A muse is a reference to either a literal person or to a supernatural force that serves as someone’s source of artistic inspiration. For centuries, we’ve believed in the power of the muse to guide our creative pursuits. The question is: how far does the muse help us in our creative endeavors and is it even possible to deliver artistic content without a muse backing us up?
Invoking the Gods
Hindus traditionally invoke Lord Ganesha at the start of any important undertaking because they consider Ganesha to be Vignahartha — Vigna (obstacle) and hartha (to remove) — remover of all obstacles.
In a similar tradition, the ancient Greeks began their creative endeavors with an invocation to the muses. The muses, said to be daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are nine goddesses representing the various arts—music, poetry, dance, literature, etc. In fact, the word museum is derived from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses.”
The belief was that if mortals revered the muses and kept them happy, the muses, in turn, would protect and bestow artistic skill and talent upon their followers. And so, the invocation of the muses was a standard convention in Greek poetry and literature.
Homer, for instance, begins his epic Odyssey with the three verses:
O, Divine Poesy,
Goddess, daughter of Zeus,
sustain for me this song …
The tradition of seeking inspiration from the muse at the start of an artistic endeavor hasn’t been limited to the Greeks. Muses continued to be venerated through the ages, and even to this day.
A tradition that continues
In the ceremonial office of the Thomas Jefferson building in the Library of Congress, is a circular mural with the Latin inscription, Dulce ante omnia Musae, which translates to “Muses, above all things, delightful.”
Many modern-day writers attribute their creative inspirations to the muse.
Author Steven Pressfield earnestly invokes the muse before sitting down to work every day, believing it’s then up to the muse on whether to grace him with inspiration. He believes that the source of all his work comes from another plane, and that he is a mere messenger. Says Pressfield,
I can’t make the goddess deliver. I can’t bribe her, or coerce her, or grovel before her, or make her any pledges or promises that will induce her to do what I wish. I can only invoke her.
The belief that inspiration strikes from another realm is shared by many creative geniuses.
In a poetry award acceptance speech, Leonard Cohen, the immensely talented, yet humble Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, gave credit to a force beyond him.
Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, and no one conquers. So, I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.
But what is inspiration, anyway? And do we need to be inspired to act?
Perhaps the best description of this abstract and bewildering phenomenon we know as inspiration comes from an essay by novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, (considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.)
Nabokov describes inspiration as a feeling of
Tickly well-being… As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort—youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age…It (inspiration) expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled. Presently all dissolves: the familiar worries are back, and the eyebrow redescribes its arc of pain; but the artist knows he is ready.
Inspiration is the feeling of being touched deeply, of inner transformation, and, more than anything else, the feeling of hope and possibility. But the thing about inspiration is that it doesn’t linger. It’s fleeting.
Most importantly, inspiration is only worth something if you act upon it. Which, let’s be honest, happens rarely, if at all. So, how do we still explain the plethora of creativity we encounter on a day-to-day basis? This is where the counterargument to the theory of the muse comes in.
There are a growing number of proponents who believe creative works do not need to be “inspired” in the first place.
Don’t wait for inspiration. Show up.
In an interview with Forbes magazine, prolific romance author Nora Roberts was candid about how she felt about inspiration.
I don’t believe in inspiration. I was educated by the nuns. They are a lot tougher than any muse.
After many of Roberts’ initial manuscripts were rejected, she decided to take her writing seriously and established a routine to write from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. most weekdays. Soon, according to the Forbes interview, Roberts was turning in six full book-length manuscripts a year. Her publishers struggled to keep pace and were quoted as saying, “We couldn’t publish as fast as she could write.”
With 225 romance novels to her credit, and the distinction of being the first person to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame, Roberts has blazed her own trail, muse not-withstanding.
American painter Chuck Close echoed Roberts’ sentiments on not waiting for inspiration.
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.
The power of the grind
In the end, it boils down to this: The muse, if she exists, will help those who help themselves.
Whether you are stuck by inspiration or not, ultimately, it’s the grind that matters. Author Stephen King best describes the relationship between the muse and the grind in his seminal book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
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. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down, there, 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 trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s 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, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the 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.
The bottom-line is you don’t have to make a choice between being inspired or slogging it out. It’s not an either/or scenario. Creativity is a symbiotic effort between grind and inspiration. The grind leads to inspiration, and inspiration in turn requires you to show up consistently.
So, invoke the muse, if you must. But don’t expect her to magically infuse you with abundant creativity. Show her what you are capable of. She may feel inspired to inspire you in return.
Or as Nora Roberts, quite plainly, said:
It’s a job. Do your job. Every time I hear writers talk about ‘the muse,’ I just want to bitch-slap them.