetry. She favours rural pursuits, and is pictured holding a comic mask and a shepherd’s staff.
The chapter to Thalia, Muse of comedy, digs for the etymological roots of the subject and tries to discover if Komos, the Greek god of comedy, and Thalia are still alive and gigging today. It traces their individual histories in fertility practices to find if they connect in any original funny stories. The closest Komos and Thalia come to sharing a plotline is in their mayday roles as Robin Hood and Maid Marion; but the echoes of spring rites through the trees can still be heard in comedy sketches today. Serious theory is provided here by Bakhtin’s work on carnival and the grotesque. For slapstick with a leafy branch, though, John Cleese and Felicity Kendal wear the crowns (and codpieces) of the comedy king and queen. Subtitled The Golden Banana Skin, this essay brings the mythological discourses of J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough to bear on popular and alternative comedy references.

Urania is Muse of astronomy and astrology. With a globe in her left hand and a peg in her right, she is dressed in a cloak embroidered with stars and keeps her eyes towards the sky. Her name means heavenly. ([http://musesguild.tripod.com/muses/])

Urania, Muse of astronomy and astrology, gives her name to an essay which sees female poets, from 17th century Amelia Lanyer and Margaret Cavendish, to contemporary Lavinia Greenlaw and Alice Oswald, write on scientific themes instead of the usual musings on marriage and motherhood that can characterise women’s poetry.

So, I didn’t know any of this when I started to write the novel about divine inspiration. But by the time I reached the end, some years later, I knew so much more about the subject. At the time of the third, and final, draft of this massive creative endeavour, I look back at the first page and now it seems empty. The story doesn’t start there. I had no idea what was going to happen. So now, just months from completion, the book seems to need a new first page so that I can have my last word on the subject. As the historical novelist shows only the tip of the research iceberg, so must I resist the urge to tell the whole thesis in my opening paragraph.

But stuffed and cluttered with four or more years of research the opening paragraph now reads like this:

‘She’d left a shrine to the muses on the hall table. A dusty lyre with nine strings, a feather pen, a comic mask, some crumbling laurel leaves were mixed up with the car keys and small change. On her desk, votive candles dripped wax into the keyboard cracks and the mousemat was a picture of Urania, muse of science fiction. She burnt incense in the bedroom, brewed herbal tea in the kitchen and smoked drugs in the lounge; all to invoke those nine lovely ladies of mythology. Helicon, halcyon, hallucigen: as well as home worship, she went to classes. Because it’s not possible to do a PhD in Creative Writing, be a doctor of stories, and still not know the simplest thing; where do writers get their ideas? Same place that babies come from? Narnia, Nirvana, Neverland? Where your shadow goes at bedtime? [Over the rainbow, under the beautiful briny sea?]
The wanna-be author had been waiting so long for a tale to tell, that when one finally came along, it seemed wrong not to write it down, though it didn’t sound right at all.’ [The Translation – New Page One]

And this is where I seamlessly join with the old first lines that have been there since I conceived of my novel. An opening gambit that hasn’t changed since the original writing:

‘This story is not in English. It has been translated. The original language was not French, or Latin, or German. It was not Greek, or Hebrew, or Swahili. It was not Japanese. This story is told in an alien tongue.

Don’t start thinking ‘little green men’, though; or we’ll have to boast ‘large, golden women’. The terminology is alien and strange is the tongue, but don’t start thinking unsightly forked ones, or we’ll be forced to show you ours. With page-turning beauty, we put the face into typeface. With best-selling style, we put the ass into classic.’ [The Translation – Old Page One]

On this, the old page one, we don’t see who’s writing; the human hand at the end of the heavenly dictation (me, actually). That information, I wanted to squeeze out very slowly, so the story that seems to be set far away gradually comes closer to home. Those ‘large golden women’ whose voices we hear, seem to be a loose approximation to the muses before I had done the detailed research on them. The new page one puts them first, with (what I fondly imagine to be) a post-modern invocation; and a human writer who is wondering where the words are coming from.

The pantheon I crudely devised for the first draft underpin the plot, and were difficult to unpick once the proper muses moved in, so the novel does suffer from some overcrowding of celestial beings. In fact, my central characters have to go on holiday, about half way through the text, to golden age Greece in order to meet the goddesses of classical mythology on their own turf.

