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.)