My muse is examining the book we got in the mail last week: Christmas Jars, by Jason F Wright. She turns each page slowly, studying the words, the font, weighing the book in her two hands, stroking the paper, turning it upside down to hunt for hidden message or more money.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"What is the secret of this book?"
"Why did it inspire a total stranger to send you money?"
On the day before Thanksgiving, a mysterious package arrived in the mail addressed to my husband and me, with no return address or name. Inside was a slim book called Christmas Jars, and inside the book was an envelope with a check. We couldn't figure out what it was and thought maybe my husband had sold something on ebay, but why the book? After reading the introduction, I realized that the check was a symbolic Christmas jar, a collection of spare change in a jar that you save to buy Christmas presents. The book was about a family who anonymously gives money at Christmas to people who are in need, and that story has encouraged thousands of people to do the same.
It was hard to believe someone was kind enough to send us money. On the one hand, I felt happy knowing people really care about others and they wanted to help, but on the other, I felt ashamed that someone thought we were "needy." Yeah, I admit, things are tough. I was laid off from my day job two years ago and since then I've been in grad school trying to learn a new, employable trade. My husband was laid off in May. Every day is a struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads and we were contemplating skipping Christmas this year, except for our daughter of course. We don't know if we'll be able to keep our house and we pray every day that our car will start (200,000 + miles is a lot of miles), but we don't really think about it. We just do what needs to be done. I suppose though, we really are needy.
Eventually I let go of the shock and shame and felt truly grateful for the gift from a total stranger, and grateful to the author of the book for inspiring someone to give it. And when we're back on our feet, my husband and I plan to do the same.
My muse is still staring at the book as if it contains the mystery of the Universe. "It's so small. Only 115 pages. Not even a full book."
"It's a novella."
"I know that. But how can a book with so few pages inspire so many people?" She sets the book gently on my desk. "It's like that book Eat, Pray, Love."
"Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book that inspired thousands of people to think about their own lives and make changes. And Paolo Coelho wrote The Alchemist, which has a cult following, although it really isn't that great of a book." She twirls a hair-snake between her fingers rapidly, ignoring its hissing squeals.
I think for a moment, then say, "They all speak to the readers on an emotional, personal level, on what Jung would call the collective unconscious."
"I understand that," my muse snaps. "That's obvious. These books appeal to a large number of people on a deeply intuitive level. But mechanically, how do they do it?" She picks up the book again and wags it before my face like a frustrated teacher. "What secret does the author have while writing the story? Do they have a plan? Do they even know what they're doing when they write it? What is their process?"
Taking the book from her hand, I say, "I don't know."
She shakes her head. "I know you don't know, that's the problem. I need to talk to his muse."
"This really bothers you."
"Of course it bothers me. There is something in these books that I am not grasping, and that is unpardonable for a muse!"
She looks at herself in my mirror and straightens her snakes into an acceptable tangle on the top of her head, then she applies blood red lipstick. "I need to talk to his muse."
And she's gone.