As Mark McGuinness notes in his book Motivation for Creative People, the idea of an external muse or divine inspiration has rather gone out of fashion. Up until the Enlightenment, the general idea was that artists, musicians and writers were visited by a supernatural force which worked through them to bring forth the Art (capital ‘A’).
In this modern, rational time, we don’t believe in such things. Now the artist’s inspiration or muse is part and parcel of the human meat-sack. It is a function of our brain, no different from the mechanism which decides whether to have pasta or rice for dinner.
While I love rationalism with all my logical heart, I have decided that this isn’t actually a very helpful construct for the workaday creative. If Everything is down to us, then we both live and die according to our own inspiration. If we imagine an external muse, however, we aren’t entirely responsible for the finished piece, and this can be wonderfully liberating.
As a freewriting, non-planning type of writer, I’m used to the feeling of diving in and hoping that the act of typing will release something good. I’m used to the sensation of discovering the story and the getting to know the characters as I write. It’s a small leap to imagine that the act of working (including writing, editing rewriting, and learning my craft) is the only thing under my control, and that I must trust my ‘muse’ to take care of the creative spark.
I am certainly not the first writer to decide that a Muse might be a useful thing to have around… Jennifer Crusie calls them the ‘girls in the basement’ as a homage to Stephen King who calls his inspiration the ‘guys in the basement’. Stephen King also said (in an interview with Neil Gaiman):
“I never think of stories as made things; I think of them as found things. As if you pull them out of the ground, and you just pick them up.”
I find this a reassuring and helpful way to view the creative process. The thought that I am mining for stories which already exist makes me feel connected to the age-old tradition of story-telling.
In order to honour that tradition and to invite inspiration to visit, I simply have to show up and work hard. Focusing on this aspect, while hoping the muse sprinkles some magic while I type, has really taken the pressure off my psyche.
By choosing to believe in a muse*, I have set myself free.
Picture credit: Leonardo Casadei/Solent News & Photo Agency