Short Story

Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp

This entry is part 6 of 25 in the series The Mythology of the Modern World

It’s Random Thursday yet again! It’s time to elaborate on monday’s myth a little.

Well, really what we’re doing is reprinting something I wrote in my Livejournal on my birthday back in 2005. Which actually requires a little backstory. Which seems weird, but there we are.

I have the good fortune to have been born on January the 27th. Besides making me an Aquarius and making my birthstone garnet, this also means I share a birthday with Mozart and Lewis Carroll, among others. It’s the second that we’re interested in right now.

You see, a few years back a guy named Dan Curtis Johnson declared that January 27 should be Down the Rabbit Hole Day on Livejournal. A day where like Alice we all went a little mad, and did our normal LJ posting, only from the world on the other side of the looking glass, however that fanciful nature came to the individual poster.

I found the idea charming and gave it the old college try, despite feeling ill that day (or perhaps because of it. Who can tell). I know some people have learned to despise Down the Rabbit Hole Day the same way they despise Nanowrimo or Talk Like A Pirate Day or many other events that encourage people to act out in public whether they have talent or not.

Regardless, I liked the bit of mythbuilding I did for that year’s Rabbit Hole, and it actually is informing the overall “Mythology of the Modern World” series, so it deserved at least a shot here in the Random Days.

Why isn’t it in the actual Myth block? Because the Myth block is meant to be new writing each week, not reprints of even germane subjects. So there. Nyah.

Anyway. Please enjoy Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp.

*** *** *** ***

When I went to sleep, I was fevered and coughing and generally ill. That remained the same through the night, and then I woke up feeling perhaps eighty instead of thirty-seven. But no, sick or not, I am indeed thirty-seven, and the sun is bright and shining. Though it’s cold. So very, very cold.

“In fact, there’s no degrees outside right now,” she said from the kitchen. “By the way, you’re out of coffee again.”

I blinked. When I went to sleep, I was moderately sure there was no ‘she’ in my kitchen or anywhere else in my apartment, not counting my cat who, last I knew did not drink coffee. I turned to look, pulling my blankets higher in an effort to preserve my modesty.

She was fresh as a daisy, it seemed. Hair moderately close cropped, wearing a white spagetti strap tank top and jeans, with a knapsack full of scrolls over her shoulder.

Yes, scrolls.

“Excuse me,” I said, pausing to cough. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think I know you.”

“Of course you do,” she replied. “Everyone knows me, some better than most. They just don’t know that they know me. You know?”

I allowed as how I did not.

“Well, be that as it may, you’ve got a busy day ahead, so we might as well get it started. Why not get a shower in and get ready for work — or are you calling in sick?”

“I was planning on going in,” I replied. After all, one could be miserable at their desk as easily as they could be miserable at their couch. “Though given the cold I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Well, think about it while you shower. Either way, you’ll feel better after it. I’ll make myself some tea. You certainly seem to have that.”

“Wait,” I said. “Who are you?”

She smiled a dazzling smile. “Calliope Jones,” she said. “Local Musae Number 153. You’ve been part of my caseload for quite some time, and I think it’s time we set a few things straight, don’t you?”

*** *** ***

“Calliope?” I asked, toweling off my hair. Yes, I was wearing a robe. “As in the Calliope?”

“Oh, nothing so definite article,” she replied, sipping Lapsong Souchong with a smile. “I’m a Calliope. Calliope Jones, to be exact.”

“Then there’s more than nine muses?”

“There are, in fact, more than nine muses. You see — well, you probably don’t but you soon will — we’ve been growing in number since the dawn of Man. First, there was one.”


“One. Mnemosyne. She then became three — Melete, Mneme, and Aoede. And later, those three each became three of their own, leading to the nine you’re thinking of.”

“Calliope, Terpsichore, Clio….”

Calliope rolled her eyes. “Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. Honestly, why writers of all people can’t remember that is really quite beyond me.”

“And then they all multiplied by three again?”

“Hm? Oh, no no. They multiplied by nine each, to yield eighty-one. It’s an exponential growth cycle, not a geometric one.”

“There are eighty-one muses?”

