The Problem of the External Muse

July 27, 2010 at 5:44 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


I’ve talked a bit about inspiration previously and where ideas come from but I usually avoid talking about my muse (I’m not saying I don’t use this turn of phrase but it isn’t my favourite way to put things). The reason for this is that by calling it a muse and personifying the idea of inspiration it makes it sound like it is something external to the writer and not part of them.

I don’t usually like this idea.

For me inspiration is definitely an internal process and the ideas from within. Certainly my mind draws in things it has seen and heard and smelled and used these in combination to form what might become a story idea but that process definitely takes place within. No mythic being bestows the ideas upon me, fully formed or otherwise. And because it is an internal and slow process of bits and pieces being slotted together, the ideas become very much apart of the writer. You’ve raised the idea from just a tiny spark or notion to a fully fleshed out plot line that might eventually get written down.

Maybe the problem is that by externalising the idea it feels like it is cheapening the process. That somehow writers just get ideas. That nothing goes on, they sit around with empty heads and wait for a magic muse to hit them with some fairy dust.

Then again, at other times it does feel like something else is happening. The ideas move seemingly overnight (which probably means my subconscious is at work) but suddenly something that seemed unworkable has fallen into place. A line of dialogue that isn’t working can suddenly be heard clearly. That little voice in the back of your mind nudges you in just the right direction at just the right moment.

If my muse exists she’s probably going to clobber me after writing this. And yes, she would be female.

I think that if it is about the muse then we shouldn’t be waiting for her, we should definitely be out there hunting her down and demanding information right now. Hopefully with more success than Elmer Fudd ever had hunting rabbits.

What do the other writers think? Muses or not. Cheapening the process or giving writers a way to talk about something they sometimes don’t fully understand – their creative processes?

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15 Comments

  1. curtjohn said,

    Lately I’ve tried writing with a clear muse in mind and writing with no clear direction. The latter feels like writing out the ideas in my head as they stack themselves on top of each other like an awkward game of Tetris. I think it’s subjective to the writer and what that writer might be trying to accomplish in writing. If I’m going for an article I like to have something to inspect and describe and play off of, but when it comes to fiction I think being ones own muse is the best way to go.
    Great post, helped me think and learn.

  2. atsiko said,

    I’m my own muse.

    We’re not painters, we’re writers. You can’t write someone else like you can paint someone else. You can only write yourself.

    Finding inspiration is easy, but what you’ve got to do is find some way to use it, and no external factor can do that for you.

    I think the idea of a “muse” cheapens the process, and whatever benefit it gives in discussion among writers, it can only cause harm as percieved by non-writers.

  3. tsactuo said,

    I often muse (pun intended) that I have a muse, to writers and non-writers alike. Writers generally know what I mean when I talk about my muse, that I’m speaking of my motivation or inspiration and not of some mythical creature. As for the non-writers, it usually stops them from asking questions about my writing method and such. (Non-writers who want to write, however, usually ask me about it anyway, and so I count them as the former instead of the latter. They often ask, “You actually have a *muse*?” or something similar.)

    I think it’s perfectly okay when the term is used amongst writers and non-writers alike. The writers usually know the deal, and I really don’t care what the non-writers think. Of course, I don’t write prose. I write scripts. Still, I don’t think that matters much in the long run.

  4. Agatha82 said,

    Interesting comments, I was a painter and a musician before I was ever a writer and I’m also a believer in magic (not as in witches etc but in the sense there is more to this world than what science can explain) perhaps, because of this, I cannot help but see my muse as separate from me, and he is male. I do not think it cheapens the creative process to think this way. It’s all to do with how you think and with the experiences in life that have made you into who you are. I prefer to honour traditions, going back all the way to the Greeks who spoke of the muses (except they were all female). Oh and you know what? I could care less what non-writers think of this. People have always thought me a little peculiar, since I was a kid. I see that as my own strength and not a weakness.

  5. Matt Cardin said,

    Interesting post. I personally think the muse model of creativity — a.k.a. the genius or daimonic model — is brilliant for symbolizing a real truth of human creativity. (This is the whole basis of my blog http://www.demonmuse.com, btw.) As you indicate, something really is going on in the unconscious mind, as evidenced by the fact that lots of the work is done *for* us writers by a part of our psyche that’s autonomous, that’s separate from the waking ego. The unconscious mind is perfectly analogous, on a 1-to-1 basis, with the ancient ideas of the muse, genius, and person demon, so running with this insight and mining it for its benefits makes a lot of sense.

    On the other hand, I’m also of a mind that when it comes to writing and other creative arts, if a given piece of advice doesn’t “work” for you, then you should drop it immediately and never look back. And I know the muse model doesn’t work for everybody. I just think it’s a massively powerful way of approaching creativity for people to whom it really does make sense. For me, personally, it’s the picture-perfect expression of what I’ve always experienced in creative work (that sense of an independent influence affecting me from inside my own psyche), even since before I had heard of the idea.

