Is Inspiration a Thing of the Past?

Nine Muses on a classical frieze

The Nine Muses

Once upon a time it was taken for granted that the source of creativity was not the artist but the spirits, gods, or Muses, via inspiration. The word “inspiration” comes from the same Latin root as “respiration,” suggesting that the artist “breathed in” influences from outside. The opening of Homer’s Odyssey is a typical invocation to the Muse, imploring the goddess to touch the poet with divine inspiration:

Tell me, O Muse, th’ adventures of the man
That having sack’d the sacred town of Troy,
Wander’d so long at sea; what course he ran
By winds and tempests driven from his way:
That saw the cities, and the fashions knew
Of many men, but suffer’d grievous pain
To save his own life, and bring home his crew;
Though for his crew, all he could do was vain,
They lost themselves by their own insolence,
Feeding, like fools, on the Sun’s sacred kine;
Which did the splendid deity incense
To their dire fate. Begin, O Muse divine.

Homer, The Odyssey, Book I, lines 1–12, translated by Thomas Hobbes

The tradition of invoking the Muse lasted a long time. Here is Milton going through the same ritual two-and-a-half thousand years later:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 1–11

Milton was one of the last poets to invoke the Muse with a straight face. Even though his tone is sincere, there’s a scholarly, antiquarian feel to his writing. While Homer’s goddess sounds like a living, breathing reality, Milton’s Muse sounds like someone he has only read about in a book.

Muse reading, from an ancient Greek vaseA hundred years after Milton, with the Enlightenment in full swing, poets still paid lip service to the convention of invoking the Muse, but it had become a mere figure of speech, often delivered with smirking irony. By the 20th century, W.B. Yeats and Robert Graves were admired for their poetry but ridiculed for entertaining the idea of Muse-inspired sacred verse. Divine inspiration had been consigned to history, one of the “childish things” humankind put away when we grew up and became rational and scientific beings.

Then in 1976 psychologist Julian Jaynes published a startling book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He argued that ancient myths and legends of gods and spirits were not fiction in the modern sense, but descriptions of actual human experience. Because human consciousness was at an earlier stage of development, it was common for people to experience visual and auditory hallucinations. Instead of a unified conscious self, they had “bicameral” minds, divided into two parts: the first part gave instructions, in the form of hallucinated voices and images; the second part received the instructions and obeyed them, taking them for the speech of gods.

In support of his hypothesis Jaynes cited a mountain of evidence from ancient literature. For example, in the first book of the Iliad, when the goddess Athena appears to Achilles and tells him not to draw his sword and kill King Agamemnon, Homer was not indulging in a flight of fancy: one part of Achilles’ bicameral mind was talking to the other, which he experienced as a hallucinated voice. The same goes for the many other ancient accounts of gods appearing to humans or speaking to them from shining clouds, burning bushes, pillars of fire, and so on. The storytellers weren’t making it up. They, or the people they spoke of, really saw and heard these things. The theory sounds far fetched but it has been given serious consideration by such a hardcore rationalist as Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion.

Jaynes argued that this ancient mode of thinking has to a large extent died out in modern society, but it survives here and there: in the people diagnosed as schizophrenics; in those who practice as mediums and claim to hear the voices of spirits; and in the many artists, writers, and other creators who have described inspiration coming to them in the form of hallucinated visions or voices.

The modern, vestigial form of inspiration tends not to be as dramatic and overpowering as the ancient one. Unless you are William Blake, you’re unlikely to hear the voice of God or see angels walking down your street. It strikes in the form of an image or a phrase that pops into the mind as if from nowhere, and which is somehow loaded with significance for the artist. It’s as though you have been given a clue to a mystery, or stumbled across a trail of breadcrumbs, inviting you to follow.

Like the time I was walking along a street in London and these words suddenly appeared in my mind:

We are living in the future

1912 image of futuristic urban transport systemIt’s hardly high-flown poetry. Just a bald statement. But it buzzed with meaning for me. I remembered my boyhood in the seventies, when “the future” described by science fiction stories and movies seemed just around the corner. The main sci-fi comic was titled 2000 A.D., which according to my calculations, would fall within my lifetime—so I looked forward to experiencing the world of jet packs, lasers, and everyday interplanetary travel.

As those words appeared in my mind, I realized I was living in the future I had looked forward to as a child. But it wasn’t quite what the comics and movies had predicted. Yes, I was surrounded by technological marvels, but the jet packs and space rockets seemed as far away as ever.

