What’s the Use of a Muse?

Like some writers, and people who pursue other creative endeavors, I use the term ‘muse’ to mean an embodiment of the concept of one’s own creativity.  To the ancient Greeks it must have seemed a supernatural phenomenon when some individuals produced poetry, sculpture, and music out of nothing, as if some deity were whispering guidance in their ears.  The process can still mystify us today when we encounter a great creative work and wonder how a mere human could have made it.  No wonder the term ‘muse’ has survived even into our scientific, rational era.  

Some writers have imagined the physical characteristics of their muse, even named it, and go so far as to speak to it, appealing to it for that spark of insight only the muse can offer.  Stephen King described his own muse, I think it was in his book On Writing, as a grunting, cigar-smoking old man.  I imagine my muse in a more conventional way, as a young Grecian woman with flowing robes.  She stands only about seven inches high, but is able to hover near my ear when she wants.

Here I’ll pause to offer a free idea to all you web entrepreneurs out there.  If piano students can have their busts of Beethoven to serve as inspiration, why can’t someone manufacture small figurines of muses for writers and other artists?  I wouldn’t underestimate the power of physical symbols to stimulate the desired mental activity.  If such a figurine was not too expensive, I’d buy one!

Every writer asked to describe his or her muse’s behavior would certainly list at least two major characteristics.  One is a perverseness with respect to summons.  My muse appears at the time of her choosing, not mine.  Pleading, wishing, praying, even sacrificial animal offerings leave her unfazed.  (Okay, I haven’t tried that last idea very often.)  I could be all set and ready to write, my materials before me in a well-lit and quiet room, several hours at my disposal, and the cursed muse will remain hidden.  But let me be somewhere without a notepad—say, taking a shower or mowing the lawn—then the whispering starts and I can’t shut her up.  Some of the finest prose ever imagined has been whispered to me at such times—trust me on this—only to be forgotten for lack of a pen and paper, and to remain forever unwritten.

The other behavioral trait of my muse is easy boredom.  A half hour or hour at a stretch is the longest stream of inspiration the muse will bequeath.  Moreover, the very project she was so excited about just a few days ago has become passé, no longer worth her time or interest.  She’s moved on to some other idea and demands I write about that.  Should I ever start writing ‘formula fiction,’ such as romance, mystery, or series books can often be, I think my muse would quickly grow bored with the formula.  She specializes in the planting of seeds, not the toil of watering, tending, or harvesting.

My muse craves the new, the different, and the untried.  Once, I noticed a call for horror stories to be part of an anthology associated with fish or fishing.  I, the writer who hated horror stories, quickly clicked elsewhere.  Silly me, thinking I was in charge.  My muse was turning the idea over and over, and wouldn’t let go.  Mere rational logic would not sway her.  My insistence that I disliked horror, had never written it, or read much of it–all those arguments meant nothing.  The result was my story, “Blood in the River,” which appears in the anthology Dead Bait.  I never thought I would write a romance story or a fantasy either, until the muse suggested the ideas for “Within Victorian Mists” and “A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  Often I’ve carefully outlined the plot for a story only to have the muse guide me in a different direction.  On occasion I’ve created a character intended to be minor, but the muse has other ideas and brings that character into the foreground.

So you can’t beckon a muse and expect her to arrive, and once she’s close it’s never for long.  How can any writer deal with that?  How does one channel that fleeting, inspirational energy into something useful?  Ah, there are ways, but they shall have to remain the subject of a future blog post.  So stay tuned!  In the meantime, feel free to contact me with comments.  With the occasional assistance of my muse, I remain…

Poseidon’s Scribe



February 27, 2011Permalink