Magnificent Muse

For Koreans, seeing vendors selling their goods on the street is normal. It’s not balked at or given a second thought. But everyday, on my walk to the grocery, I pass a trio of old, hunched women who sit on upturned buckets surrounded by red plastic trays of produce, their old faces wrinkled by the sun. There’s always garlic, radishes, and lettuce, but with each season they bring in tomatoes, green onions, cabbage, strawberries, persimmons, and raspberries. Everyday they’re in the same spot, their burlap and nylon sheets propped up with old broom handles and held in place with large stones. At first they stared at the foreigner with the tattoos that passed them everyday, but after two years, I’ve become normal, mundane even.

When I first arrived in The Land of the Morning Calm, everything was a novelty. I didn’t want to spend a weekend in. I wanted to be out and about, exploring the temples, visiting the beaches, trying all sorts of different foods. Even my job housed a number of fascinations. All the floors were wooden! Has anyone ever gone to an American middle school that has hard wood flooring? Further, plopping your head down and taking a nap at your desk was no big deal. It wasn’t given a second thought. And perhaps one of the biggest shocks I’d been given was that the school lunches were made fresh every single day. Nothing was brought in precooked or frozen. The cooks spent the morning getting everything prepared, and after lunch, spent the afternoon hosing down the kitchen and enjoying small cups of green tea in the courtyard.

With all this newness, this carnival for the senses, I thought I’d easily be able to get some writing done. I dabbled a bit with some poems, describing the way the students’ slippered feet smoothed down the wooden floors and sounded like bouts rainfall between classes. I attempted a couple of short stories, first trying to capture what life was like as an expat and then having a go at foreigner and Korean relationships. All of these endeavors failed miserably. I had practically given up before I’d started. There was nothing more for me to go on other than a sense of hey check this out it’s way different than I expected.

Instead, my muse has been my nostalgia for home. During my first November here, I partook in NaNoWriMo and wrote a (terrible and unfinished) novel about high schoolers getting into mischief in the midwest. A few months later, I adapted that idea into another (slightly improved) novel, which incorporated my childhood memories of fishing and sketching and feeling out of place in my small town. Since then, every story or poem I’ve attempted has, in some way, been reminiscent of my life in America.

This has led me to wonder where writers, artists, musicians–anyone involved in the creative arts–get their inspiration. Sure, our lives and surroundings influence what we do, but that’s a blanket statement that doesn’t really reveal anything at all. I, for example, tend to be inspired much more by a sense of romanticism for the past, then by what I’m experiencing in the present. In fact, my present situation of starting my third year living in a foreign nation, only increases my desire to be around the familiar.

I’m not sure if it’s important for a writer to know where they find inspiration. But it helps me understand a little bit more about myself and perhaps that will aid in improving my writing. Hopefully, if I can hone in on my muse, I can give my pieces more of a so what. Because the last thing I want is for the sources of my inspiration to become like those hunched over ladies sitting in the street in front of the grocery. Sure, I was fascinated by them at first, but, after a while, their presence became just another aspect of my day. Their normalcy is so taken for granted, that I hardly even notice they’re there at all.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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One thought on “Magnificent Muse

  1. You should definitely try buying something from those ladies! Say Annyeonghasey next time you pass, give them a nod… point to anything and say olmeyeoh (how much) fork over the cash and you will have some life long friends! 🙂

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