5 Reasons Why You Need a Muse

Painting: Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau“A muse?” you ask. “You mean some kind of invisible spirit that dumps creative inspiration into my mind?”

“Exactly,” I answer. “A genius. A daimon. An independent force in your psyche that directs your creativity, and to which you deliberately hand over ultimate responsibility for your work.”

“That’s nuts!” you exclaim.

Au contraire,” I reply.

1. Removing Performance Pressure

Remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s historic 2009 TED talk? It was devoted to resurrecting the muse/genius model of creativity, and one of the key points Gilbert emphasized was the way this model can save a person’s soul by taking away the awful, paralyzing burden of responsibility for the outcome of creative efforts.

In the West, the abandonment or burial of the muse or genius model around the time of the Renaissance, in favor of the new view that instead of having geniuses certain heroic individuals are geniuses, kicked off a long-term, culture-wide cycle of creative stress and burnout. Mark here at Lateral Action summarized the situation thusly in his commentary on Gilbert’s talk:

On the one hand [the modern view] places too much responsibility on the individual, who feels a constant pressure to reach or live up to impossibly high standards; and on the other, it leads to the temptation of narcissism, of taking too much credit for success. No wonder post-Renaissance artists have earned a reputation as mentally unstable egomaniacs.

The muse or genius model automatically undoes this damage. We all know that the surest way to block creativity is to force it by insisting that you must be creative. This goes far deeper than the distinction between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress, the latter of which paralyzes us and the former of which galvanizes us into action. The modern muse-less view of things warps our experience of creative work all the way to its foundations.

All creative block is ultimately identifiable as a manifestation of performance anxiety or performance guilt. Offloading your sense of responsibility for creative work onto another self is like flipping a switch. It instantly removes that pressure and lets you breathe again. It returns you to the state of relaxed receptivity that characterized your earliest efforts, when you were just playing around in a ‘beginner’s mind’ mode. This is when the best stuff happens.

2. Inspiring Gratitude – and More Creativity

In The Artist’s Way – a really valuable book on creativity, despite the fact that some readers find it a bit treacly – one of the techniques that Julia Cameron recommends for overcoming creative block and maintaining a state of flow is the practice of gratitude. An illustration of this principle in action, and of its relationship to the muse, has just been handily provided by life via the Internet:

CNN.com recently ran a feature story on Ray Bradbury that set off a billion Twitter alerts: Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘monsters and angels’. Bradbury has led an amazingly productive and successful life as a writer and human being. His work has included not just books but classic screenplays (e.g., the 1956 John Huston-directed adaptation of Moby Dick), radio plays, stage plays, and television shows. He has consulted for Disney and spoken before titans of the publishing, entertainment, and scientific industries.

The CNN story starts by saying this:

Bradbury, who turns 90 this month, says he will sometimes open one of his books late at night and cry out thanks to God. “I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this,” he told Sam Weller, his biographer and friend. “It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ “

Notably, Bradbury explained the matter in greater detail in a 2004 interview with Fox News:

All of my writing is God-given. I don’t write my stories – they write themselves. So out of my imagination, I create these wonderful things, and I look at them and say, My God, did I write that?… Everything comes to me. Everything is my demon muse. I have a muse which whispers in my ear and says, “Do this, do that,” but it’s my demon who provokes me.

(An Interview with Sci-Fi Legend Ray Bradbury)

We’ll recall that this is the same Ray Bradbury who has for decades counseled his fellow writers to relate to their own unconscious selves as a muse, all while taking his own advice and thereby producing the aforementioned steady flow of vibrant work. It doesn’t take a post-Renaissance genius to see that we should take a hint.

3. Avoiding Workaholism and Laziness

Following your muse is its own special type of discipline, and like all good disciplines, it pays huge dividends.

There are two basic errors you can fall into in creative work. One is workaholism: exerting yourself so frantically on a project that you use yourself up and burn yourself out. The other is laziness: doing nothing and hoping you’ll magically feel motivated and inspired to get it done eventually. Both are wrong because they leave out half of the real story. Work without inspiration is dry and dead. Inspiration without work is mute and meaningless.

The discipline of following your muse helps you to avoid both of these negative poles by providing a natural division of duties. Your muse is responsible for providing the ideas and energy, the fundamental fire of the work. You are responsible for 1) waiting when your muse says wait, 2) acting when your muse delivers the inspiration, and 3) making yourself a fit conduit for your muse by doing whatever kind of practice work is necessary to keep your chops up.

