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Do You Need a Muse to be Creatively Productive?

The questions still come up among the writers, designers, and entrepreneurs I work with: Is the muse out there somewhere or within? Doesn’t the very idea of the “muse” imply I’m at the whim of something else?

Two clients last week in two separate meetings raised, in essence, these very questions, so we need to raise the discussion again.

These questions have gnawed at me since I coined the phrase “Yoga As Muse” years ago. And over the years the phrase has rubbed more than one person with whom I’ve worked the wrong way. Once, a writer in Taos, New Mexico said to me in private something to the effect of, “I like what you’re doing, but there’s something about the word ‘muse’ that doesn’t sit right with me. Something about some entity outside of me,” and her flittering fingers made a gesture that implied fairy dust.

I nodded and said something like, “Right, right.” I cleared my throat and said, “But the idea of Yoga As Muse is that the muse is within and that any source of ‘inspiration’ is at our disposal as readily as is the harnessed breath.” She wasn’t satisfied. “Muse” still said to her Tinkerbell.

A few years ago at a workshop I offered in Woodstock, New York, the point came up again. A sweet-faced man said, “Do you sometimes feel as if another force is coming through you? When I write, I feel as if I’m simply channeling some other force.” He smiled wide as if he had found a kindred spirit.

“No,” I quipped. “I take full responsibility for whatever drivel I might write.” He stopped smiling. I hope the poor man didn’t feel shunned. Probably not. He and his force are probably happy as dancing clams co-writing book after book while I wrestle like Job with mine.

But I understand what that man meant, in part. More than once, I’ve re-read something I’ve written, been privately pleased, and wondered, “How did I write that? Where was I when I wrote that?” And the truth may be “I” got out of the way. Or, rather, a part of my mind that’s attached to my little personality being projected to the world stepped aside for the moment so that a deeper imagination, felt mind, and sensual tongue could come out to play.

Still, the idea of a “muse out there” is dangerous to some aspiring writers. Recently, I offered a one-hour tele-seminar about Yoga As Muse.  A young writer said that for years she’s only written spontaneously when she felt “inspired” but does not feel as if she has any control over when those feelings arise. She’d like to write more consistently.

That’s the problem. Some young writers grow up thinking that to be a “real writer” you must work yourself up into an intoxicated frenzy or get dizzy on the Himalayan peaks and write unfettered and free-form a la myths of Jack Kerouac.

Whether booze or Headstand, the muse is supposed to propel them into ecstasy-driven verses and memoirs. But what about the other 364 days of the year when you’re doing the laundry, raising kids, and driving to work? The muse is not out there, I tell these aspiring writers. You don’t have to wait for the muse to show up, I say. It’s here. You show up for it. (And leave the bottled spirits to the tortured literary ghosts of the past.)

Then, Elizabeth Gilbert comes along and shakes it all up again. I watched her deliver a smart talk at TED in which she persuasively suggests we at least imagine again the Greco-Roman idea of the “personal genius” as a creative person’s muse.

The Greco-Roman idea of “genius” – from which the word “genie” derives – is that we each have a genius, not that any one is a genius. It’s sort of like having your own personal assistant, only this assistant teems with novel ideas and insights, fresh associations, riveting characters and voices, a panoply of material. At least, that is, if you’re assigned a good genius or if your genius is having a good day.

Imagining such an idea – what’s the harm of imagining? – gives writers a necessary distance on their process. Gilbert says writers then don’t have to feel mortified if they’ve produced a wretched novel: Their genius didn’t work especially hard. And they also cannot gloat if their book takes the globe by surprise like, say, Eat, Pray, Love: It was mostly the personal genius’s work. Such an idea of the personal genius could, Gilbert suggests, hold the writer’s ego in check.

Horror writer Matt Cardin, of DemonMuse, makes a case for “5 Reasons Why We Need a Muse.” He posted his article at poet-entrepreneur-really-smart-creativity-consultant Mark McGuinness’s site Lateral Action, whose whole premise is that creativity comes more from action than inspiration.

Gilbert and Cardin offer a seductive idea. I want to imagine my personal genius. Right now, she’s probably an over-worked task-master. But when I listen to her, take walks with her, and just sit quietly with her by a creek or by a window, she invariably fills me with a manic stream of metaphors or sound clusters that help me wade again in a pool of language. For better or worse. Yes, sometimes she carries me away on a metaphor ferry. She’s edgy and earthy, has dried moss for hair in the shape of dreadlocks, and tells me bawdy jokes about insects and plants that I don’t really get. She laughs anyway. And she also does something to my skin. Sort of strokes it as I write so I can feel the words on the page like entities themselves instead of just letting words shoot out like widgets from a machine. She puts the spell in spelling.