I turned the phrase over in my mind, inspecting it like an archaeologist who unearths a single roof tile and has to extrapolate from it an entire Roman villa or medieval guildhall. I only had a single line, but that gave me a lot. The voice was confident and optimistic, if slightly manic. I wasn’t sure I trusted it. I wondered who “we” might be. The line was a regular trochaic tetrameter, giving me the form of all the other lines in the poem, as well as a pounding, insistent rhythm. It was a voice in a hurry. It almost certainly rhymed, probably in a very obvious, clanging way: probably couplets or quatrains. I played around with it, trying to catch the thought and follow it through, producing this:

We are living in the future,
you are living in the past.
Your desires no longer matter:
fall behind or catch up fast.

Looking at the line I had been given, and the ones I had written myself, I couldn’t see the join, which told me I had found the right form. Now I knew quite a few things about the voice: it was relentless, almost monotonous, like an advertising jingle repeated ad nauseam. It would feel no shame in recycling the same two rhymes for the entire poem (a digital rhyme scheme!). It wanted to sweep the listener along with its breathless enthusiasm (or was it anxiety?) for the wonders of the modern age.

Because the voice proclaimed, “We are living in the future,” I knew that everything in the poem had to have already happened, even if only recently. As the science fiction author William Gibson quipped, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So I combed my memory, news feeds, and the latest issue of Wired magazine for futuristic wonders that had already come to pass. This is what I came up with:

The Future

We are living in the future,
you are living in the past.
Your desires no longer matter:
fall behind or catch up fast.

Asteroids are mined for water,
robots handle household tasks,
strangers swap electric scooters,
lovers wear full-body masks.

Gadgets learn to soothe and flatter:
passive phones, aggressive cars.
TVs gossip, fridges chatter,
bedside lights turn supergrass.

Smart drugs upgrade old grey matter,
smart phones hold their owners’ past,
sharp consumers sell their data,
switched-on poets leave no drafts.

Clubbers wear electric glitter,
monitor their lungs and heart,
satellites patrol the gutter,
homeless authors top the charts.

Tech and pharma take us further,
turn us into works of art:
seniors glow with youthful vigour,
test-tube mice glow in the dark.

Unmanned drones can fly forever,
laser snipers find their mark,
SeaBots home in underwater,
every target simulcast.

We are living in the future,
you are living in the past.
Our desires are all that matter:
catch up quick or fade out fast.

First published in Magma Poetry, issue 55.

You and your inspiration

Do you ever have the experience of ideas, words, images or music popping into your mind, as if from nowhwere?

Is there anything you do that makes it more likely that inspiration will strike?

What do you do with the gifts of inspiration?

Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. This is an extract from Mark’s new book Motivation for Creative People: How to stay creative while gaining money, fame and reputation. Join the free Creative Pathfinder course to be first to know (and get the special launch price) when the book comes out.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Most of the time, my inspiration happens in the car or when I am walking. Sometimes it’s just my mind riffing to something it heard. I enjoy mind play and sometimes I will have a dream or day dream where I am performing in front of thousands of people and I am performing a new song. I just take down like dictation. I call it the hymn of the spheres.

    Keith Kehrer
    Kamakaze Music

  2. Happens to me when I’m driving. A lot. Or taking a walk, but only when I’m alone. If I’m with Best Beloved I’m yammering at her blah blah blah the whole time and I can’t hear the voices.

    Second most likely time is just as I’m drifting off to sleep at night. Usually, about 2 seconds too late to sit up and make a note of it. I just drift away, smugly certain I’ve created something beautiful.

    And three days later, I weep silently because I can’t remember what it was, only that it was better than the stuff I do manage to write down.

  3. yeah, thank goodness for Seri. the sleep thing is tricky. I Lucid dream out of the box so I can wake up, write it down and go back to sleep and finish the dream. I am weird that way.


    • As I get older (56 this year) I’m developing sleep issues which make it harder for me to spontaneously wake up when I dream something good. I had my moments, and maybe I’ll have them again.

      Might have to start sleeping with the iPhone by the bed and iPad in the living room. Since I switched them, I’m less likely to talk to Siri on the iPad after I’m already in bed. (And Siri says, “Does this case make me look fat?”)

