Chasing the Muse
This month editor Kali Anthony talks about the elusive muse, and what to do if yours goes on holiday without telling you...
'O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention' - Shakespeare, Henry V.
I suspect most anyone with a creative bent would give a limb and their first born (or both) for the type of muse Shakespeare describes. You know the days, where you sit at the keyboard to write your book and the words wash through as your fingers dance across the keyboard. When you read back at the end of it all, you don’t know where they came from. It certainly wasn’t you. It’s like being possessed by your characters, rather than writing from anything conscious.
That’s what I call the muse. The flow. Magic.
The concept is an ancient one; goddesses who inspired literature, science and art. The Greeks settled on there being nine, born in sacred springs welling from the hoof prints of Pegasus, which is as fine a place as any for a self-respecting goddess of creative awesomeness to manifest. Lying in wait for an unsuspecting human to fill with divine inspiration, or not, given their mood on the day.
If a Google search is anything to go by, the muse is variously described by those afflicted with one's presence as a fickle, feckless mistress, who refuses to come when called but turns up when she darn well pleases, even if the time is inconvenient. To be honest, much like my cat when she’s cranky with me.
The thing is, deep down, we all know muses aren’t real. They’re a construct to help people explain a creative process which remains mysterious and other-worldly. Thinking you have a muse means you’re not accepting responsibility for your own abilities or lack thereof. Right? Well, perhaps. What if we thought about it a different way? Would accepting the muse as real, make it less torturous, and dare we say easier, to create?
In her marvellous TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius (watch it, really, it’s wonderful) Elizabeth Gilbert posits that much of the pressure on creative people is caused by the belief that their creativity comes exclusively from within. She thinks this is too much responsibility for the ‘fragile human psyche.’
What if you never get published? What if your most popular work is the best you’ll ever do? If you fail it’s all your fault, which leads to the concept of a tortured genius. Elizabeth Gilbert thinks it’s better to believe that your creativity is on loan, as the ancient Greeks and Romans did. Handed to you by a divine entity so that as long as you sat down and did your job of writing/painting/pondering scientific theories you couldn’t be blamed for creating something less than genius. It was the problem with the rubbish muse you’d been sent in that moment.
Essentially what I took from her words is that developing this kind of relationship with your muse, means the freedom to create without fear. So long as you try on any given day, you’ve done your best and that’s all anyone can ask of you.
Her suggestion opened me up to pondering the muse as a real entity, rather than an imaginary friend. An author friend of mine (real, not imaginary, promise!) describes hers as a maleficant male. If you’re asking? Mine’s a tall, curvy redhead who wears skin tight black leather and makes voodoo dolls of my characters so she can stick them with pins. Which she does often, and with relish. Now, I’m a blonde and there’s nary a scrap of skin tight leather in my wardrobe so my muse is nothing like me at all (well, apart from that voodoo doll thing, but don’t tell…)
Where she came from and how my description of her is so vivid and personal, I can’t explain. I simply know who she is and what she looks like. Right down to the cute freckles on her nose and her capricious nature. Lest you think my description of my muse means I’m crazy, Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher mysteries says, 'If I ever saw my muse she would be an old woman with a tight bun and spectacles poking me in the middle of the back and growling, "Wake up and write the book!"'
Ha! See? It's completely normal I tell you!
Back to writing the book. For a while now, my muse has been on holidays. She left a couple of months ago, chasing hot summers and hotter men, not wanting to get down and dirty in the drudge of gifting me, a mere mortal, any brilliant ideas. Heck, she hasn’t even sent me a postcard! This was driving me to distraction. I couldn’t write, unless the runes were aligned and that elusive goddess-given inspiration arrived in a blinding flash. Taking Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice, I realised that I needed to sit at the computer, and battle on. Getting through it, by getting over myself. As musician Damien Rice said, 'When you overcome yourself, the muse notices and celebrates.'
I know my muse is out there, drinking mojitos and starting bar fights. She may be celebrating a bit early but instead of chasing her, I’m going to sit down, do my job of writing, and let her chase me instead. I’m tired of waiting. She’ll come back when she’s good and ready. I'll leave dreams of greatness till she arrives.
And when she does, I’ll share a mojito with her and let you know whether it gets any easier…
Do you know your muse? Have they ever gone wandering without you? What do they look like? Tell us in the comments or on Social Media to join the #PHS readers conversation on this topic.We'd love to hear from you.