When we talk about inspiration we often speak of it as “striking”. The muse acts as a thunderbolt that strikes the writer, compelling her to rush to her typewriter or grab her pen and madly dash off dozens of pages that drift to the floor in scattered abandon. At least that’s how it looks in movies such as Swimming Pool and The Hours. I’ve long realized, though, that I’ve got a different sort of muse. She moves at the same pace I used to translate Latin at, picking at words, sorting through images, slowly building up layers of meaning. A classical muse who carries not a lyre, but an armful of reference books and looks suspiciously like my sophomore Greek teacher, James Day. Although she’s no respecter of deadlines or dinner hours, I’m grateful to have her and I’ve given some thought lately to how I ended up with her and what it means to be inspired by classical things.
I didn’t know I was looking for my muse when I signed up for Latin 101 my first year of college. I thought I’d already found her. I’d been writing since I was nine and during my teen years I wrote poetry feverishly–tortured, melodramatic poetry (opening a high school journal randomly I find: I feel the rain, like a machete, gashing out parts of my body against the windowpanes–and that’s from a Christmas poem!). My teenaged muse was fond of imagery involving razor blades and her working hours were between midnight and four am. She demanded I write in unlined journals and use fountain pens. She didn’t like rejection slips and even though I had won a poetry award by 17, she wilted on me the year before I went to college. She left me, though, with both an appreciation of and frustration with the slipperiness of language. She gave me an inchoate longing to go back to the roots of things, to understand not just how words got their meanings but how the world, so baffling and often alien, got to be the way it was. I signed up for Latin 101 because I wanted to start all over (the way only an eighteen year old thinks that that’s possible). I believe my scheme when I started college was to spend a year on the Greeks and Romans, another on the Middle Ages, junior year abroad with the Renaissance, winding up senior year with the twentieth century.
Not surprisingly, I got stuck in the first stage of my scheme. I wasn’t a stellar Latin student. For one thing, I’d never had to take a subject (at least one I cared about) that I couldn’t somehow fake. I had gotten by in English because I read a lot and even though I wouldn’t have known a direct object if I ran into one, I’d absorbed the rhythm of written English well enough to score high on my verbal SATs. Latin, on the other hand, required that I spend hours every night in the library memorizing declensions and preparing translations. To my surprise, I found I liked that kind of work. I suppose it’s the kind of orderly work that mathematicians and musicians enjoy, but that I never experienced because I’d given up on math at too early an age and had never studied a musical instrument. Latin became my math and my music which I was willing to wade through because of what it yielded: beautiful language.
The moment that stands out for me was translating the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the part where Dido begins to realize that Aeneas is going to leave her. It’s the kind of scene that any nineteen year old can appreciate: the dawning realization that your boyfriend’s about to ditch you. Dido’s agony seemed all the more poignant to me because of the slow, labored process of getting to it as I looked up words, checked declensions, and occasionally consulted the translation which I kept on the far side of the library table. I liked, I think, the way translating Latin slowed me down, the way it made me stop and savor the language instead of rushing forward for plot resolution. When I write now I often have that same sensation I had working in the library. I spend a lot of time staring out the window, repeating words, and looking things up. I try to pay attention to the moment and to the words. I believe that those hours in the Vassar College library taught me both the discipline that is required to write a novel and the joy of toiling with language that makes writing a novel a labor of love.
I didn’t, however, recognize that I’d found my classical muse. Instead I regarded my four years as a Latin major as a hiatus in my writing career. I had pretty much given up writing while I was in college. Perhaps I’d gone as far as I could with the kind of tortured adolescent poetry I’d been writing, which even I had begun to grow tired of, or maybe it was the rejections from literary magazines I’d grown tired of. By the end of college, though, I was stricken with a nostalgia for what it felt like to write and I started again. It was like returning to a long lost love–I felt guilty that I’d abandoned it and a little bit hazy on the details of what had led me to stray. What had I been doing for all those years stuck in a dusty old library studying a dead language? I suddenly remembered that I loved English. I plunged into nineteenth century novels with a passion (what a breeze to read Dickens and Bronte after Propertius and Tacitus). I read these novels on the train, commuting to the entry-level publishing job I’d taken on the theory that working in publishing would be good for my writing. Latin I relegated to a quaint eccentricity from my past, certainly helpful in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but having no real role in my life as a writer.
