Little Details (12/3/09)

Listening for your muse

Dec. 3, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“If playing music is something you just have to do,” my daughter’s music teacher advised, “stick with it.” Her musical stick-with-it-ness evidenced itself amid the clarinets, flutes, saxophones and students populating her Burlington studio.

The teacher’s words prompted my own epiphany: Writing is something I simply must do. It’s like eating breakfast or reading the newspaper. Words rise to the surface, clamoring for release — like a genie from its bottle.

Tucked-away diaries from my teen years document adolescent angst over chemistry tests, mean girls and crushes on boys. I wrote every day, committing to paper my dreams and frustrations.

Letter writing kept my teenage pen busy as I collected pen pals in Greece, Italy and Denmark. Stickers and sticks of Juicy Fruit Gum were slipped into missives comparing our lives across the Atlantic.

I spent years writing letters. My most cherished correspondence was with a friend in England, a classmate I’d met while studying abroad. We shared a cup of tea near our Polish university days after the Chernobyl nuclear accident wondering what the exposure meant for us. Our fathers were part of the Polish diaspora precipitated by World War II. Her dad settled in Sheffield, England, following imprisonment in Siberia. My dad landed in Boston having survived slave labor camps in Nazi Germany.

Krysia and I shared a special bond as “first generations” in our fathers’ adoptive countries. Transatlantic letters detailed college graduations, career adventures and misadventures, weddings and the births of our blue-eyed baby girls. The letters stopped as we embraced the intensity of night feedings and, as Krysia would say, “nappies.” We exchange Christmas cards and occasional e-mails, promising a “real letter” soon.

I’m not sure what compelled me to take a writing class at the Community College of Vermont several years ago. I hadn’t been in a classroom for years. Writing and sharing pieces aloud reminded me that each of us views the world through a distinctive lens. Writing allows our unique voice to emerge. One classmate, recently discharged from the military, wrote of his experiences as a U.S. Marine stationed in Japan. A young woman, adept at a stream of consciousness style, revealed the depth and character of folks who frequent a Burlington bar I’d presumed was a dive.

Writing is my cure for a jumbled mind. Ideas come when I least expect, often at inopportune moments. I’m in the shower or behind the wheel of my car. Insomnia — caused by my writing muse rattling her chain to be heard — is soothed by switching on a light and firing up the laptop. Ideas must be captured — in the moment — lest they be lost to oblivion.

Writing is my therapy. When frustrated with events — personal or political — I exorcise my demons on paper. I find solace in words.

Eagerness tempered by slight trepidation accompanied my drive to a local high school to speak with a writing class. I prepared an outline but feared it might not resonate with an audience of 15-year-olds.

After polite introductions, I threw out my first question: “Has anyone here ever been criticized for being ‘overly sensitive?’” Many hands, including my own, rose upward.

“Good. I’m glad to see we have sensitive folks in the room. Being sensitive makes you a better writer. Paying attention makes you a stronger writer,” I said as I challenged them to embrace perceived weakness as creative strength.

Conversation continued with casual reflections on what these young people notice that others sometime miss. Small injustices, small kindnesses, beauty in unexpected places — they all serve to inspire writing.

We each possess an element of creativity whether expressed via pen, pencil, paintbrush, paring knife, chisel, instrument, dancing shoes, needle and thread or some other medium. Listening for our muse, that little voice inspiring us to create, may be an antidote to a world crammed with workday demands. My advice remains the same whether crafting a simple essay or preparing an elaborate meal:

> Always listen to and take notice of the world around you

> Look for and illuminate life’s “Blind Spots” so others may see

> Be porous, like a sponge

> Follow your conscience in the materials you use and the message you convey

> Listen for your muse, a direct line to your passion

> Nurture your creativity with a class, workshop, book or walk in the woods

> Trust yourself so your unique and powerful voice may emerge

We shared readings and discussed writing craft before it was time to leave. I felt inspired by the depth of feeling and insightfulness the teens displayed. I invite you to listen for your muse, nudging you to act on your unique, creative gifts.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or