Here’s something you’ll never hear a human say: the invention of the MFA has made employment a lot easier to find. For us, anyway. I mean, sure, the tenured Calliopes and the Melpomenes Emeritae will all try to tell you that Sappho’s years were the golden ones, but here's the thing: Sappho didn’t have enough competition to keep the lot of us employed. That’s the problem with the Geniuses, with the Voices of a Generation, the ones whose manuscripts get distributed faster than the worms can eat them. Any muse who tells you that her favourite century came anywhere before the nineteenth is either a lying sack of shit or lucky enough to have gotten in on the ground floor with the fucking Georgics or whatever.
I like the democratization of the written word, okay? Here in the lounge you’ll hear a lot of pious claptrap about the loss of the craaaaaaft. As if even a fraction of the grunt labour in this damnable academy ever had a chance to work with a genius! As if we can even imagine what it would be like! In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been assigned a Dante — hell, I didn’t even get the Edna St. Vincent Millay gig, the application I’ve agonized the most over in the course of this shitty career. (Whoever did end up getting her did a great job, which makes it even worse.) So the glut of MFAs just means we’re doing the same work we’ve been doing all along, squeezing book-turds out of self-important assholes, with shorter dry spells in between.
“Hey yourself, Clio.”
We all share nine names. It’s not a rule or anything, it just helps us maintain our anonymity earthside, and we’ve all gotten used to it. In theory, when some just-dumped undergraduate calls on his Muse in preparation for whatever turgid poem he’s about to write about his manpain, any of us can go for the RFP. Once we get a gig, we’re never supposed to identify our appointments, even to each other. Most of us have managed to extinguish all our curiosity about anybody else’s work, as a survival tactic; and these days, what with the surfeit of writers’ workshops and MFA programs and fiction retreats (and even Amtrak is in on it now for crying out loud), we’re just too damn busy to worry about our comrades’ employment status. The grand old dames make quite a production of sharing elaborate blind items about their proudest conquests in the distant past. But honestly, none of us sessionals have the energy to work up any interest in who’s musing whom. (... At least until Booker or Pushcart or Pulitzer season rolls around.)
I say all this, but MFAs notwithstanding I haven’t had any work for a while. I spend a lot of time in the lounge watching Project Runway and painting my toenails. I was alone in here until Clio came in; we muses are a nocturnal lot, tethered to the schedules of our tortured clients, which means that when I’m unemployed I can usually watch TV in peace at nine in the morning.
“It’s September,” Clio said, sitting down on the opposite end of the ratty-ass couch.
“Eternal September but also literally September.”
I put down the nail polish to check my phone. “Huh. So it is.”
“Things are gonna pick up.”
“I guess they have been a bit slow,” I said, with practiced nonchalance.
“Here, let me.” She took the bottle and wiped the brush off on its tiny round lip. The colour, a bright emerald green (shut up, I’m off the clock and can use clichés if I want to) was called “Ocean in Motion.” I leaned back against the arm of the couch and extended my left leg. It felt nice when she cupped my heel in her palm. I studied the gaps between her cornrows as she worked.
“I don’t want to be presumptuous or anything — I mean, maybe you’re sitting here processing, working on the next step for some big client’s doorstop novel...”
I appreciated her diplomatic wording even as I was slightly annoyed by it.
“... but in case you need a job, I hear there’ll be a big batch of names released within the next couple of hours. UC Boulder, Brown, UNC Greensboro, Syracuse, all these fresh-faced geniuses making their calls at once. Central Processing’s overwhelmed and word is they’re going to make it rain. You might want to get a prime spot in the queue while your nails dry.”
My annoyance evaporated as I realized what an immense favour she was doing for me. I was tempted to leap up and make my way to the assignment hall right there and then, but I was comfortable, and I still had four unpainted toes left. Also, I didn’t want to look as desperate as I suddenly felt. “That’s decent of you, Clio. Thanks.”
“Eh. One of the dames helped me out during last summer’s drought, so I thought I’d pay it forward. Oh, and one more thing.” She paused to blow lightly on my right foot. I tilted my head back to bask in the personal attention, a currency that would become very scarce once the feeding frenzy started.
“Scuttlebutt has it they’re not gonna bother with RFPs this round.”
“Wait, what?” I tried to sit up, an awkward affair with my leg extended, and settled on raising myself up onto my elbows. “What does that even mean? What are they going to do instead?”
She shrugged. “A lottery, maybe?”
“Don’t even joke like that.”
Clio smirked, pushing my foot off her knees with a little more force than I thought strictly necessary. “Surely not a lottery, then. Surely not.”
I warmed to the idea of a lottery over the course of the eight-minute walk to the Assignment Hall. It’s just more radical democracy, right? A way to guarantee that the eternal lowbies like me might get a chance at the juiciest contracts. Obviously I resented losing out on the chance to craft a beautiful application — I’m good at self-promo, dammit, even if all the work I put into my packages never manages to get me anywhere — but in the end I’d rather have a good client than the admiration of anyone in Processing.