As it turned out, publishing seemed to have even less to do with writing. I attended editorial board meetings where the most important info about an author was his or her media platform. I copy-edited celebrity bios and exercise manuals. The most interesting conversation I had about language was a heated argument with the assistant of a Hollywood exercise diva over the use of the word cellulite which, she told me, her boss didn’t believe in. I came to realize that publishing really didn’t have all that much do with literature–an epiphany that would prove useful to me twenty years later when my first book was published, but was, at the time, disheartening.
And as for my muse–she had evaporated. Perhaps she didn’t have the right media platform. After dozens (and dozens) of rejections from literary magazines, it didn’t look as though I was going to have the life of a writer. Instead I had the life of a low-paid clerical worker who harbored delusions of becoming a writer. At least, that’s how bleak it looked to me in those days. So I gave up–or to put it more generously, I beat a tactical retreat. Once again I put writing aside. Unwilling to spend my waking life at a mediocre day job, I went back to school to become a high school teacher–an English teacher, I thought, because by that point, six years out of college, I’d forgotten most of my Latin.
When I spoke with the certification people at the University of Texas, though, I was told that, one, I had to be double certified in Texas; two, the only subject I had enough credits in for certification was Latin; and three, Latin was my best bet for getting a teaching job. Amazingly, Latin, my quaint eccentricity, had turned out to be a marketable commodity! All I had to do was get through two semesters of it at UT (presumably because Texas Latin is different from all other Latin). So I enrolled in a Horace class for the next fall and got out my college Wheelock, assigning myself a chapter a day. I taped up declensions and conjugations around my Hyde Park bungalow and memorized Sententiae Antiquae. Almost every night I had the classic anxiety dream in which you’ve been seated for an exam only to learn the exam’s in Sanskrit. My former Greek teacher, James Day, would appear in these dreams as Zeus, brandishing a lightning bolt in one hand and a giant Liddell & Scott in the other. I’d wake up thinking, Thank God I don’t have to revive my Greek! I was so nervous on my first day of class that when Dr. Carl Rubino asked for my Latin background my throat closed up and I had to flee the room in a coughing fit. As the door swung shut behind me I heard Dr. Rubino say, “Well, there’s one down.”
I didn’t just revive my Latin for certification that year, I revived my love for Latin. Dr. Rubino treated the poems we read as literature, not just grammatical puzzles to decipher (I’m sure my professors at Vassar did, too, but I was probably too overwhelmed learning the grammar to notice it). Yes, I’d given up writing for the time being, but translating a Horace poem, trying to make it a poem again in English, was like writing on the sly. I could enjoy the sensation of writing without having to come up with a plot. I could play with language without having to delve into my own feelings–although sometimes I might be surprised by a line that had resonance within my own life. I think, too, that translating proved to be a good training ground for revising a novel, which I’ll speak more about it a moment.
When I started teaching Latin at a middle school in Austin, Texas, I found as well that the experience of teaching gave me a lot of material for writing. My first (unpublished) novel was a young adult fantasy in which a young teacher travels to a remote outpost on a faraway planet to teach an indigenous population who, although illiterate and unruly, have mysterious powers. Some of the characters were inspired by my students. There was John Chavez, for instance, the only Hispanic student in my Latin classes. John was a great Latin scholar and an eager Certamen competitor. He always came to Latin Club and Certamen meets. When I found out that he was using his lunch money to take the bus to the meets, I started picking him up. I’ll never forget what he looked like, standing in front of his aunt’s dilapidated East Austin bungalow, his hair neatly combed, holding his Latin textbook open to study his declensions. I wasn’t able to sell my young adult fantasy–or the mystery I wrote after that–but I didn’t give up as I had in my twenties. Being a teacher, I spent a large part of my day telling my students not to give up on their dreams. If John Chavez could save his lunch money to pay for bus fare to Certamen meets, I could sit down and write another book.