  4. I am 57. I learned to nap when I was on the road with one of my many bands touring one nighters with no time for rest. I can sleep standing up. Now my wife is an insomniac so sometimes I just stay up with her. I love Siri and the the suggest a text because they can be hilarious. I like to screw with Siri and she gets mad at me. and sometimes I leave the ridiculous interpretation of what I want to write and send it. People either laugh or are confused. My inner Frank Zappa in action.


  5. One night I got in a massive argument with Siri. My wife just rolled on the bed laughing. No help at all.

  6. Yuppers. Hours of fun. What I want is instead of Siri’s voice, I want to replace it with Bobcat Goldthwate


  7. Thank you Gents.

    An inner Frank Zappa would make anyone’s life more interesting!

    I’ve never tried Siri. From your descriptions, I don’t think we could class her as a source of inspiration…

    • (The Turtles) + Frank Zappa = Mothers of Invention

      So, yeah, iFZ for the win.

      My daughter and her teacher rolled a pink ball around on a computer keyboard until half a page was full of nonsense. Then they accepted the first autocorrect suggestion for every single word and it became an almost sensible but hysterical story.

      Siri could do that.

  8. Yup. My brain goes to strange places. You would be surprised. I actually wrote a song based on Siri’s nonsense. Awesome. I will have to try that. Kind of like elephant painting. My other favorite thing is Google Voice’s transcriptions. If someone has an accent or is not speaking clearly you get some really bizarre and funny translations.

    You have to understand. I adore silliness. Looney Tunes, The Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks inspire me.


  9. Agreed on all. Extra points for silliness while singing about serious topics, a la Calman Hart’s marvelous song “If I Die in a Nuclear War.”

  10. or anything by Tom Lehrer

  11. For me it’s usually a phrase that comes to me.

    I tend to just sit with it for a while and see if it grows and is indicating something interesting.

    • There’s a lot to be said for ‘just sitting with it for a while’. If you assume that ‘it’ knows what it wants to be, or grow into, it takes a lot of the pressure of you to be the one to figure it all out.

  12. I tend to write fast. I guess it comes from all those years improvising jazz and working with an improv troop. If it doesn’t come, I just set it aside.


    • I often write fast, and my most popular songs seem to be the ones that came without effort, but the ones that do me the most good took some time from the initial idea or phrase or hook to the finished product.

      • Isn’t there a story about Bob Dylan meeting Leonard Cohen, where Bob compliments Len on a song and asks how long it took to write it? ‘Oh months,’ says Len. Then he asks Bob how long it took him to write [famous song I forget]. “About 5 minutes” laughs Bob. i.e. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

        • I heard that one too.

          They are both brilliant. I think my speed depends on what Digital Audio workstation I use. If I want to create something fast, I use Propellerhead’s Reason. If I want to work on Details, I will go down the rabbit hole of Ableton Live. I am expert at both, but if someone asks me to write a film score or a piece of commercial work by tomorrow ,Reason will be where start.


  13. It’s funny how that works. There is a stigma (at least in most people’s minds) attached to something that comes easy. I come from German stock and it is always about the Vork. It is drilled into me that doing what I do is worthless because it is play and doesn’t create any viable product. I never listened and here I am still pursuing my dream.


    • There is indeed that stigma, though, to be clear, I don’t feel it. The songs I’ve written that mean the most to me weren’t because of the work. I suspect, in fact, it was the other way round: I could tell, perhaps unconsciously, they were going to be very personal, thus the struggle.

      Mostly German myself. I spend a lotta time trying to be more Irish. Or Mexican. I’m a huge fan of siestas and mañana.

  14. Naps are my best survival tool. I have gotten over the stigma. I don’t really care about all that. I love being in the moment. I tend to avoid writing anything personal in my songs. I prefer to make booties move or have head’s bang. I am not your intimate, heart bearing songwriter. It doesn’t interest me and it not where I feel comfortable. I know Pressfield would probably say that tells me that is where I should go. I have avoided it up until now at least in songwriting. I admire it in people like Peter Gabriel but I just can’t do it. I can write prose about my life and feelings but it always has to have humor in it. No Angela’s Ashes for me.


  15. Sometimes music comes in dreams; and sometimes songs spring up in minutes. Sometimes I summon my muse, inspiration, and sometimes she knocks on my door. When I open the door, she visits more frequently. But when I ignore her she turns sadly away and then she won’t come when I call.

    • When I open the door, she visits more frequently. But when I ignore her she turns sadly away and then she won’t come when I call.