Calliope laughed — a laugh that sounded like music, which makes sense if you think about it. “Silly boy. Those eighty-one begat eighty-one more apiece, leading to six thousand, five hundred and sixty one muses.”

“That’s… that’s incredible. When did that happen?”

“Oh, around the Enlightenment. Which makes sense if you think about it.” She slurped her tea.

“So, there’s sixty-five hundred of you now?”

“What? With the mass of information being produced these days? Those sixty five hundred and sixty one begat sixty five hundred and sixty-one apiece back in 1922.”

I goggled. “You mean… there’s….”

“Forty-three million, forty-six thousand, seven hundred and twenty one active muses working today. For a while there, that meant things were going smoothly, only with the internet and the age of information and all that, there’s more and more textual requirements being created all the time. We’re all feeling a little overworked. We’re going to have to divide again, I think.”

“But… when you do, your numbers will square again.”

“Aren’t you a bright boy?”

“But that will mean… billions of muses. Trillions of muses.”

“Actually, one quadrillion, eight hundred and fifty three trillion, twenty billion, one hundred and eighty eight million, eight hundred and fifty one thousand, eight hundred and forty one muses.”

I stared at the muse in my kitchen. “But… the human population of the planet is only….”

“Six billion, four hundred and fifteen million, one hundred and fourteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety three. Roughly. So yes, we’re discussing about twenty nine thousand muses for every mortal.” She grinned impishly. “Think the National Endowment for the Arts will be sufficiently funded then?

*** *** ***

I coughed in the cold air as we walked to the school.

“You should bundle up more. You don’t want that to develop into pneumonia,” Calliope said.

“It’s a short walk and I’m wearing multiple layers,” I half-croaked.

“Whatever. Enjoy your fever.”

I paused as we walked. One of the snowpiles was being skied down by what looked to be boggarts. Boggarts in touques. And little parkas. They also had set up a boggart T-Bar.

“What?” Calliope asked.

“I think I’m having a fever dream,” I said. “I’m seeing skiing boggarts.”

“Oh. That’s because you’re with me. You’re seeing the things just out of sight.”

“Then there are always skiing boggarts?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s not always snowing, is it.” She waved to the lead boggart, who was himself snowboarding. He did a jump but blew his landing, faceplanting and skidding a ways. Calliope giggled.

“Where did these… beings… come from?” I asked.

Calliope shrugged. “Where does anything come from? Honestly, there are times you humans ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ when the only reasonable question is ‘when’ or ‘who.’ In any case, you’re spending time with your muse in corpus. Naturally, you’re walking a more imaginative path than you usually do.”

We walked into the classroom building, and started making our way towards my office. “You’re my muse?”

“Not exclusively. People don’t get to have exclusive muses except in rare situations. Like, Stephen King. He gets Clio Glickman all to himself. Poor girl. He runs her ragged.”

“Anyone else get their own muse?”

“Well, Piers Anthony. He gets Erato Keller.” Calliope looked rueful. “She looks fourteen, dresses like a slut and does half-assed work at best. No wonder the poor man falls into pedophiliac hackwork at the drop of an a-cup bra.”

“I could have gone my whole life without knowing that.”

“I know.” She giggled. “No one said enlightenment was pleasant.

We rounded a corner, and were confronted by women.

A lot of women.

Women dressed as porn stars, as super heroes, as soccer players stripped to their sports bras. They were milling around outside a classroom door, and most of them looked bored.

“The… Hell?” I asked.

“Mm? Oh. That must be a math class,” Calliope said.

“Excuse me? I’m not sure how we can establish that cause and effect.”

“Boys, when sitting in advanced math, spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about sex. It’s the only way they can possibly make it through. They hear about the square of the hypotenuse and immediately imagine they’re banging Brooke Burke.” She shrugged. “The castoff fantasies congregate nearby. Think of it as a tangible representation of testosterone.”

I shook my head. “All right. Setting aside the statistical likelihood that some of the boys in that class are actually homosexual as irrelevant to the conversation, what about the girls? I don’t see any bored beefcake waiting outside.”