In short, the discipline of the muse provides an ideal marriage of effort with inspiration. Steven Pressfield, who’s probably most famous as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, speaks wonderfully about this in The War of Art and in his ongoing blog posts. Today, on the very day that I’m writing this article, he’s just published a new post titled Humility, in which he writes:

The Muse approves of ambition. Ambition gives the artist the passion to start and the tenacity to finish. But ambition must never be allowed to rise to the level of hubris. The minute we believe that we are the source of that which comes through us – that’s when the gods start dusting off their thunderbolts. At the same time, humility must not become passivity. You and I may only be mortals, with all the foolishness and fallibility that that state implies, but we’re mortals made in the image of heaven. The gods canít do their work without us.

Note the interplay of effort and inspiration in his words. That’s what the muse model not only advocates but cultivates.

4. Enhancing the Stages of the Creative Process

Whether we accept Graham Wallas’s groundbreaking analysis of the creative process in The Art of Thought (1926) or another articulation of the matter, the fact remains that we all know creativity involves a ‘fallow period’ or ‘incubation period,’ an interval of surface inactivity during which our unconscious self is doing the deep formative work that is its forte.

Relating to your creativity as a muse not only accords with this recognition but enhances it. You aren’t just waiting on the motions of a dark and mysterious something-or-other, an ‘it,’ the Freudian id or whatever, but on a real, living entity or power. This attitude strengthens your trust in the process, increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome.

5. Opening You to Your Deep Intelligence

As a matter of incontrovertible, self-evident truth, each of us experiences himself or herself as at least two selves, two centers or levels of identity: a conscious ego and an unconscious ‘companion.’ In recent years psychologists and neurologists have made fairly miraculous strides in their understanding of the mechanics of the mind, so our view of these things will probably be greatly refined and corrected before too long. But the basic insight of depth psychology from the 19th century up until today – specifically, that you are divided into these two minds, these two centers of identity – still holds true, as you can verify for yourself right now without moving a muscle.

You-as-ego, the conscious you who is reading these words, may feel that you have voluntary control over yourself. You may feel that you are in control of what you think, where you put your attention, what you intend, what you’ll do, and so on.

But if that’s all true, then why do certain involuntary memories, moods, impressions, and other psychic flotsam keep surfacing from time to time? Where are they coming from? For that matter, why are you, as a unique individual, drawn with passionate interest to certain people, subjects, ideas, and activities, and equally repelled by others? Do you have control of these passions? What about those talents of yours that seem to be innate? Where do they come from? Why do you really think, feel, act, and speak as you do? Is it really all a matter of choice, or is that sense of autonomy largely a delusion? Are you in fact swamped from below, behind, above, and within by moods and motives and thoughts and inner images that are spontaneous and involuntary, and that are inflicted – as it were – upon you-as-ego in a manner completely beyond your control?

Regardless of the real cause or nature of this psychological division, the salient point is that in terms of your first-person experience, all of these mental processes really are autonomous. Thus, relating to them deliberately as an ‘other’ and regarding them as your muse or genius is perhaps the most direct route to aligning both halves of you, the conscious and unconscious selves, in harmonious cooperation.

We’ve long recognized the epic problem-solving and idea-synthesizing powers of the unconscious mind. Adopting the muse model gives you a way to actively engage with these functions. Deliberately personifying your unconscious mind, whether as a matter of pure attitude or a more concrete matter of giving it a name and imagining its appearance or whatever, makes it all the easier and more manageable to hand over your creative problems to it, and then later to accept the breakthrough insights and rushes of inspiration when they emerge.

Your unconscious mind truly is your ‘genius.’ Befriending it as such in the classical manner puts you in a position to receive its gifts, and it in the position to give them to you.

The Muse and You

Do you agree that the muse model can be valuable to creativity?

Who among today’s leaders in art, business, and culture at large seems to be particularly muse-driven?

How does the idea of the muse, genius, or daimon affect your perception of your own creative work?

About the Author: Matt Cardin is a horror writer and college writing instructor based in Central Texas. He blogs about creativity at Demon Muse, and about religion, philosophy, horror, and culture at The Teeming Brain.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I believe in the muse. I, certainly, can say that some of the poetry I have written comes from somewhere else. I read some of it a week or more later and bits still take on new meaning or I see something I had not realised before.

    Having been watching programmes about Gothic architecture where all the wonderful creative input went into building over many generations and the only “claim” would be a few marks in a stone placed so far up that no one would see it, you realise the art is not about the artist..it is greater than that, more sacred than that.

