For weeks, I had it in my mind that if I went looking for my muse I would find her. It was as though she were a physical thing that I would bump into on the streets or find sitting in a café sipping cappuccino and I would introduce myself and tell her: Will you please help me write?
This restlessness, this search for my muse had its beginnings in a missing flash drive. A layout artist in my newspaper borrowed it to transfer files from one computer to another, and the next day he told me he had lost it. The drive contained the only copy of a novel I had been writing intermittently for six years.
The only copy.
Somebody had stolen it from his drawer, he said. My mind refused to accept that it was lost; it was just misplaced. Sooner or later, it had to turn up. I didn’t want to think about the missing novel, which I was now itching to continue to write after having ignored it for six years.
But the flash drive remained lost in the black hole that suddenly contained everything I needed in my life. Like a lost love — I suddenly felt its absence.
An officemate, short of calling me an idiot, scolded me: Why do you have it on your flash drive and not on your laptop? Because I had been transferring files from one laptop to another. Why didn’t you print it out? Because it was not finished. I didn’t want to jinx it.
And yet, I’m not superstitious, I don’t even need ambience to write. In the office, we all work amid ringing phones, people dropping by inquiring about this or that press release, on desks that are so messy snakes might as well be hiding beneath the piles of folders. We multi-task — downloading e-mails and photos from columnists, editing, writing, ears half-tuned to the news on TV. If you can write through doomsday-scenario newscast style — you can write in a jackhammer factory.
But what my flash drive contained was fiction, the roots of my writing career. Six years of my life. Thirteen chapters. One hundred thirty pages. Written under moments of grace that no one can ever bring back.
When it became clear that it really was lost, I couldn’t breathe, my knees buckled. It felt like someone in my family had died.
I told myself: I had to find inspiration. If I had to go to another country, I would do it. I thought of Italy, where I once spent an entire afternoon wiping pigeon shit off my clothes at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, searching for Harry’s Bar and trying to avoid the floodwaters that besieged the city when it drizzled late in the afternoon.
I thought of Italy and all those art galleries. My editor told me a trip to Florence is a cultural trip. So I went online and booked flights and hotels from London to Florence, then a one-way train ticket to Milan, where I would fly back to London.
In England, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and his other houses. Maybe my muse would be here, hiding inside the 400-year-old Tudor houses. When the guide wasn’t looking, I ran my hands along the pockmarked and cracked wooden tables, the wooden doors and drawers. I pressed my nose to the Elizabethan furniture pieces and smelled the wood. I jumped up and down on floorboards that creaked. And I took pictures surreptitiously.
But my muse wasn’t in Stratford.
It was fall in Europe, that time of the year when it gets dark early. Shakespeare’s houses close at 4 p.m. the shops at 5, and everyone just wants to get inside and eat soup. It seemed everybody I knew was leaving or was at another place waiting for an epiphany.
Then on the plane to Milan for a layover, I felt the promise of something good. I looked out my window and saw snow-capped mountains, miles and miles of them, and then five minutes later it was farmlands — brown in the fall with patches of black and smoke rising from the dry fields. The Italians were burning their farms!
I changed planes at Malpensa Airport, where I saw Alessi kitchen accessories and debated with myself — a designer pepper mill to bring home or a bottle of expensive sparkling wine to consume alone? I went for the wine.
That night, when I reached Florence, I began writing fiction again.
* * *
Florence opened up to me like a book waiting to be read. In the galleries, it was a different kind of atmosphere — it was as if you were trapped inside a giant artwork. I looked at the Medici paintings and stood for several minutes in front of “The Agony in Garden” and wondered why nobody looked to be in agony — not even Jesus Christ. He and his apostles just looked very, very tired.
Unlike London, nobody was running in Florence. People were looking at me as if asking themselves: Why is she running when she could very well take the bus?
That’s how I first saw Giotto’s Bell Tower — in the cold, early-morning light of fall, when the street sweepers were preparing for the day’s tourists, and the only sound you would hear on the empty, cobblestone streets is your own shoes. The Duomo stood before me in all its bas-relief glory and beside it the painter Giotto’s campanile.
Of all the stories about painters, this is the one I love best. When Pope Benedict XI wanted to employ artists to work on the frescos of the Duomo he was building, he sent an emissary to get samples of their work. With the messenger in front of him in his workshop, Giotto took a sheet of paper and dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side and in one sweeping motion he drew a perfect circle freehand — so perfect it looked like it was drawn with a compass.
The messenger thought it was a joke: a drawing of a circle to prove his genius. “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?” he asked.
Giotto said: “It’s more than enough. Send it along and you’ll see whether it’s understood.”
The pope understood.
There is a kind of hushed atmosphere in Florence, the kind you see only in museums. And I liked that about the place, plus it’s a small walking city filled with art galleries and palaces and small winding streets. It’s so pretty that there’s even a name for the feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed by it: “Stendhal Syndrome,” a psychosomatic illness that “causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”
That was the atmosphere at the Uffizi Gallery, where “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli is housed, and at the Galleria dell’Accademia where Michelangelo’s sculpture of David stands.
The lines at the Uffizi were so long, I had to wait for more than an hour just to get inside the building. At Accademia, there were no lines, but there were a lot of students and artists with their sketchpads and backpacks, sitting on benches or on the floor, and drawing in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture.
I wasn’t the only one looking for a muse in Florence.
On the plane leaving Italy, I thought that of all the nine muses, all I really needed was one — just one muse to recover, to rewrite, to reclaim the contents of my missing flash drive.
But really, it was more than that. It was to recover myself.