Muse: a muse is someone who gives an artist ideas or a desire to create art, poetry, or music – Collins Dictionary
A couple of days before I began writing this post, I had a strange dream where Heath Ledger was lying face down at the edge of a road. It sounds like a negative thing, and I knew in my dream that it symbolised the fact that he was dead, but in my dream scenario it was just how he chose to express himself at the time. He was essentially dancing, moving gracefully, body and arms engaged in this performance. Two people came along the street, first one and then the other. Both were imitating Heath’s movements although with considerably less grace. They both seemed happy to be creating art. After they passed on, I said to Heath, ‘They were inspired by you!’ His eyes had been closed the whole time so he hadn’t seen them. When I told him what had happened he just smiled and continued with his creative dance. Make of this what you will but for me it was simply about Heath’s ability to inspire others even long after his death.
We’ll probably never know in how many ways he was an inspiration and a driving force for creativity. There are the obvious examples to point to. Songs have been written about him; just off the top of my head I can name, among many others, Bon Iver’s “Perth”, Grace Woodroofe’s “H”, and Dialekt’s “Looking On Me” with its wondrous lyrics ‘so let me light a flame for Mr Heathcliff Ledger / legend, father, actor, director of life’. Innumerable art works have been created from Archibald Prize triumphs like Vince Fantauzzo’s amazing portrait through to thousands of lovingly created efforts by fans (and maybe half of those feature The Joker, recognised as one of the defining performances of the early 2000s). Friends and admirers alike have worked on film projects that Heath either initiated or collaborated on, or they have created fresh works dedicated to or inspired by him, or simply driven by his example.
But Heath was more than an inspiration; he was also passionately encouraging of other people. He wanted people to strive and to achieve. His involvement in the Los Angeles-based artists collective The Masses is a testament to this. In a 2009 LA Times article called “A Way About Him”, Michael Ordona recorded a few of the ways Heath assisted people. In the article, Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Heath in “Lords of Dogtown” recalled, ‘The younger actors, he was kind of like the godfather to all these boys, the Fagin. He would encourage them, take them under his wing. He had half a trailer, he was so modest but he set up a camp outside it. He set up tiki torches and people would play guitars and call it Camp Heath.’ And Heath’s longtime friend and business partner Matt Amato said, ‘His energy and enthusiasm for life will never cease to inspire me. A friend of mine said after Heath died that we must continue in Heath’s ‘gentle way.’ Those words sounded perfect to me — Heath’s gentle way. One fond memory I have is how he assisted me on a difficult edit. My carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up . . . so Heath said, ‘I’ll be your hands.’ And he was.’
This handful of examples from so many are easily found with a bit of googling but there was much more than this. Heath and I had a mutual friend. This friend wrote stage plays in her spare time. Heath knew her ambition was to produce her plays and also knew that her budget didn’t run to such ventures so he gave her seeding capital. She did get plays staged as a result, and Heath even took the time to come along and watch them. She was one among many. Essentially, if he knew someone was keen and determined, he encouraged them and backed them. He wanted everyone to achieve their best.
Through our friend, I was lucky enough to exchange messages with Heath over several months. Those messages are treasured by me, mainly because of the honesty, positivity and wisdom with which Heath wrote. You may be thinking that this is sounding a lot like hagiography. Maybe it is, but the fact is that some individuals actually are exceptionally good souls
So, to me and my claim that Heath is my muse.
It took the shock of seeing and reading “Brokeback Mountain” to start me seriously writing fiction. It took the shock of Heath’s death to make me realise that I needed to get out from behind my shyness and put my work out in public. There’s no way of knowing but I sometimes wonder if I would ever have done it without those twin shocks.
Unlike painters who portrayed their muses over and over again on canvas, Heath himself rarely appears in anything I write, and when he does he’s well disguised. He might lend a character his voice or walk or attitude, which I then turn and change in a way which suits my purposes. It’s almost as if he continues to act, to play small parts in my stories. Mostly when I say Heath is my muse I mean that he inspires me to strive. If I think that maybe I’m a pretty mediocre writer or that I’ll never be much of a success, I remind myself that we should try to use what talents we are lucky to have, and we shouldn’t put it off until later. Heath died at the age of 28. He would have achieved so much more but we should be grateful that he put all his creative energy into this world before he left, and as a result his energy continues in the work of others.
Back in 2008 I would never have written a post like this. I would have felt rather silly and exposed. But I think of all the film roles Heath played where he put himself on the line. He said once that he never went to drama school where he could learn in a sheltered environment. Instead, he made all his mistakes up on screen for everyone to see and criticise. He was always bold, even though he carried all the usual insecurities about his abilities. For such a young man he was wise beyond his years.
When I mused to him one time about my age he wrote back, ‘One is never too old to be vibrant and experience new things. Life would be so dull without it… there is always further to go and more to learn.’
Thank you, Heath.