Be Mused

Peter O’Brien in performance of ‘Be Mused’ — Snatches at RMIT, Melbourne, 7 october 2011 — photo by Daan Spijer

Frank looks over his year 9 class. “Come on, you lot! The task I set you is not difficult. It’s a simple essay on a straight-forward topic…”

He taps out the words on the board with his long wooden ruler. “‘What I would say to me if I were my mother or father.’ And note the use of the subjunctive ‘were’.”

“Yes Sidra?”

“What does ‘subjunctive’ mean, Sir?”

“It means, Sidra, that you are not your mother or father, but that you can imagine what it would be like if you were.”

“I can’t imagine that, Sir.”

“Well then, just imagine that you can imagine.”

“Yes Meredith, you may write whatever comes into your head. That’s what imagination is about. That’s what this whole exercise is about.”

“Shanaid, pretty borders are not in the instructions. Write girl, write!  You are not going to find inspiration in the frame. You will find it in the space, the tabula rasa. … The tabula… oh, never mind!”

“Gerard, you do not need a dictionary — you haven’t written a word yet. I said it was to be written ‘subjectively’ as opposed to ‘objectively’. You will not find ‘objunctive’ in the dictionary.”

“You two! I asked you to write it, not act it out. … Frankie, if you find something funny, write it down for goodness sake. There’s your inspiration.”

“All of you, find whatever you can to inspire you to start writing — except pretty borders, Shanaid. It can be a thought, a song, something you’ve read, something you’ve heard on the bus. Just write the first thing that comes into your head, even if it is irrelevant. The relevant material will present itself along the way. Listen to your Muse.”

“A Muse, young Alsitair, is not something funny. A Muse — two words, not one — is one of the Greek gods of the arts and there was one for literature. Imagine what your Muse might be and get writing.”

“No Weng Ong, you will be neither amused nor bemused. Your Muse may be bemused that you are not consulting her, when she is right there in front of you. Why is it that you can all be so hilarious in speech, yet not one of you has written a thing? Just … start … writing!”

“Andrew, stop sharpening your pencil and write… Matt, take that pen out of your mouth and write… Imogen, stop playing with your hair… Dimitri, stop looking at Imogen! Come on you lot! It’s not that hard!”

“Yes, Ishma, I can write. … Okay, okay! I will show you. I will write an example for you tonight and we will have a look at it next lesson. But! … You will all have to do the same. Remember, I’m not asking you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. … No bitching. I’ll see you all back here in two days and I expect some good writing.”

***

Frank is sitting as his desk, at home. He rummages through his pens, picks one up and examines it closely. He puts the pen down and picks up the pile of writing paper and squares it, then puts it down carefully on the desk. He chooses a pen and is about to start writing when he hesitates and examines the pen closely.

He calls out to his wife. “Moira, do you know where my special pen is?”

“What pen?” comes the response from elsewhere in the house.

“The one you bought me in Tuscany.”

“Why?”

“Because it inspires me.” He puts down the pen he is holding and hunts through the other pens for his favourite. “Moira, I really need that pen. I can’t get started without it.”

“Why is your special pen so important? If you’re going to write, just do it. The pen shouldn’t make any difference.”

“You’re sounding just like… like… me. … Like me — when I’m trying to get the students to write.”

He looks at everything arranged on his desk and mutters to himself. “It’s useless expecting her to understand. She can just sit down and write in any situation. She doesn’t need a special place or a special pen. She can even write directly on a computer.” He squares the pile of paper again, then taps his teeth with a pen. “I just don’t know how to start… ‘What I would say to me if I were my mother or father.’… Mother or father?… Mother — Dad hardly spoke to me, or to anyone… That should make it easier — fewer words to choose from… What would he say to me right now? Probably: ‘Just get on with it, Son!’ He’d be impatient, like this should be the easiest thing in the world. ‘Just start,’ he’d say. ‘Stop procrastinating.’ I’m not procrastinating — I need to start it the right way, or it won’t flow.”

Frank opens the dictionary and thumbs through it. “What is the exact definition of ‘Muse’?” He keeps thumbing through until he finds the entry, then reads, ‘One of the nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who presided over the arts.’ Which one could be my Muse? Which should I choose? Probably Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy.”

He closes the dictionary, picks up a pencil and searches for a sharpener, finds it and sharpens the pencil over a sheet of writing paper. He tests the tip of the lead then plays with the shavings. As he does all this, he muses, “Dad would be hopping mad by now. ‘Stop the bloody mucking around,’ he’d say. ‘Get bloody on with it.’ Then he’d get sarcastic. ‘If you’re going to be a bloody pansy writing bloody stories instead of playing bloody footy with your friends, then bloody do it and get on with it!’”

Frank carefully makes a parcel of the paper with the shavings on it and drops it into the wastepaper basket. He picks up his pencil and starts writing. In the middle of the first word, the lead breaks. “Damn!” He throws the pencil into the basket and hunts through his collection of pens, finally choosing one. He screws up the top sheet of paper and throws it away.

“‘Son … if… you’re… going… to… do… it…’ No! I can’t write what Dad would have said, because I’ve got to read this to the kids. That’d be embarrassing.” He screws up the sheet of paper and throws it away and changes pens. “‘Frank… you… need… to… write… this… well… with… good… grammar… because… you… are… a… teacher.’”

He reads back over what he’s written and discards it. “What twaddle!” He picks up a book and flicks through it. “Maybe I can get some inspiration here… Mmm… Yes, maybe… No. This should be simple. Create a situation in my mind and start from there.”

He rests his head on one of his hands and stares into space. “Dad and me at the footy. I remember I took a pile of comic books along as I didn’t like football. Dad kept nudging me and commenting on the game… ‘Would you get a load of that… Hey, did you bloody-well see that? … What’s the bloody umpire think he’s up to? … Want a pie? …’ I didn’t respond, so he nudged me harder. ‘I said, bloody Sunshine, would you like a bloody pie?’ I looked at him vaguely and ducked as his hand swung at my head and missed; it helped me focus. ‘Yes,’ and I went back to reading. ‘Yes, what, you bloody twerp?’ ‘Yes please.’ ‘Yes please, what?’ ‘Yes please, Dad.’ ‘That’s better.’

“I can’t write any of that! The kids’ll laugh at me. Too much reality.”

He stops to think again, then starts writing. ‘Frank… if… you… want… to… learn… to… write… good… just… copy… bits… out… of… books. … Use… them… for… inspiration… like… a… Muse.’ No, I can’t encourage plagiarism.”

Frank screws up the paper and throws it at the other wads on the floor. He taps the pen against his teeth, staring into space. He writes furiously and silently and then puts down the pen.

He picks up the sheet of paper and reads from it. “‘Well, Frank. What did you bloody expect, you bloody moron? Think you can set a bloody task for your students and get off bloody scot free yourself? Tell them to just start bloody writing and it’ll all bloody happen by itself? Not so easy, is it? “Find a Muse anywhere,” you told them. Bullshit! You either bloody have it or you bloody don’t. Give up this bloody stupid idea of yours and get out there and kick a bloody football.’”

He bangs the sheet of paper down on the desk and stands up, upsetting his chair, and storms out of the room, swearing.

[This saw first light as a monologue play, Be Mused, which was performed by Peter O’Brien on 7 October 2011 in the Melbourne Fringe Festival, ‘Snatches’, at RMIT in Melbourne. Peter O’Brien later performed it at the ‘Short+Sweet’ play festival in Melbourne in November-December 2012.]