As you’ve probably realized by now, I’m a slow learner. Even with James Day haunting my dreams, I hadn’t recognized my muse yet. It wasn’t until my third novel that I found myself using a Latin teacher for a main character and classical poetry and myth as a leitmotif for the novel. By then my daughter had been born and I’d stopped teaching Latin. When my marriage broke up, though, and I ended up living back in my parents’ house, I imagined getting a Latin teaching job at a private school that would provide housing and child care. I didn’t end up doing that–instead I wrote a story about a woman, Jane Hudson, who does. In the story (called “Girl, Declined”) Jane finds comfort relearning her declensions, turning to her Wheelock just as I had years before. She also feels a connection with the troubled teenagers she teaches–I give one of them a journal filled with poetry much like the kind I wrote. The girls like Latin, “precisely because it has no relevance to their lives.” I workshopped this story in a class at the New School with the writer Sheila Kohler and she encouraged me to stick with what I had going on with those Latin students. Although I put the story aside for a while, I often found myself thinking about Jane Hudson and those girls. Why was Latin such a solace to them? What had happened in their lives that they required such solace?
Returning to the story a few years later was almost like the return I’d made to Latin in my twenties. I was at another low point in my life: my father had just died of stomach cancer. Writing about girls chanting declensions like novices counting their rosaries and Jane practicing her Latin classroom expressions in front of a mirror … like a nervous teenager preparing for her first date had the same comforting quality as studying my Wheelock had years before. In fact I had to get out my Wheelock (and my Virgil and Ovid) to write the book. Sometimes when I paused mid-scene to look up a Latin word, I had that same feeling I’d had twenty years before in the Vassar College library weeping over Dido’s pyre–a sense of wonder at the power of language to accrue meaning bit by bit, much as the pyre itself is built up out of stray bits of wood, until it catches fire and sweeps you out of yourself. By the time I finished the book I saw that in my attempts to evade and assuage my grief I’d come up with a way of writing about it, that the “dead languages” of the title might refer to the language we use when speaking to the dead. Margaret Atwood writes in her book Negotiating with the Dead that, “… not just some but all writing of the narrative kind and perhaps all writing, is motivated deep down with a fascination with mortality–with a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” If that’s true–and with every book I write I find myself coming back to that idea–then what better muse to have than a classical one?
I had no reason to think that The Lake of Dead Languages would fare any better in the world than my two unpublished books. But it did. Three out of the five agents I queried wanted to see it. Of the two rejections there was the one who replied, “I find books about Latin teachers to be boring,” making me wonder just how many books about Latin teachers had come across his desk?. On the other hand, the agent who eventually took it has since told me that one of the reasons her curiosity was piqued by my query letter was because she had enjoyed her years studying Latin. When she offered to represent me, though, she did so on the condition that I revise the novel before she sent it out. I thought this would take a month or so, but instead it took eight months. I’d never done this significant a revision on a piece of writing and I found it grueling and painful. My agent would cheerily tell me that many of her authors claimed that revising was their favorite part of the writing process. Bully for them, I’d think, as she listed forty new things that were wrong with my latest draft. I would dutifully write down her criticisms, thank her, then get off the phone and sob. Then I’d get to work. Pulling apart a manuscript to fix it is not unlike pulling apart a Latin sentence to get at its meaning. The real trick is putting it back together again so that it reads like an organic whole and not a Frankenstein’s monster showing its bolts and crude stitching. I’d learned in Dr. Rubino’s class that the task of translating wasn’t complete until what was in front of me was a poem again. Getting a 400 page novel to read like a unified piece again after taking it apart was a bit more time consuming, but I had also learned a fair amount of patience and the discipline to work steadily and slowly during those nights translating Virgil at the Vassar Library.
I couldn’t say if I was entirely successful, but I know that I didn’t give up. The book sold and it did well enough that I got subsequent contracts, enabling me to write full time. In fact, obliging me to write full time if I wanted to make a living at it. Writing full time had been my dream since I was nine years old. I don’t think, though, that I ever really understood what that meant. While I say a little prayer of thanks to my classical muse every day that I get to sit down at my desk, I have to admit that it’s a little harder, doing it day in and day out, than I ever imagined. The muse I have hasn’t made it especially easy. She doesn’t do outlines or plan things out very well and when I have attempted an orderly plan she very often throws in an unexpected development to thwart that plan. Inspiration is what writers pray for and yet, when it comes, it’s no respecter of outlines or the last hundred pages you’ve written. On the other hand, when I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because I’m halfway into a book I don’t know the ending of, I remember that I’ve always managed to figure it out before. At some point, while I’m looking up the etymology of a word, or trying to find a mythological reference, the words themselves will lead me to what happens next. It’s a faith, I suppose, in language to make sense of the world. And so while I do not have a muse who lends wings to my words, who more often demands that I stop to consult a dictionary or Bullfinch’s Mythology, I’m grateful to have one with a classical education.