If you hang out in writer-circles for long enough, you’ll inevitably hear about muses at some point. Individual artists have different ideas about what muses can do and what form they take. We discuss if they exist and what that existence or lack thereof might mean for an artist. Some people— the atheists of the writing world— find belief in muses silly, and others find it comforting.
The original muses were goddesses. There were nine of them: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. These goddesses were all sisters, and the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Together they personified knowledge and the arts and provided inspiration.
Now, more often it’s not a religious concept but a fantastic one. The muses at some point transformed from goddesses to beings which have more in common with imaginary friends. There is still a bit of magic involved, but the relationship is not standardized between artist and muse at all.
In a TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that the reason muses (by any name, she refers to them as ‘geniuses’) are so attractive is because they allow us to redirect pressure away from the artist onto an external force. She describes it as “a psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.”
This might seem odd at first. What is wrong with writers that we don’t want blame placed on us for the things we are writing? It makes a bit of sense once you consider how our culture views art. An unsuccessful piece of writing earns a large pile of rejections and lots of thoughtful criticism from family members, friends, and random people on the internet telling the writers that maybe they ought to do something more productive with their lives. A successful piece of writing earns all of that, plus publication and an expectation that the writer now has the ability to access something secretive and creative that no one else can. The family members, friends, and random people on the internet ask where the ideas come from and maybe even say they wanted to be a writer. Famous writers are praised and elevated and their egos inflate like red balloons… until they are criticized again or sit down to write something else, at which point those same red balloons deflate while flying around the room making unpleasant noises.
Gilbert seems to use her muse like a scapegoat for dealing with all of this. She says,
“And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So this was how the ancient artist was protected from, for example, certain things like too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it. Everybody knew you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”
However, the blame-soaking muse is only one of many. Stephen King describes his muse more like a drug dealer.
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling tropes and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because that guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
(Stephen King, On Writing, page 144).
Unlike Gilbert, King feels constantly indebted, rather than released from pressure. He works to serve the muse, not the other way around. King’s muse is also much less romanticized, and reading through the description, one might begin to notice what might be an unhealthy dependency on the guy. I think many writers can relate to the feeling of giving hours and hours of work to a piece of writing, then feeling completely justified when they get a taste of the inspiration. All the Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt, frustration, and effort is worth it when the ideas and words start to flow.
A band called Whitebrow has a song about the songwriter’s muse where he describes her more like an on-again-off-again lover who he desperately hopes will come back every single time she leaves him.
“My Muse has left for the hills
and she’s taken my inspiration.
One day she’ll come back to me.
One day she’ll come back right here.
One day she’ll come back to me
and make all the muddy waters clear.”
Here too, the muse is personified as the one who has the inspiration. The writer must earn the company of the muse in order to get the inspiration, somehow, but this always feels like a fair deal. You can’t stay mad at a muse long.
Not everyone is dependent on a personification to help them write, though. I’m certain there are many authors who believe that real writers just get to work like everyone else and refine their craft.
A fantastic poet named Philip Pardi said once that sometimes he believes in the muse and sometimes he doesn’t. The day I met him at the Living Writers Series at SUNY Oswego, he believed, but perhaps in the days before or after he did not. He’s a muse agnostic.
I suppose I am too. I’m a big believer in awful, forced first drafts that become good writing through revision. I believe that poetry is not necessarily magical or spiritual and that believing so is often a part of why many people are intimidated to write and read it. When we take away the mysticism, what is left is a skill to learn like cooking, building, and mathematics. It gets people away from the doubt about whether they’re real writers if they don’t sense some voice telling them the words to put on the page. I also think that getting away from the idea of divine insight makes revision more fun. If your first draft came from the muse, how could your revision possibly improve on pure, magical inspiration? Deciding that your first drafts are just whatever you jotted down makes it a lot easier to admit the piece needs work.
But then again, sometimes the words flow so easily, it’s almost a spiritual experience. Every once in a while the ideas, memories, music, and lines all weave together as if outside my influence. Sometimes characters decide their choices for themselves. Sometimes poems grow in my brain when I’m actively trying to do other things.
When this happens, it’s easy to call that sensation “inspiration given from a muse.” The secret is that muses are not exclusive to artists at all. Muses, if we decide they exist, are in great abundance. Everyone has moments when everything just seems to come together. You can see this for yourself when a boy completes a puzzle, a woman realizes she’s in love, or a student says “Oh, I get it!”
Neil Gaiman explained this concept well in response to the common question “Where do you get your ideas?”
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
I believe that is the truth. Everyone feels motivated and compelled to explore ideas occasionally. The hard parts are doing something about it when it happens and getting it to happen with some regularity.
The first time I took the word “muse” seriously at all, it was in my ‘Introduction to Poetry’ course in college. My professor called free-writing “muse writing” and it stuck for me. Muse writing consisted entirely of writing without stop until the words started becoming interesting, and using that as raw material later to shape written work. It was never stressed that we needed to believe that someone was giving us the words to write down, but somewhere in the phrase implied that by doing this we were tapping into words we might not have written otherwise.
When you have a muse, he isn’t going to chat all the time. He’s usually the kind of person to show up late or cancel plans last second. So you really need to get a schedule established if you want him to have a sliver of a chance remembering when you want him there. Invite him every morning at 8:00 a.m. or every evening at midnight, and he’ll start showing up. Of course, he’ll still probably miss some days or weeks and show up when you don’t want him around too, but it’s good enough. Muse writing is a way of giving him a call and inviting him over.
Or, in non-magical terms: If you start writing every day, you’ll eventually have some great ideas. More than that, you’ll be ready for those ideas, notice them, and know how they might benefit your writing.
Why do writers so often talk about it in the way that sounds more like a fairytale? Why have specific genders, personalities, and relationships associated with feeling motivated and having ideas?
Well, honestly, it’s fun. It’s comforting to personify ideas, and I think a lot of writers can’t help but think of the world in that way. We build our lives around stories and made up people in our heads, so it’s pretty obvious why some of us like assigning character traits to the abstract concept of what gives us inspiration. It also gives writers a narrative to fall back on (the muse never stopped by) during periods of Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt. Maybe it’s also a bit of an inside joke to talk about our muses in the same way we talk about “killing our darlings” when we need to delete sections of books we’ve spent months on or erase characters we love for the good of the writing. It’s not quite the truth that we’re hearing voices and killing our loved ones all the time, but on an emotional level it sometimes feels that way.
My own muse is not a goddess, a blame-taking fairy, a sketchy guy in the basement, or a fickle lover. She’s a roommate who loves naps more than anything else in the world. She spends the majority of her time sleeping, often in my bed, until her hair gets tangled and she drools on the pillow.
When I need to talk to her, I try to shake her awake. She’s a heavy sleeper, (and can sleep for months at a time like a bear) but sometimes she mumbles for a while about what she’s dreaming. Most of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but it gives me something to write about.
Some of her ideas are bad or completely incoherent, but on good days she’ll wake up and give me all sorts of brilliant advice while I make her pancakes. She’s encouraging and pleasant when she’s awake, and always reminding me that my stories are important. More often than the pancake mornings, though, are the nights where she wakes up on her own and shakes me awake because she needs to talk. Sometimes I decide to sleep and ignore her, but when I listen to what she has to say, I never regret it.