a short story by Becky Mushko
"Musing (With Lemons)" placed 2nd in the 2010 Virginia Writers Club Golden Nib Contest. It will soon be available online from the Virginia Writers Club website.
My favorite muse, Gertrude, left me last year. I was sitting in a wi-fi enabled coffeeshop, surfing the net, pondering an idea for my great American novel, and sipping my third cup when she flounced out.
“Look,” I think she might have said, “if you’re gonna sit on your butt, guzzle house blend, and make a feeble attempt to look like a writer in public, I am so outta here.”
I didn’t look up from my laptop. I didn’t need her drama.
“Besides,” she said with a sneer, “I’ve done all I can. With me to guide you, you became assertive, brash, cocky, persevering, out-spoken, confident, and bitchy. You stopped taking crap and could even dish it out when required. Thanks to me, you get paid for what you write. Thanks to me, you go to conferences and hobnob with people who might know a lot more than you. Thanks to me, you can self-edit a damn sight better than you used to. And you can almost query and pitch ideas that make sense. I made you who you are!” She pointed her immaculately manicured index finger at me. “And don’t you ever forget! But, you’ve still got a long way to go, Babe!”
Then, she turned on her stilettos and was gone.
Gertrude was one in a succession of muses I’ve had. The first, Annabelle Lee, was a wimp. She was the one who gave me bad advice under the guise of encouragement. She told me to “share my feelings” and encouraged me to write poetry that I now realize really sucked. Because of Annabelle Lee, I got suckered by the International Library of Poetry and thought I was really published.
“That’s OK,” she’d murmur softly as she sipped a cup of chamomile tea. “You tried. That’s what counts. And you are a semi-finalist in their contest. Your poem is even ‘Editor’s Choice.’ That’s so special.”
Annabelle Lee made me think that all my words were golden, that I didn’t need editing, and that anywhere I submitted work was just wonderful. She told me that I shouldn’t expect to be paid for my efforts—what I did was so special and wonderful and anyone who couldn’t see it was just jealous. All I had to do was type out more drivel and—someday— someone would see how wonderful my words were and I’d be a big name author. All I had to do was spew my wonderful words of wisdom to the world and wait. (Wonderful was her favorite word.) Sometimes, she’d grab a page right out of the typewriter and gush over it.
“Wonderful!” she’d say. “It touched my heart. You’re just so special.”
She convinced me that writing a self-absorbed column—for free!—for a local publication that did no editing to speak of was a good idea. She consoled me when I didn’t win writing contests.
“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” she’d murmur. “Look for the silver lining. Keep trying. Keep your eyes on the prize.” What she said seemed to make sense—even though she used a lot of italics and clichés.
Annabelle Lee was warm and positive and wonderful. She hovered over me and stroked my ego as I typed.
“Dream big,” she’d say. “Build those castles in the air! There are no limitations to your imagination! The world is waiting for your special wonderful words!”
She was, in short, a clueless twit.
Fed up with her patronizing and italics, I realized what I had to do: I kicked her out. She pulled herself up by her special bootstraps and limped off, no doubt to inflict her wonderful warmth and encouragement on another clueless writer-wannabe.
My next muse was more practical. Maud arrived in the box with my first computer.
“Look,” she said, puffing a Benson & Hedges menthol, flicking her ashes onto my floor, and grinding them into my carpet with the heel of her Doc Martens, “you gotta be practical. Computers let everybody think they can write. Who’s gonna read all that drivel, tell me that?” She leaned forward and blew smoke into my face. “Look,” she said, peering over my monitor, “you wanna make a go of this writing gig, you better get a clue. First, do your homework!”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Frankly, Maud scared me a little.
“Nobody gives a fig about sharing your feelings,” she’d say. “People don’t want to think or feel. They want to be entertained. They want a good laugh.” She blew a couple of smoke rings over my computer. “Look—when life gives you lemons, realize that any schmuck can make lemonade. You’ve got to do something different. How about redneck humor? You could probably do that.” She snubbed out her cigarette butt on my keyboard.
I nodded. And I started writing a redneck humor column. The crap actually sold.
While I hacked out my column, Maud flipped through my novel. “This is a long way from finished,” she said. “Look—you need another chapter or two to wrap it up. And get rid of those clichés. Sheesh!”
Eventually I got used to Maude’s cutting remarks and her over-use of the word look. “Cut the adjectives!” she’d say. “And the adverbs. My Gawd! Look! What’s with all this explaining? Cut it!”
If I didn’t do as she said, she’d grab my keyboard and either refuse to relinquish her hold on my delete key or else blow smoke until I couldn’t see what I was doing.
Finally, she gave up on me. I knew she was gone when I saw the writing on the Post-It note on my monitor: “Look—you need more help than I can give you!”
A few days later, Elvira came in the mail with a rejection slip. She was all business. Peering over her horn-rimmed spectacles and sipping a martini that she said she’d saved from her last lunch with an editor, she insisted I go to readings by professional writers and ask them questions afterward.
“Find out how they did it,” she’d say. “Then you do it.”
