I came to Amherst College with a plan to major in Economics and work on Wall Street because Men’s Lacrosse players at Amherst College major in Economics and work on Wall Street. What follows is a muddled attempt to explain why I am now preparing to declare myself an English major.
As all circles of friends do, mine has accumulated over time a unique collection of inside jokes, common jargon and lingo that makes sense only to us. One example from our collection of verbiage is the word ‘muse.’ In its common-day sense, a muse is usually considered some form of inspiration. It has often been referred to as a guiding spirit, or a source of enlightenment. However, my friends have given it a different connotation. There is a woman at this college who renders me dumb. Sometimes, whether in line at Val, or on the path between Charles Pratt and Frost, I will pass by her and smile, and my teeth will split for a moment but the saliva between my lips will have glued them shut already, and when I at last wrench them apart I’ll find I have only succeeded in creating an inaudible gasp. Other times, I will notice her from across the room, or the quad, and the thin strap of her tank top will slip slightly off her shoulder, and her smooth, delicate promontory of a clavicle will bring me to my knees. When she smiles I am nothing. She is funnier than I am. She inspires me. Yet, when I sit down at the end of the day, I know I will never be the one to slip the strap off her shoulder. I know her smile is reserved for the fleeting moments. I know that she knows effectively nothing about me, and I know I don’t have the guts to change that. This, friends, is my muse. She is my crush but she is more than that. I think we all have one of these.
A roommate of mine walked in the other night, and in a drunken slur let out his frustration. “My muse,” he said to me, collapsing into our recliner, “I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t talk to her.” I did my best to give him a few words of encouragement, but he continued. “Chuck,” he said. I nodded, what? “I just can’t talk to her,” he said. “My muse, man. My muse.”
I began writing a novel in September. I call it a story now. I am currently about twenty or so pages into writing, and there is no endgame. There is a fabula up there, floating around in my brain, festering and changing and lingering in my daydreams, but I have yet to put down, on paper, the sjužet. There is no outline; I am writing, just writing, and will continue to just write – someday, that is. The last page written has hidden, untouched, for about three weeks now, and I have no plan to begin again. The story has not died. The manuscript has not been deleted. I have just found myself quite busy with other things, and writing a novel has unfortunately made its way deeper and deeper into the dark abyss of prioritization. However, as I sit here now, writing, I can’t help but think, “Why am I not, instead, working on the story?” Last week I found myself wondering the same thing, so I went on a literary blog seeking advice from other writers.
The English major is dying, or at least it appears that way. To many, the humanities have lost their value in the 21st century, especially in the wake of a recession, in a small job market, and in an economy fueled by, alas, productivity. I also find myself, by the nature of my main on-campus affiliation (varsity lacrosse), surrounded by white, male athletes, many of whom come from the kind of socioeconomic and personal pursuit backgrounds you might imagine would steer their career interests towards banking, not say, writing or teaching. I myself came to Amherst with ideas of working in the financial world, while knowing literally nothing about what people in “finance” actually do (I still don’t). I came to Amherst hoping it would give me something tangible, something immediate – something like a career. I came to Amherst afraid of doing the things I was passionate about.
I look around for a moment. I see a friend from the lacrosse team setting up a camera in the bathroom of our dormitory, trying to capture the perfect image of the human eyeball. I see another grinding up feta, spinach, olives and chicken to make the perfect burger. I see members of the lacrosse team writing, reading, and even, between adjacent bathroom stalls, talking about philosophy. This is a liberal arts college, and I see all these people around me doing really cool liberal arts things – even those who will, I’m sure, work for banks in a few years. It appears to me that in the view of many around campus, these white, male (entitled?) Amherst lacrosse players only pursue the things that make us rich. The thing is, at Amherst, even amidst the longest math equations, and among the most stereotypically not-intellectual, not-creative, not-poetic social groups, I’ve found that people are more interested in pursuing the things that make us feel.
In an academic society trending towards vocational study, and on a team of which a majority will graduate as Economics majors, I still gravitate toward the humanities – and this fact arises not despite the friends I have who will work in finance, but because of them. Throughout my experience at Amherst I have found myself surrounded by people who dedicate themselves to their passions and, all the same, encourage me to follow mine. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the New York Times writes, “Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience.” Studying the humanities is like unraveling the nature of what it means to be alive. When I get lost in graphs and flow charts, I find solace in words. When I find myself staring at a computer program, attempting to translate the list of strings and bools no easier than I could a passage of Sanskrit, I find companionship in words. A single word can inspire me – a word like, say, ‘muse.’
So here I am, sitting in my room alone, surfing the interwebs for writing advice, and not finding anything helpful. I want to write a novel but I can’t find the time, or more importantly, the motivation. Then, finally, there it is. Deep in a blog post titled, “Famous Writers on Writing,” I read Isabel Allende’s words of wisdom: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
I type up the quote and tape it to the door of my room. I will show up and write my novel, or my story, or whatever it turns out to be. It may not be every day. It may not be for a week, or a month, or a few, but I will show up, and keep showing up, and I will find my literary muse. I will show up in English classes, and Philosophy classes, and hey, maybe a few Economics classes too. If I feel the passion I will show up. I came to Amherst not to make money but to explore the things that make my mind – and my heart – move. And the next time a friend of mine rolls in, slurring his words, drunk on Natural Light and disappointment, and says to me of his college crush, “Charlie, I’m lost. Why can’t I speak to her? When will I find my muse?” I will respond:
Just show up. And keep showing up. And maybe she’ll find you.