Do you have a muse?
At different times in my life that role has been filled by different entities. As a teen, I had a very close friend whose quiet yet intense lust for a unique life was a source of inspiration for years. Through late high school and college, I fell head over heels in love with writing and was constantly moving from one author to another for guidance. There have been others who kept me on track and provided inspiration who probably didn’t even realize their influence.
Today it seems the need for that kind of outside inspiration has faded a bit. I feel fortunate to have a relatively rich personal and professional life, and a family that dominates — in a positive way — my emotional life.
As a columnist, though, I’m constantly looking for a muse, or, to put it more realistically, for inspiration and topics for a good column. Over the last 20 years, the place that has helped me the most as deadlines hung over my head like a guillotine has been The Sun. It’s a magazine started in 1974 in Chapel Hill by a New York reporter who sought refuge from the inane stories that too often fill newspapers. As founder Sy Safransky says in his own words, he “wanted to start a magazine that would present courageous, honest writing and respect readers in a fundamental way.”
Today The Sun has 70,000 subscribers. In 1990, the publisher made the decision to quit selling advertising and to just rely on subscriptions. That’s as gutsy a move as any publisher ever made. But the magazine has continued to grow, respected for both its content and its attitude.
I can peruse the feature stories, the fiction or the poetry, the reader contributions or Safransky’s notebook and always come away with a better understanding of some important issue of the day or perhaps a better understanding of myself — and ideas to write about in The Smoky Mountain News. The magazine is truly an original gem in a world awash with so much media that a great majority of it is just not worth spending time with.
Here are a few nuggets from the current edition. This is from an interview with economist Richard Wolf, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose 2009 book was called Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It. He has an undergrad degree from Harvard, a master’s from Stanford and a doctorate from Yale:
So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising, but its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted: exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family had been torn apart by everyone working.
Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.
Or this thought, from Safransky’s notebook:
I NEED TO CUT more pages from my upcoming book, so I’m trying to keep in mind William Faulkner’s advice to writers: “You must kill all your darlings.” No more procrastinating over whether a particular Notebook entry deserves a berth or needs to walk the plank. It’s nothing personal, I tell a comely paragraph (110 words, perfect posture, not an ounce of fat) as I grab it by the collar and give a little push. You wanted to live forever, I say. Of course you did. Deathless prose, et cetera. Soon you’ll be a drop in the ocean of God’s love. Don’t ask if it’s dark. Don’t worry that it’s cold.
A section called Sunbeams is on the last page of every edition and is collected, I assume, by magazine’s staff. Here’s a great one by a name most will recognize:
In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her. That is class warfare. Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top 1 percent is not.
— Al Franken
If you’ve not read The Sun, give it a try. If you’re a regular, then you may already share my addiction. Good stuff.