    It used to worry me that a creative burst would run dry and it felt like it was lost and the ability gone, then I read a lovely book on mystic poetry that said one has to take these periods of fallowness as the time when seeds are growing, not to worry because inspiration would surely spring when it is ready. So I endeavour to accept those phases where I am not creative with more patience now.

    Without thinking of anyone in particular who follows the muse, though I would say Bob Dylan, is an example. Anyone who is prepared to surprise, to go off in an unforeseen direction, or not just please their fans by churning out the same old stuff over and over..I would say they follow their muse.

  2. I love this concept. I once heard Thomas Leonard talk about how it can be helpful not to identify too closely with the ideas you put out into the world but instead to see yourself as their shepherd. The reasons you outline here make perfect sense. The removal of performance anxiety is one of the greatest benefits I get from this perspective.

  3. I read Steven Pressfield post on Humility too and also watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted video. I was really surprised but at the same time glad that the creative world are beginning to wake up the ageless truth that we as humans are never the one’s doing the great things we most often take credit for, but that these things are only being done through us and the more we acknowledge this fact and submit to it, the better for the creative industry.

    Nothing can be more true than Ray Bradbury’s conclusion, we are all ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ Put in my own words, “we are BUT instruments in the hands of the almighty being used for the collective good of humanity.”

    So yes, I do subscribe to this thought of the Muse and us. I have personally tested the two sides of the story and have been better off working with the muse than trying to be a genius all by myself.

    Thank you for the brilliant reminder once again. The creative industry needs more and more reminder of this timeless truth!

  4. There is one more: It is fo no harm to think you have a Muse, you canplay with her, talk to her, ake her questions…thanks for the article, it is very interresting and fun to read…There are easy place to run into muese.. rivers, trees, caverns, forests…you can almost see them there…

  5. My muse provides not only creative inspiration, but also wisdom about keeping the JOY in creativity and about not burning out.
    My muse also holds my hand, allowing me to feel the fear and do it anyway. Since I created a physical image of my muse and named her, I have found it easier to communicate with that part of myself and through her the universal source.
    When I am stuck, I write letters to my muse, and the answers (yes also written by me) come back in a voice much different than my everyday voice, accessing a much wiser part of my soul to the benefit of my work and my self.
    I wholeheartedly agree, everyone needs a muse.

  6. Blame it on the Muse; I love the idea of liberating my self from disapproval. With this approach I can just tell my critics, inner or outer, to take it up with the Muse. Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger. In fact, I often tell my clients I am just reading what I see in the tea leaves. They know what fits or not.

    As to how the Muse model affects my work: I have for many years had a faculty I have referred to as “The Voice”. The primary means of my intuition is an internal audible thought stream that I rely on for information, inspiration and guidance. It can be as clear at times as if another person is speaking to me; in a sense there is. I have long thought of it as some kind of access to divine guidance; a connection with my Higher Power. It can sound a little corny, but Bradbury’s “At play in the fields of the Lord” makes perfect sense to me.

    On one occasion while meditating I found my self curious about the validity of “The Voice” so asked it; “how about it, have I just made you up?” After a short pause, one many of you are familiar with; “The Voice” said as clearly as if someone whispered in my ear, “sure you did.” My heart sank; the hair rose on the back of my neck. I was devastated; as though I had just been told a dear friend had passed. I felt lost; as “The Voice” was not a thing, it was a being with which I had grown very close. I had always felt I could count the “The Voice” as a source of wisdom and guidance; now it was gone. This reply was viscerally intense. Even now as I write this, I feel the knot in the pit of stomach and my eyes well up a bit.

    As was my practice with troubling situations, I sat with the body experience I was having; then momentarily, as I was just being with my experience, “The Voice” spoke again. It said: “but I am not the voice; the voice is your way of understanding me”. Now things were really getting strange. I had heard of such things as this, burning bushes and such, but never did I have to deal with one directly. I didn’t know if I was blessed or crazy. What I did know though, was a great relief that my dearest friend and confidant was still here and valid. He lived just the other side of consciousness; and “The Voice” was my means of access to Him.

    This was many years ago; over time my understanding of what took to place has evolved. I come to believe “The Voice” was my access to the “Muse”; it was my intuition telling me about the nature of my relationship with it. I find it amazing that the Human psyche has the capacity to explain to its conscious self what its greater Self is. How could we be but humbled by such a thing.

    Have a Fun and rewarding day, Elder Dude.

    • VladimirM says:

      Thanks Elder Dude.