“I can hear singing,” says Hazel, half way up that mountain.
“That’ll be them,” Hypnos replies. “They’re high, you know, on hellebore; it’s a Helicon plant. They chew laurel too; gets them out of their heads.”
“I thought they just wore it as a crown.”
“Apollo does,” he tells me. “He’s sober; but the girls are off their faces.”
“Great singing, though,” Hazel carries on up the mountain.
We get our first glimpse through the fragrant bushes. Three times three, goddesses of creativity; dancing in a circle. I wish I could say that one was black and one was fat and one had only one leg. I’d like to point out the lesbian, the single mother, the one with a tribal tattoo; but the look is pure European. Their dance is the curve of croissants, pasta twists, spinning pizza bases. It folds like a triangular Greek pastry; drizzled with honey, crinkled like a walnut. It is the whirl of caramel, the swirl of brown sugar in a café au lait. Subtle shades from toffee to coffee, tan to ‘pain rustique’, make up the colour palate of the Muses.
Where they differ is their ages. One is just a teenager, and one is in her twenties; there’s a thirty-something, forty-something and fifty-something Muse, all dancing in the circle. As they turn about it almost seems each lady grows older before our eyes; the seventy year old, eighty and ninety year-old Muses wear the same translucent togas; and the flowers adorning their tresses are still as fresh. Even the geriatric ones have Adriatic blue eyes. Youth passes into age as the circle slowly turns, giving the impression that each of the muses simply stands still and the years dance over her.
Hypnos has to tear his eyes away to read from his scroll:
“Welcome to the Hippocrene spring, home of inspiration, seat of genius. This water is the traditional source of brilliant ideas, artistic masterpieces, virtuoso performances. You don’t have to be a superstar to drink here, though. Art teachers and therapists are filled too with the divine gift of creativity; even the critic may sip from the same cup as the artiste he reviews.”
I wish I could say the spring was horseshoe-shaped, as its name implies; but the opening is hidden by a frill of ferns, hushed by the rushes, cushioned with emerald moss. Seeing water trickling out of rock, liquid out of solid, is getting my creative juices flowing. And as for drinking it, well, I think the Hippocrene spring won’t taste like horse-piss, when it passes my lips. [Named for Pegasus, the muses’ pet!]
“Ladies, whether you be poet or painter, singer or dancer, please approach the spring. That’s just the names on the list,” Hypnos insists. “No changing your minds at the last minute. I’ll be back to collect you at sundown.”

But before I reached that point, my musings on divine inspiration led me to create another story line, with another pantheon of divine authors and another idiom of heavenly dictation. My novel is full, perhaps too full of ideas now, with supernatural beings jostling to whisper in the ear of the would-be writer who’ll have her name on the cover.

Where will it end? If I could start again from that new first page, it would turn out rather differently. Just having tweaked the old first page, I’ll be popping back through the hundred-thousand words (not quite) again to reflect the new wisdom on page one; slowly and painfully referencing the endless snippets of poetry and prose which back up the fantastically airy-fairy assertions of my thesis. In itself, this novel is two books; not counting the volume of essays written on its themes. There’s a real danger I’ll have written too much. But when all nine muses are singing at the spring of creative/critical writing, it’s rude to tell them to stop.


Darbishire, H. (Ed.) (1958). The Poetical Works of John Milton. London: Oxford University Press.

Finneran, R. (Ed.) (1983). W.B. Yeats – The Poems. London: Macmillan

Frazer, J. G. (1987). The Golden Bough; Abridged Edition. : Macmillan.

Gibran, Kahlil. (1997). Jesus The Son Of Man. London: Penguin Arkana.).

Graves, R. (1961). The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber.

Grigson, (Ed.). (1943). The Peak. London: Routledge.

Rhys Jones, G. (Ed.) (1996). The Nation’s Favourite Poems. London: BBC Worldwide Limited.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2007.) Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Thomas Common 1999 Project Gutenberg online book; [http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=39637] retrieved 26.06.07

New-Birth.net. (1997). [http://www.new-birth.net/contemporary/dl29.htm]. Retrieved 22.05.07

Rice, A. (2005). Christ the Lord – Out of Egypt. London: Chatto and Windus.

Wandor, M. (2004) Creative Writing and Pedagogy 1: Self Expression? Whose Self and What Expression? New Writing – The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Vol 1:2, pp. 112-123.

Worth, Patience. (1917). The Sorry Tale: A Story of the Time of Christ. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Copyright Alison Habens 2008



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