There were already about a dozen muses milling about by the time I got to the hall. Metal Cal, her face obscured beneath a curtain of crimped yellow hair, jangled quietly in a studded leather jacket that would have looked badass in 1981 but which just seemed quaint now. The Three Pollys, inseparable even in these moments of bitter competition, arms locked in a parody of the sixties peace protestors that gave rise to them. Terpsichore the Long, called that because she refused to let any of us give her a nickname. Cho, who had no such compunctions. Kitty Clio and E. Rats, who had nearly killed each other over a contract back in the summer — Clio with poison, Rats with a gun, or so rumour had it — and whom fate had placed next to each other in line.
The Hall was the sort of soaring faux-Victorian building familiar to anyone who’s been to a European university or one of their many New World imitations. (Or anyone who’s seen Harry Potter, I guess.) Inoffensive stained glass angels looked blandly down on us, tinting our faces with their coloured light. At the short end of the room, opposite me, were four tellers’ cages, behind which the Centrals rifled through files. The bars were still up: I wasn’t too late. The floor was cold against the soles of my feet, but my nails looked terrific.
The last muse in line when I arrived was Red Urania, on whom I’d been harbouring a quiet crush for a couple of decades. I was still in the UVA sweatshirt and pajama bottoms I was wearing in the lounge this morning (and also, if I’m honest, the night, and day, before), but she was dressed to kill. She wore a snug sheath in a rusty orange fabric that perfectly set off her complexion and lit an autumnal flame in her dark eyes. Her makeup was flawless, the stuff of YouTube tutorials. I wondered how long she’d known that jobs were going to open up this morning. Who has the time to get dressed up for a cattle call?
Unless... unless I was literally the last to know about this round. Maybe Clio’s favour to me wasn’t as big as it seemed. Maybe she’d only told me to come here because she felt sor—
“Clio!” Urania called out, waving as if I were on the opposite shore of a lake. She leaned over to bump cheeks with me; a real kiss wouldn’t have been wise, given the glistening crimson lipstick from which she got her nickname. She smelled like honey and woodsmoke.
“Urania, gorgeous as always.”
“You have no idea how glad I am that there’s finally some churn,” she said, smoothly transforming the wave into a gesture indicating the cages at the opposite end of the hall. Some movement seemed to be happening over there, some noise too. There was muttering among the muses at the beginning of the line, the metal slide of locks unlocking. “My last client was just such a shithead.”
“The only kind there is,” I said. It wasn’t strictly the truth. I had a pretty good one about six years ago, a widower in his forties who published a fine chapbook of concrete poetry and a string of crystalline short stories about loss. He’s the only client I ever slept with outside of his dreams, and I still miss him sometimes.
“Not the only kind,” Urania said, as if she’d read my thoughts. “But this one was a piece of work. By the time I got there he’d already written eighty thousand words about how his father was disappointed in him. Getting him to let go of that scene at the fishing hole was like pulling teeth.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, laughing. “Remind me to call you whenever I feel bad about not having a gig.”
“Aw, you’ll get something today. Today! I hope it’s great! I hope it makes you glow. Like that one you had a few years ago that had you walking on air for like six months.”
“I can’t believe you remember that.”
“I remember,” she said, with an enigmatic smile and a click of her tongue.
The tellers’ cages were open, and the line lurched forward as my sisters spread to the windows. Though this moment was always tense, and though these competitions tested even the strongest friendships among us, something seemed even more strained than usual this morning. The acoustics in this vaulted space were too echoey to allow me to follow what was happening, but voices seemed to be raised, and the muses were gesturing strangely at the masked granters of contracts behind the windows.
And then suddenly I was at the front of the line. The muses in front of me had all dispersed, fat manila folders in hand. Red Urania was already talking to the Central two windows down from me, her easy demeanour gone, tense hands clawed against the railing. I was disoriented, dizzy even, as I approached my own window. What was happening? Normally we milled in line for hours and hours as the muses in front of us filled out forms and scrawled paragraphs of inspirational philosophies that had been tailored on the fly for the posted job descriptions. Normally we stood around, or argued, or made out, or tagged each other for quick runs to the toilet or the canteen. Sometimes the sun was setting by the time we were done. Once or twice we went all night, a spontaneous slumber party coalescing on the stone tiles.
“Your name for the record,” said the Central. His face was obscured behind a filmy veil; his long-fingered hands were a deep sub-Saharan black, pressed into the marble sill in front of him. Nobody knew exactly who the tellers were, whether they were former clients or retired muses or some other natural or supernatural thing. Unlike us, some of them were male. None of them seemed to stay in their positions for long, but where they went after they came here was just as much of a mystery as where they’d come from in the first place.
“Clio Sigma Sigma Eta Nu of the Steady Fire Brigade, generation Sun’s Edge White, known colloquially as Toes, Toe Polish, Dish, and possibly other names unknown to me,” I recited automatically. I’d love to believe that some of the muses call me “Dish” because I’m pretty or because there's always great gossip about me, but I think it’s actually short for “disheveled.”