    Matt Cardin

  6. Matt Cardin said,

    Adding to the above, I’ll also say that I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about the inadvisability of just sitting around and waiting for inspiration. It’s (usually) essential to keep at it, keep working, keep trying. I think of this as making yourself an open and waiting channel or vessel for the inspiration to flow into whenever it/he/she decides to show up. Writers who subscribe to the idea of the muse, whether literally or metaphorically, but take it to mean they should just wait around until they feel spontaneously moved to write something, are (usually) just giving in to fear, laziness, or other types of resistance to the creative process (“resistance” in the sense that Steven Pressfield has so brilliantly fleshed out in his THE WAR OF ART). Effort and inspiration are complementary, not contradictory.

    I didn’t come here intending to give a link, but now I’m reminding myself of what I said in an article about the muse that was published at Talent Development Resources a few months ago, so why not:

    Perspiration Meets Inspiration or, The Return of the Muse

    Again, thanks for the interesting post about this provocative topic.

  7. Lynn Rush said,

    Ohhh, interesting post!!

    The Muse is an interesting concept to me. Never really thought about it too much. Ideas just hit me from wherever. I keep my eyes open and stories bloom. So, does that mean I’m my own muse, too?

    Interesting. . . .

  8. Jemi Fraser said,

    I haven’t really thought about this before. I definitely don’t think of my ideas as separate from me, and I’ve never really thought about having a muse. If I want those ideas to work I’ve got to chase them around and make them take shape.

  9. slytherclawchica said,

    I agree that sitting around and “muse-fishing” is ill-advised. I don’t think that talking about the Muse is a cheapening, though. I think that it de-credits the author a little bit, but if the author is talking about a muse, then they probably don’t mind. And I don’t think a lot of people take the muse seriously anymore. It’s a way to explain the unexplained inspiration, and a sort of salute to the Greeks (who personified inspiration in the Muse, as I’m sure you know, so I will spare you my Hi!-I’m-A-History-Major! babbling).

    But I think the concept of muse is just part of the author’s work process. It’s like whether you work better at night, or day, with hot tea, while munching… music or silence. I don’t think that an author should waste their energies creating all the details of the muse… but that’s just me.

    As for me, I’ll mention “muse” in passion. To say “muse” is like saying, inspiration + motivation, as well as the sort of mysticism of the subconscious. I won’t say “my muse gave me an idea!” but when a friend and I are stuck and we’re talking at Panera, there will be the lighthearted, “darned them muses and their frolicking”. For me, a muse is part of self… it is self. I don’t view it quite like the Greeks.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Hart said,

    I like to joke about my muse–he looks something like Viggo Mortensone wielding a sword, or Jason Isaacs with his Lucius Malfoy wig, or Captain Jack… they inspire me when they dance like I like…

    In reality though, I am with you. My own issue with the idea of the ‘muse’ is it opens us up to abandonment issues, when in reality, I think writing is about persisting and making it happen… accepting that whatever crappy links we have to put between the good stuff are okay, because they will be redone in the rewrite when the whole story is clearer.

    I do get periodic dream inspiration, but that doesn’t seem ‘Musey’ to me–the MUSE moments feel like, as you said, things fall into place after some mulling (usually by knocking them around via power walk)

  11. Lua said,

    “Maybe the problem is that by externalising the idea it feels like it is cheapening the process. That somehow writers just get ideas. That nothing goes on, they sit around with empty heads and wait for a magic muse to hit them with some fairy dust.”
    I agree with you %100 about this Cassandra- I don’t like to think that my muse is up there sitting on the clouds and comes and goes whenever he (mine is a he but Stephen King says his muse is male!) pleases to.
    I think it’s an internal process; you live, you observe, you digest, you work hard, you work even harder and then you create a story in your mind….

  12. AlexJ said,

    Funny you feel that way, as I don’t look at my creativity as another entity, either. And talking to my ‘muse’ just seems odd! My wife would really wonder if she caught me mumbling to myself.

  13. Alex Willging said,

    I think I used to consider myself as someone who had a Muse, but that was when I was a younger writer and hadn’t figured out my own style yet. Having had a lot of time since then to analyze my work, I feel that I am only part of a Muse, and the world around me is the other half. I draw ideas from everywhere–books, TV, films, songs, traveling, etc.–but until that idea becomes transformed inside me, to become part of a story that I alone would want to write, it isn’t really my own.

  14. Cassandra Jade said,

    Thanks all for the comments and it was interesting to see the varied opinions on the idea of muses. In case you are wondering why I haven’t been on twitter, I killed my internet downloads for the next ten days and twitter is tragically unable to load even my home page without having a fit. That said, I’ll hopefully get some twitter time this weekend but if I don’t, oh well.
    The real problem is I won’t be able to do a blog round up next week because I haven’t tweeted about anyone’s blogs and even loading some blogs is pretty slow going at the moment. Slow internet, must control fist of death (reference to Alice from Dilbert in case you aren’t a geek).

  15. Miss Rosemary said,

    Well said! I agree with everything you mentioned! It’s not a PERSON or something concrete that inspires me to write, it just happens … over a long period of time and many frustrations and drafts and possibilities.

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