Calliope’s grin turned wicked. “The girls typically pay attention. Barbie was a lying bitch.”

*** *** ***

Calliope looked around my office. “God, clean much?”

“You can’t be surprised.”

“Mm? No. No, I’ve been here before, after all.”

“So tell me something — can other people see you?”

“Have you seen other people?”

I stopped to consider. Aside from acres of porn stars, skiing boggarts, and three legged acrobatic squirrels hanging around the coffee maker, the school had been unusually empty for this time of day. “Now that you mention it…”

“If they look in here, they’ll see you hard at work. Well, as hard as you ever work. If they ask questions, you’ll answer. It’ll all be normal. Even though you’re not paying any attention to that side of things at all, today.”

“Okay, I realize I’m sounding like a broken record, but–”

“But you don’t get it.”


Calliope considered for a moment, and slurped some of the french vanilla coffee she’d picked up from the coffee maker. It was a Keurig, which meant it worked a cup at a time, which meant lovely things, all told. “When do you stop being a writer?”


“When are you not a writer?”

I considered for a moment. “I’m always a writer.”

“Even though you’re not always writing?”

“Right. When I’m not writing, part of me’s thinking about what I’ll write next. Or planning. Or taking whatever I’m doing and applying it to later writing.”

“Exactly. You look at the world through mundane eyes, but inside you’ve always got writer’s eyes taking a second look at everything. Well, today you’re looking at the world through your writer’s eyes, while your mundane eyes are on the back burner, taking care of mundane things. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

“Can I get this perspective to be permanent?”

“Nah, you’d go insane.”

“Assuming I haven’t already?”

“Hey, all writers are nuts.” She sipped again. “This coffee really is good.”

“It is, isn’t it.” I sipped my own. Hazelnut with fat free half and half. Though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the two halves were supposed to be. “So why are you here today, letting me see this way?”

“Because it’s your birthday, and because we should talk.” She half-smiled. “January 27. Mozart’s birthday.”

“And Lewis Carroll.”

“Please. He was the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Plus, this is the birthday of Hot Lips Page.”


Calliope looked at me with disdain. “Hot Lips Page. One of the finest men to ever press a mouthpiece to his lips and blow. A semninal jazz trumpeter. You ought to hear his rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Pearl Bailey.”

“Sorry. I guess I’m behind on my seminal jazz trumpeters.”

“You and the rest of the world. You and the rest of the world.”

*** *** ***

“It comes to this,” Calliope said. “In every writer’s life, they come to a fork in the road.”

“The imaginary road?” I asked.

“No, nimrod. Route 28 to Concord.” She rolled her eyes. “There comes a point of decision.”

I sipped my tea. It was too late in the day for coffee, and the tea was soothing on my ragged throat. “A cusp.”

“Yes! Exactly. A cusp.” She grinned. “You gotta love pretentious writers. They come up with the best words, and try to make it sound like that was the only possible word that could be used there. Anyway. You’re moving onto cusp, and it seems to me you need to approach it in an informed manner.”

I nodded, listening. Well, mostly listening. I noticed my stuffed Skull plushie had started dancing with my Narbonic gerbil in the background. Tango, I think. Or maybe Paso Doble. Without music, it was hard to tell, but they were having a good time.

“Mostly, you have to decide why you’re writing.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Did I stutter?”

“I thought you said the whys and hows weren’t as important as the whos and wheres.”

“I did. Now I’m saying the whys are important. We’ve passed that turn and we’re in the home stretch. Why do you write?”

I stopped to consider the question. I’ve heard all the rote answers before, but I never liked them. I’m driven to write is the most common. It’s excruciatingly hard but it’s an addiction and I need the keyboard or I’ll go mad. Or there was the pure art argument. Or the “I want to be a bestselling author and quit my job argument.” Or even the arrogant because I like being the center of attention argument.

I rejected them all. Writing wasn’t painful to me and it wasn’t a compulsion. While I try to work within an aesthetic I also write some pure drivel and I know it. And the bestselling author argument was a mug’s game. One out of every thousand writers makes any money at all, and only one out of every thousand of them makes enough that they don’t have to do anything else. And when they do hit that point, then it really is their job.