But I know, too, something about Homer and Virgil and Ovid and all those marvelous bards who called upon the muses. When they called upon the muses to breathe into them, they weren’t speaking figuratively.

The Greek word pneuman and the Latin word spiritus both mean “breath” but also mean “wind” and “breeze” and “soul” and “spirit.” It is the life force that moves through them and allows them to do what earth’s elements do so effortlessly – create. The root of the word inspiration is spirare, this way of breathing the life force that is wind and soul.

What the Romans called spiritus the yogis call prana. And pranayama is the art of harnessing this creative force within the body. A person learns this art first by learning breathing exercises. But those exercises are only the beginning of the art.

Over time, a yogi, or Yoga As Muser for that matter, learns several ways to shift fatigue, self-doubt, and a crowded mind to a creative frame of mind. They may not be “inspired” with trumpets blaring as the red sun rises, but they do muster the equanimity to put one word in front of the other and walk with a bit more ease on the page.

Maybe the practice primes the mind to receive the personal genius. I can hear my little genius laughing in my study. She’s lounging on the chaise longue that looks onto the wide-mouthed pond out back.

“What are you laughing at?” I ask.

“You. You have to be so practical, so rational all the time. That prana stuff is not all science, you know?” She winds a tender finger in her dreadlock moss and whispers, “Let a little magic and mystery in.”

I get up from my desk and move to the living room. At this moment, a wood fire blazes in the cast-iron stove. A fourteen-year-old cat licks its matted fur and then gazes at the flames. A woman fries eggs in a skillet. And an eighteen-month-old girl waddles on the hardwood floor, fascinated with a stripe of sunlight.

Drop in the Hut
Help me out here. How do you view “the muse”? How do you experience not just inspiration (the source of fresh ideas and insight) but also motivation (whatever drives you and keeps you going and acting creatively)? What do you do habitually to feel inspired and motivated on a regular basis?

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  1. For me, and just me, it’s dangerous to believe that I have a Muse (with a capital “M”). Still, sometimes the writing does feel like magic. I reread things I’ve written that I don’t remember writing that make me tingle with joy because they don’t suck. What I believe, for myself, anyway, is that I need to write every day whether I feel inspired or not. The process of writing, of typing words toward a completed poem or chapter in a novel, scrawling notes in a journal, these physical actions open a door or a window for me. If I don’t write, I can’t write. The writing is the key.

    Does that make any sense? I suppose you said it better than I can when you wrote, “Maybe the practice primes the mind to receive the personal genius.”

    I’m afraid I’m more inclined to believe in my Internal Critic (who sometimes takes on the guise of a guy in a purple suit who wears a Panama hat and smokes a particularly stinky cigar) than a Muse. No one loving strokes words into my skin as I write (I envy you that). But write I do.

  2. Elizabeth: What you write makes perfect sense. The writing itself is your muse. And befriending that critic (what I call the Inner Heckler) ultimately is smart. If you can get the cigar-smoking chump on your side, then you’ll have a much better time writing and likely write better material (if he’s working for you!).


  3. Years ago, my muse would appear to me as a woman in dreams. When I first met her, she was a pre-teen squished up in a trunk in a basement, calling out faintly, patiently. She thanked me when I opened the trunk to release her, and I understood that I had placed her there. She harbored no hard feelings, though.

    She grew older as I gained confidence in my writing, at one point materializing as a young woman in the passenger seat of the pickup I was driving and wrenching the steering wheel to take me on an other course. We went off the road that time as I struggled with her.

    Eerily, as I began planning to make writing the center of professional life, one of my coworkers at the time had a dream about me getting my hair cut by a cadre of identical-seeming women in black. After I had made the transition, I saw her one last time, as a middle-aged woman floating at the foot of my bed, radiating approval.

    Even now, the act of writing seems very dreamlike to me. Writing comes most easily to me in the morning, as soon after waking as possible. I often close my eyes as I write, touch typing as I watch images and dialogue play out in my mind’s eye. Stephen King’s approach to writing as laid out in his book On Writing resonates with me: I’m just there to transcribe what I see, hear, experience when I sit down to write. Or to paraphrase Woody Allen, most of the work is simply showing up.

    1. Michael ~ Thanks for these beautiful images of your ever-maturing, transforming muse. Some sources you might appreciate: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Though a little technical for some writers, this teacher of numerous renowned writers describes what he classically defines as “the fictional dream.” It’s all about how as a writer to sustain the dream-like experience for your readers. William Stafford’s Writing the Australian Crawl. The poet lays out in the first chapter his daily writing process – early morning, before the kids wake up, to “receive.” Prose writers and poets alike might like this essay. And Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. You’d love this one b/c Butler also has an acting background, and he talks about getting embodied and developing routines to get in a ‘trance.’

      Thanks for showing up at the hut.