      Gotta tell you. It’s scary to accept all this. Don’t know if it becomes the classic multiple personality or not. I put my pedal to the metal creatively and let it loose. It was great but almost drove me insane. I literally felt the back of my head and neck burning. Now I’m burnt to ashes and don’t know if it’s gonna come back or if I even can handle it physically. Thanks for making it a little more ok.

      Younger Dude.

  7. Tito – You put a smile on my face when you said, “I have personally tested the two sides of the story and have been better off working with the muse than trying to be a genius all by myself.” I agree! It doesn’t matter how hard I try, or how hard I want to do something, or how hard I say, “Okay, ready-set-go”, It just does not work for me. You have to wait for the muse.

    It may work for others, but it doesn’t work for me. I shake my own head.

    Matt – Excellent Article. “1) waiting when your muse says wait, 2) acting when your muse delivers the inspiration, and 3) making yourself a fit conduit for your muse by doing whatever kind of practice work is necessary to keep your chops up.” Good point especially #3.

  8. Great article! I included it in the latest creativity roundup on my blog: http://stranglingmymuse.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/creativity-roundup-7/

    I have to say that after reading this last night, my muse woke me just as I was falling asleep by popping a fantastic first line for a poem into my head. So I had to get up and write it. It would have been lost if I’d waited until morning. I’m tired today, but creatively satisfied!

    ~Sandy Ackers

  9. Great to see that my article is finding a receptive audience. Thank you all for the interesting and instructive comments. I’m enjoying learning from them.

    Regarding Marcy’s reference above to my my three-point advice, I thought some of you might be interested in what neurologist and Harvard professor Alice Flaherty said in THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE: THE DRIVE TO WRITE, WRITER’S BLOCK, AND THE CREATIVE BRAIN (if in fact you’re not already aware of this wonderful and necessary book).

    Observing that some writers want to deny the existence of inspiration — the felt experience of receiving the creative impulse or creative content from an independent or external source — and/or to deny the possibility that they have ever experienced it themselves, Ms. Flaherty comments that although it’s certainly their prerogative to proceed with their work based solely on the ideal of personal effort, “It is my proposition. . . that such sensations of flow or inspiration or the muse — however irrational they may be — are so highly motivating that they drive people to do their best work.”

    She also draws a major piece of advice from her studies of writer’s block, both as a neurological phenomenon and as something described by writers themselves (and as something that she herself has experienced): “Perhaps the most crucial implication is not to keep yourself from writing when not inspired, but to be ruthless about writing whenever inspiration hits.” In other words, she underscores the importance of Point 2 on my list. When the creative spirit speaks, she’s saying, you should listen and act, at all costs.

    To me, one of the most important implications is this: If you happen to be paired with a particularly prolific muse/daimon/genius, then a major part of your discipline will involve learning to keep up with it — which will in turn require that you arrange your life in certain ways instead of others. As Pressfield says in THE WAR OF ART, professional creators don’t put up with trouble in their lives, because trouble interferes with work.

  10. Personally, I find God to be the best Muse. I am impressed and full of gratitude that Ray Bradbury is humble enough to acknowledge the fount from whence all blessings flow.

    I suffered creative burnout through most of 2008 – 2009 and it’s been a renaissance year for me in 2010. I’m hoping that it continues like this.

    In the spirit of following my Muse, I recently started taking a storytelling class, which has liberated me in many ways. As the teacher said, “It’s not therapy, but it is therapeutic.”

  11. I just wish mine would come back from her island holiday. She hasn’t been here in a couple months and it is getting old.
    I didn’t even get a vacation, but she is on her second this year.

    Oh well, she’ll return one of these days. Those hurricanes are getting close.

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

  12. Marcy Gerena says:

    @Matt – Thank you for your book suggestions. Yes, I agree – You should listen at all costs. It is a War of Art. Sometimes you do get tired of fighting the war, but I am learning … not fightning the war is not an option.

    Today I thought .. No writing? How about online radio talk show? :0) Hmmmm, maybe a combination of both. We will have to see.

    @John – Don’t worry, she will show up. I believe it.

  13. Hellos,
    As someone who is not conscious of my Damon and wanting to be, are there sure fire means to confirm “first contact” in a way I can not fool myself? Reading the article and comments I know now I both need, and want this.
    Shadow People, Socrates’ Damon in Plato’s Symposium, tarot’s Lovers card, Totems, Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, Hesiod; the arts are filled with the eudaimonia this relationship provides.
    Auditory and visual confirmation would be great, but am I asking too much from one as shy as myself? Serenading my daimon, not my ego; when is which?
    Can daimons be potters?
    – Ben