And everyone resents their job.

Oh, and the arrogance? I have that in spades, but there’s lots more I write and don’t show anyone than there is the stuff I do show people.

“I guess… it’s because I like writing.”

Calliope stared at me. “You like. Writing.”


“That’s all. You write thousands of words a month on your blog… you write thousands of words in novels… you write short stories and poetry… because you like to write?

“Well… yeah. Why would I possibly do it if I didn’t like to write?”

Calliope blinked. “Huh. Good question. What is it you like about it?”

“Well… I like the flush of pleasure I get as I’m typing the words — seeing with my writerly eyes, as you say. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I finish. I like the way it organizes my thoughts and exorcises my demons. It’s just… pleasurable. Is that so wrong?”

“No… no, it’s not. It’s just not what I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“From you? Some pseudophilosophy on the aesthetic principle, coupled with a desire to walk into Barnes and Noble and see a book with your name on it.”

“Well, those are nice too… but honestly, there’s no real mystery here. I just like to do it.”

She leaned forward. “And if you never exceed the limit you’ve reached? Remember, Robert Burns died at 37 — the very age you just turned. You could die tomorrow. Or be hit by a bus on your way home today. Or you might just never ‘make it.’ No one might want to publish Trigger Man or Theftworld. Are you okay with that?”

I half-smiled. “You know something? I write a blog that gets more visitors in a day than read the original printing of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I have a million words sitting in internet archives for anyone who takes the time to read them. I’ve corresponded with artists and fans and editors and writers. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, that’s good enough for me. Because through it all, I’ve enjoyed doing the writing. Isn’t that enough?”

Calliope half-smiled. “Yeah. That’s enough.” She leaned back. “You’re never going to win a Hugo award, you know.”

“Really? Seems to me people who write what they want because they like it are the very people who should win awards.”

“Yeah, and while we’re at it there should be universal health care and comic books should still cost a dime. But in the real world, it’s not the people following their own sense of vision who win awards.”

I shrugged. “Not my problem.”

Calliope’s smile grew a bit. “Y’okay. I’ll keep you.”

“Excuse me?”

She got up. “I said I’ll keep you. This was your performance review.”

“Wait — you were considering dropping me?”

“Hey, it’s nothing personal. But like I said, our caseloads have been getting pretty tight lately. You have to separate out the good investments from the bad investments.”

“But… I told you I don’t care if I sell books or win awards.”

Calliope snorted. “Dude, I’m your muse, not your agent. I don’t care if you ever sell a damn thing again.”

“Oh… then what do you care about?”

“I want writers working for me. I want people who open up their text editors every time they sit down at their computers, or pull out their sketchbooks and scribble words whenever they get coffee. The nature of the muse is imagination. The aesthetic medium of the muse is inspiration. You think I want to spend my life hooked into people writing Harlequin Romances?”

“So… we work well together.”

“So far.” She paused. “Still, clean your damn office. I mean, Jesus Christ, look at this place.”

“All right, all right.” I smiled. “Lunch.”

“A well fed muse is a happy muse. Lead on.”

Series Navigation« Time Zones and the Witching Hour.
Why are the ideas of things scarier than the reality? »
Liked it? Take a second to support Eric Burns-White on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

5 thoughts on “Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp”

  1. I can’t think of a better reason to be a writer. We all want to get published, and my mom tries to claim that I’m writing a novel, but really I’m just writing. I’d say you hit the nail on the head, but that’s a cliche, so I won’t say it.

  2. Generally a kind of kakodaemon — a small imp, mischievous and often malicious, given to laying clammy hands on the faces of people as they sleep and haunting households. Occasionally friendly and helpful, though do not give a helpful boggart a name — even a nickname. They cannot stand those and will fly into a rage, and a boggart in a rage can be a severe annoyance. In part because whether they’re being helpful or hurtful, they’re conscientious and always look after their ‘duty.’

    It is said that if a family is so fed up with a boggart that they move to a new house, the boggart will pack his things and move with them.

    Also, they apparently enjoy skiing. At least, that’s the implication of the story.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.