Musings on the Muse

Writing is a kind of magic. It has to be right? I mean, one day you start with nothing, and the next day you’ve got words, and those words make up a story that wasn’t there before.

Writing is an act of pure creation, a thing born out of nothing, a notion made concrete through the power of the logos. And often as we’re writing we begin to sense that there’s something else at work, something other, something outside of ourselves.

Writers have felt that invisible force of creation for thousands of years. As far back as ancient Greece there was a name for it: the muse. The Greek writers believed that their writing didn’t really belong to them at all. They believed they were simply instruments in the hands of gods they called muses. If their writing was wonderful, it was because of the muse. If it sucked it was because of the muse.

We know better today of course. We live in the twenty-first century where gods and demons are nothing more than quaint archetypes, relics of a more ignorant era. And the muse? Nothing more than fantasy.

At least that’s what some people would have you believe. The other day, I read a scalding blog post in which the writer took great delight in tearing the idea of the muse to shreds. His message to the writing world, “You are responsible, you are in charge. Stop using the muse as an excuse.”

I can understand his position. Too often we use the idea of the muse as a crutch. We say, “The muse just ain’t speaking to me today,” when what we really mean is, “I’m not in the mood to write.”

But he’s wrong. Because it isn’t in us alone to write a story. Our stories may be woven from the cloth already lying around in our skulls, but to ignore the idea of an outside influence is downright dangerous.

Science would have us believe that the muse does not really and truly exist, that, rationally speaking, the fantastic process of creation is a product of nothing more than our own psyche.

But there is a problem with this: writing is not scientific. We are not rational beings. When we look toward the east in the morning we do not say, “Observe the striking manner in which the rotation of the earth reveals the light of the sun.” We say, “Look at that beautiful sunrise.” Rationally speaking we know that the sun does not in fact rise. But we are not rational beings.

The idea of the muse is more than just a crutch. If we let it, it can become an invaluable part of the way we write. When I saw Elisabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about accepting the concept of the muse it changed the way I looked at my writing. There was something truly liberating in the knowledge that it isn’t all my responsibility.

So now when I’m stuck in a story lurch, I strike up a conversation with the muse. I say, “Gee dude, you really got us into a bad one this time. I sure hope you’ve got a plan to dig us out of this plot hole.” And generally within a day or two, he does have a plan. I could have spent that time stressing out about the problem myself, but instead I let the muse take it for me.

And sure, you can say, “But Albert, you’re just harnessing the power of your subconscious.” You may be right. But it works.

You can abandon your muse if you feel like it. Go ahead and take on the terrible responsibility of writing on your own. As for me, I’m glad to have Elmer here leading the way.

(By the way, you should really click the link and watch the speech Elizabeth Gilbert gave. It’s totally amazing and worth your time.)


8 responses to “Musings on the Muse

  1. Interesting perspective. I have no use for the muse concept, probably because I’m too steeped in psychology. But knowing that the brain works independently of our conscious awareness in order to create doesn’t mean that we have to think of writing as scientific, because it isn’t. The understanding of how the brain operates is part of science. The flow of creativity isn’t. I know that my ideas don’t magically come out of nowhere because I understand that the subconscious is constantly at work, putting together fragments of our thoughts, what we see, etc. The mystery (not magic) is exactly how that happens, why the brain selects particular bits and puts them together in such a way that they rise to consciousness. That’s creativity and it’s something that science probably won’t ever be able to explain.

  2. I don’t know about you but I usually try to force my muse using the spaghetti method. Throw everything until it sticks. Then, editing, rewrite, is hell.

  3. I agree with your statement about Elizabeth Gilbert. She is truly inspiring and refreshingly honest considering her success. I am not really sure why she has had such success after having read her books. Maybe her secret is the authenticity of her thoughts and emotions she portrays.
    This makes your appeal too by the way:-)

  4. Thanks Alfred for an insightful posting.

    The muse, for me, is inspiration and that inner voice speaking from the subconscious. Like you, I gave it a name. I call her “Lucy” as in “Lucy, what’s your next scheme; I know you have one up your sleeve,” if I’m letting the imagination do its work. Or, if I’m working on a story and it’s stalling or the characters are detouring from my roadmap, I might say“Lucy, you got some explaining to do.” I can see Lucy rolling her eyes and telling me to “wait it out.” Just walk away.

    I feed my muse in a lot of different ways – reading, walking, taking photographs, watching films, driving around, etc. I like to bass fish because I find it meditative and a good way to unwind after a day of writing. I’m just staring out over the calmness of the lake and casting out lines for bass and reeling them back over and over, I enter a state of zen, or a state of “Lucy.” She just starts yammering away. Images, situations, dialogue, and entire scenes begin to surface like little minnows skimming the lake’s surface. Lucy’s saying cast this way, cast this way.

    And I pay attention.

    In the Zen of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about feeding the muse. Basically, when we are not sitting in the chair writing, he says we should be out living life – feeding the muse – getting inspired. And, if one is not writing every day, or at least most days of the week and not living when he or she is not writing, I don’t think he or she is going to be open to the muse [inspiration]. He or she is over thinking the process and should just stop and try the spaghetti method described by Marilag Lubag and see what sticks. Writing is rewriting I tell my students. Even Hemmingway revised (he also traveled, hunted, and fished and fed his muse).

  5. Thought-provoking post, Albert. I’ve never believed I was responsible for whatever minor hints of genius might show up in my creative projects. I didn’t labor for an advanced degree or work a lifetime to hone my craft. I just sat down one day and began writing. The words flowed – how or from what source, I don’t know. If I have success, I won’t take all the credit. And it’s nice to think that I don’t need to take all the blame for my failures either. PS – thanks for the link; enjoyed Elizabeth’s talk.

  6. Thanks for this encouraging post. I know within five minutes of sitting down to write each day whether or not it’s going to be a fruitful session. I believe it to be more than shifting moods and/or artificial sweeteners, as my wife might suggest. For me at least, there is an inspirational valve somewhere inside me that when shut off makes it next to impossible to put coherent sentences together. I’m not sure if it’s a muse or physiological, but I, like you, prefer to believe it is the former.

    Thanks for the link. I’m going there now.

  7. Well, now the comparisons between our blogs are just spooky. I wrote a post about the Muses right around the exact same time you did. And I, too, cited the exact same TED talk.
    Check it out here, if you want.

  8. Pingback: Monday Mumblings – A Muse is a Writer’s Best Friend | Out of the Woods

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