She gave me a reading list and expected reports. “How are you going to write if you don’t read what’s selling?” she’d say.
She assigned me agents to research on the Internet, told me to look at other writers’ websites, and forced me to create a website of my own. She showed me how to detect scammers.
“Listen, my dear,” she said, “If an agent or publisher says they ‘welcome new writers,’ run the other way—as fast as your chubby out-of-shape legs can carry you! Don’t you see, anyone who solicits ‘new writers,’ is really saying, ‘Welcome, sucker!’”
Elvira didn’t stay long. One day I found her business card on my desk. On the back, she’d written: “We’ll do lunch sometime. Meanwhile, if life sends you lemons, make a lemon meringue pie and copyright the recipe.”
A few days later, Gertrude crawled out of the keyboard when I opened my new laptop. She had an agenda: either I’d get serious about writing or I’d get out of writing. She gave me a list of what to read. She signed me up for conferences. She was all business—or else. Her advice: “If life sends you lemons, make something of them, market it, and move on.”
She perused my website and found it lacking. “Lose the purple background and the yellow text!” she insisted. “Whatever were you thinking?”
“It was a template,” I said, “My service provider provides free web space to—”
She cut me off. “Nothing is free!” she said. “Now, get rid of the fluff. Combine and condense. Make it business-like. Writing is a business! A website—and one that has your name in it—isn’t enough. You need a blog!”
While Gertrude barked orders, I redid my website, sent out query letters, networked at conferences, rewrote several works-in-progress, gave up my column, and blogged. Before long, I had over 2,500 profile look-ups and a couple dozen followers. Blogging was cutting into my writing time, but Gertrude insisted it was necessary.
The day after she’d abandoned me at the coffeeshop, she left an anonymous comment on my blog: “Remember what I said about lemons.”
A few days later, I was browsing at Books-A-Million when Aurelia popped out from the pages of Networking for Dummies.
“I’m your new muse,” she said. “Friend me.” Then she followed me home.
“The blogging isn’t enough!” she declared. “Social networking is the key! You need a Facebook account. And Twitter. You should Tweet everyday.”
I continued to blog, but I also Facebooked and Tweeted. Aurelia had a long list of people I should friend and follow. It was all I could do to blog, mention on Facebook that I’d blogged, network my blog, Tweet about my blog, and then blog that I’d mentioned it on Facebook and Twitter. I rarely had time to actually write—and if I did, Aurelia made sure that I blogged about writing.
But it wasn’t enough. Aurelia thought I should freelance and then blog and Tweet about the articles I’d written, which would lead to more freelance assignments that I could post about.
“I can’t do all this!” I complained.
“A good writer can multi-task,” she insisted.
Later that afternoon, I saw the writing on my Wall: “If life gives you lemons, make sure you Tweet about how you shared those lemons.” Then Aurelia unfriended me.
My latest muse, Melvin, arrived as an email attachment the day after Aurelia Tweeted that she’d dropped me as a Facebook friend.
“Add more humor to your blog,” he said. “Folks like that. But it’s not enough.” He plopped his ample butt down in a chair next to my desk. “OK, here’s the plan,” he said. “Ya gotta good platform—what with the blog and Facebook and Twitter. Maybe ya oughta Link-In, though. Digg it?” He snickered at the puns he’d made. When I didn’t respond, he continued, “Parlay that platform into readership for a novel. Research the market and see what’s hot in fiction. Write a novel that fits. Polish it. Then pitch it. Any questions?”
I shook my head and stared at my computer screen. I was too busy revising an article I was working on, surfing the ’net in between reading emails, updating my blog, checking my status, writing on my Wall, and Tweeting to pay much attention to him.
“Oh,” he continued, kicking off his cowboy boots and making himself comfortable, “before ya get busy, ya think you can make me a cup of tea?”
I signed off Twitter and Facebook to go to the kitchen and make his tea. He took a sip and smacked his lips.
“Tasty,” he said, “but needs a slice of lemon. Ya mind?”
I returned to the kitchen where I took a lemon from the refrigerator and a knife from the drawer. I brought them back to my study where Melvin now had his feet propped on my desk while he read my email.
I didn’t slice the lemon. Instead, I brandished the knife under Melvin’s nose.
“Well,” he said, removing his feet from my desk and leaning back, “no reason to get testy. After ya give me a proper slice of lemon, I’ll see if I can give ya a little inspiration that might pay off. Maybe help ya cut that last article ya wrote to a workable length. But I’m not making any promises, mind ya.”
“Get out!” I said, pointing the knife at his throat. “I already know what to cut.”
Melvin sat the teacup on the edge of my desk. He eased himself out of the chair, grabbed his boots, and edged toward the doorway. “No reason to get testy,” he mumbled.
“You’re being redundant,” I said. “Out!”
As he ran down the sidewalk with his boots tucked under his sweaty armpits, I hurled the lemon at him. Then I went returned to my study. The aroma of him still lingered. I held my nose and got back to work.
“Who needs a muse anyway?” I Tweeted.
I could use a heavy-duty air freshener, though. Possibly lemon-scented. Maybe one of my Facebook friends can recommend a good one. . . .