How to Honor Our Muses During Challenging Times: Cultivating Rituals To Face Fear and the Unknown

Writing tips
Jovelyn Richards

The word “muse” in African American culture is often thought of as a spiritual offering from the ancestors, comprised of ancient properties, each layered with gifts. I am a storyteller. My methodology is likely similar to yours: facing a blank piece of paper/screen, an empty stage, or the blank stare of a character awaiting to trust us on this unknown journey. How to take this journey now when the COVID-19 virus has turned our world inside out, upside down, crossing demographics and pushing us behind closed doors.

Where are we as artists when we are in social isolation, and where is our muse? 

When the country began the discussion of shutting down and isolating, I was doing a My Good Judy artist residency at the Commonality Institute in New Orleans. I was excited to work on and present my newest play, It Was Never Just Sex. A year of laborious work was ready to harvest.

As I was settling into the French Quarter and getting acquainted with the locals, the unimaginable, unpredictable happened. The coronavirus forced everything to come to a halt. I fled New Orleans, boarded a nearly empty plane where virtually everyone was wearing a mask, and flew home to Hawaii.  

Through every conversation with family, friends, artists, and social media ran the theme of insurmountable fear of the unknown and dying. In my isolation, I asked my muse what my responsibility as a story-teller was to these times and beyond—perhaps to tomorrow’s child who will be present in a thousand years.

“Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation”—Isaac Newton.
This quote came from Newton’s time spent in isolation during the Great Plague of London in 1665.

I’ve revisited rituals from the past and new ones specific to recent events to deepen my connections to muse. They have increased my understanding tenfold spiritually. I offer them for your consideration as possibilities for you, my fellow playwrights.

·   Separate journal solely devoted to shelter in place reflections

·   Every day write in a journal your core feelings

·   Write the words family/friends/strangers speak or send through text, email, and social media, expressing their feelings (they are the audience, the pulse of humanity)

·   Find time to meditate a few minutes every day around the times in your emotional history when you have had an intimate connection with the feelings coming up during this crisis. Tell yourself the story.

·   Read literature where the characters moved through difficult times as their new normal. I’m reading Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!

·   Meditate on your relationship to truth.

·   Create a psychological self-portrait with the underlying question: What is my relationship to fear and dying?

My purpose for practicing the above rituals is to let my muse know I am strong enough and brave enough to take on the stories that will move our humanity forward, and that I am wise enough to know that cultural barriers are made from fear, and human interconnection is made from walking through that fear. What characters have been waiting in the shadows like the animals who have recently emerged during our shelter in place? I will do my part in widening the emotional spiritual landscape through storytelling.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”—Toni Morrison

In leaving you, I want to say that by honoring my muse with these rituals, I found my way back to the script from New Orleans, It Was Never Just Sex, and discovered a shocking, poetically painful, loving truth about the main character. Thank you for spending this time together.

Be well in your journey.


P.S I’ll be posting more thoughts on our collective pandemic journey on my website:

About the author

Jovelyn Richards

Jovelyn D. Richards is an African-American/Native American writer/director/teacher and performance artist living in Oakland, CA. She has done solo performances at The Marsh, Afro Solo, and La Peña in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as at the Los Angeles Women's Theater Festival, the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina, and other venues. She has also published short stories and a novel, and she is the host of a radio show on KPFA that explores the racial and other diverisions in our society.

Her work often focuses on the dignity, wisdom, and resilience of people of color as they struggle with systemic racism. Her novel, Tulips for Evening, deals with race relations in the South immediately after the Civil War. Her solo performance piece, Come Home, dealt with Negro soldiers from rural Arkansas returning home after World War II, and Miz Pat's House presents stories about diverse women in a mid-20th century brothel run by an African-American woman.

Her current play, "9-1-1: What's Your Emergency?" explores the racist fears that drive white women to call the police when they see people of color in their neighborhoods. "9-1-1" is being created in collaboration with Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national organization dedicated to fighting white supremacy.

Richards has worked for over 25 years in marginalized communities as a family advocate and community educator, and she is especially interested in the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and LGBTQ oppressions. She is a consultant with Peer Advocates Training and Consulting and has been leading cultural diversity training workshops with the teachers and staff of the Stockton Unified School District.

Richards has also directed theatre residencies at the San Francisco Sex Workers Theater and Film Festival, at Bennett Colleege, and Central Eastern University in Budapest, Hungary. She is currently an artist-in-residence at La Peña Cultural Center in Oakland, CA.