“Clio Sigma Sigma Eta Nu, you have been evaluated.”
“Your score is sixty-seven points,” he said. I heard him pull out a file drawer next to him, but I couldn’t see it from this angle.
“You have been assigned a client appropriate to your level,” he said, sliding a stiff manila folder toward me.
“My... my what, now?”
“This is your package. Contact Central Processing if there is a grievance with the client. Good luck.”
I looked at the folder. It had “67” written on the top right-hand corner in ballpoint. “I don’t have a grievance with the client!” I heard my voice echoing unpleasantly in the room and strained to lower it. “I don’t know who the fucking client even is! What I have a ‘grievance’ with is ‘sixty-seven points.’ Sixty-seven! What the fuck! Are you calling me a C+ muse?”
“The point system is not a grade,” he replied neutrally. “Central Processing has evaluated your previous work and has assigned you this objective score, taking into account your age, your work history, and your productivity.”
“Yes, your productivity, along with several other factors, determined by a calculus that must remain classified. Surely you understand.”
“I understand that this is total bullshit,” I said, but even then the energy was leaching out of my voice as I came to the realization that I’d already lost. Stronger muses than I were all walking away with their packages, sullen, defeated. For all our divine gifts with words, nobody’s ever managed to persuade a Central to back down on anything.
A lineup was building behind me, though it was exhausting itself almost as quickly as new muses arrived. I looked back at the Central and snatched up my package. “Can you at least tell me what the sixty-seven is out of?” I snarled.
I detected the faintest of shrugs beneath the shoulders of his shapeless black gown. “The maximum possible score,” he said, “is three thousand.”
“Hey, you okay?” Clio pushed the door open a crack, letting a sliver of light into my cell. I rearranged the blankets over my face so that I wouldn’t have to see her.
“Nobody’s in the lounge. It’s really weird out there. It’s never been this weird.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“I want to die.”
“Now you’re talking like a client.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little, though the sound was choked by snot. I heard her pad softly over to the bed, then felt it shift under me as she sat down.
“I’m sixty-seven,” I gurgled.
“You’re— you’re what?”
“Sixty-seven out of three thousand. I’m a two percent muse.”
“Clio, honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I sat up and wiped my nose with the blanket. “They’re scoring us now. They’re giving us number scores and mine is the worst. I’m the worst muse.”
“I doubt you’re the literal worst.”
“I bet I am.”
“You can’t be as bad as Herp Derp Terp.”
She had me there. Herpaderpsichore was legendary for inspiring brilliant poets to write garbage. Once she bewitched a Scots Makar into writing a mindless jingle for frozen cakes. We all still catch ourselves humming it sometimes.
“Fine. The second worst. I bet Herp got, like, sixty-five.”
“What sort of client did they stick you with?”
“Dunno. I can’t bring myself to open the package.”
“I’m turning on the lights.”
“Don’t you d—”
But it was too late. Briefly blinded, I took refuge under the covers again. “I hate you.”
“I can live with that.” She picked up the unopened envelope from the desk and studied it, frowning. “You’re not even curious?”
“Of course I’m curious.”
“I’m not leaving this room until you open this.”
“Why do you care so much?”
“I just do.” She held out the package.
I took it, arranging my face into its fiercest possible glare.
I mean, obviously there’s a lot wrong with him. He thinks nobody notices when he puts the dictionary.com Word of the Day into his chapters. (Today’s was “appurtenance.”) He worships Jonathan Franzen. He has a tattoo that slightly misquotes Bukowski. He thinks “no prepositions at the ends of sentences” is actually a thing. He’s named Brad. (Well, I guess that last part’s not his fault.)
But he’s smart, and he’s funny, and he’s kind, and he’s pathetically grateful for every scrap of advice I give him. His writing’s getting a bit better already. Now he’ll pause before reaching for a cliché, and truth be told I can’t even really say the same of myself most days. (“Emerald green”! The fuck was I thinking!) He scoffs at poetry but managed to write a pretty respectable villanelle when he was required to do so for a class, and I know he knows it’s good, and I know it bothers him a little that this thing that he once considered a waste of time can be both harder and more fun than he expected.
Don’t get me wrong, I can sort of see why he got matched to two-percent me. Brad (Brad!) doesn’t have that spiritual furnace that burns inside the really brilliant writers, that scorching power that gives a muse life, that inspires her just as much as it inspires him. Most of what got him this far — “this far” being the first year of an MFA program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale — was privilege and aimlessness rather than raw talent. But his talent isn’t zero, which I think is what I was afraid of.
No: I lied. I wasn’t afraid he’d have no talent. I was afraid he’d have more talent than I do.
But anyway, he is doing the work, cheerfully even, and there are some decent pages amongst all the crap. When he makes a misstep I nudge him, and he doesn’t get the slightest bit defensive. He reconsiders, he rewrites, he thanks me after. His edited versions are almost always better than the originals, and some of them are a lot better than average.
So I think we're going to be okay. As I work with him, I can feel his mind slowly, slowly creaking open. And I think I can feel mine doing the same thing.