      I think this is an important point: the Muse/inspiration/unconscious mind/whatever we call it is not at our beck and call. But if we accept the gifts and do something with them, she/he/it seems to bestow them more frequently.

      • Both Somerset Maugham and Tchaikovsky are credited with saying they only wrote when inspiration struck, but that fortunate, it struck every morning at 9 when they sat down at their desk.

        Steven Pressfield’s nonfiction nails this. Turning Pro especially.

        Another excellent book on the brain science of how creating habits invokes creativity is Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.

        • No wonder Tchaikovsky had trouble. He was an emotional wreck all his life. But, like Richard Rogers they did a 9-5 schedule. I am trying to do that. I work a day gig so I have to work around that and the relationship with my wife. Otherwise I would just work all the time. I moved my studio out of the bedroom so now we have to work out a routine or the marriage will implode because I would just stay in there all time.

          I re-reading War of Art. Digging into my patterns again. I will have to get “Turning Pro”.

          I never have writer’s block. I have the opposite.


  16. Amusing or Seri ous, not sure but interesting previous conversation.
    Also interesting is ‘types’ of ideas.
    Sit down and think it out
    Free flowing jus let it come out warts n all
    And then the fully packaged bang from nowhere.
    I’ve only experienced this a few times and sweet it is.
    Temporary schizophrenia, or a gift from da Muse?
    It would be lovely if this state of receptivity was learnable

    • It would be lovely if this state of receptivity was learnable

      I agree, although I’m not sure the ‘state’ is enough – maybe we have to have filled the well in some other way (hard work? research? life experience?) before inspiration springs forth. Also see Leah’s point above, that the Muse seems to be more generous the more use we make of her gifts.

      • I read lot and love watching great films. I will be inspired greatly by Sci Fi which is full of interesting ideas. I tend to write sci fi songs more than love songs. LOL. I was playing a song with my band called Learning to Fight on Mars which is based on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I tend to write alone but when I get lonely I will seek out collaborators.


  17. I constantly have ideas popping into my head, sometimes I wake up thinking about them. Its not a case of struggling to come up with ideas, more being realistic that I am never going to make them all (which is very frustrating!) so deciding which are the ones I want to pursue.

    Whenever I am sitting down and working quietly on something (in the zone, so to speak) that is always when I get an idea of other things I want to make, solutions to other pieces I am stuck with, and wierdly a list of friends and family that I havent spoken to for a long time that I really need to call.

    I write them all down on a bit of paper, and if its a brand new idea that is going to throw me off track I put the writing about it in a cloth bag that I am not allowed to open until my current project is complete.

    • I have a similar problem. I usually have 20 or so songs or instrumentals in the works and since I am versatile (years of being a studio musician and playing anything from blues to metal to salsa to hip hop). I have to reign myself in. Nowadays I tend to work on one project at a time like a real band and I have a record label so I try and follow the path of album and artist development. It helps me stay focused. I can still have those disparate ideas but I just set them aside for later unless they in the realm of what I am currently working on. so I have a similar work pattern.

      I am now calling myself the ADD composer.


    • Thanks Claire, I think there’s something about working with your hands that stimulates and/or frees up the mind to solve problems – even ones that aren’t relevant to the task in hand.

      (And no, I don’t count writing as working with my hands.)

      Love the cloth idea bag!

      • Doing the dishes will work for me. I remember when I was a kid, I would be doing the dishes and my mom would have music on and I would be jamming on the pots and pans. My dad would get mad because I really wasn’t doing the dishes, but I was happy.


      • Shoveling snow is brain therapy for me. Shuts off all the voices, puts them in stasis, and then after I come inside and shower, I’m mad creative.

        Yet another reason I live in northern Wisconsin, otherwise known as The Great White Nowhere.

  18. The article discussed an earlier time
    When our brains were less well formed

    When a creative flash was a gift from beyond
    And rationality was less the norm

    So now I know I’m not well formed
    My mind isn’t up to snuff

    Because I’ve been touched by my Muse all my life
    And quiet frankly, I can’t get enough

    My Muse sips tea in the garden
    With the sprites and the faeries and such

    And I’ll gladly give up the rational
    To experience her magical touch

    For me there is simply nothing better
    Than to hear her sweet whisper in my ear

    As the world recedes all around me
    And her voice becomes all I can hear

    Though cries of poppycock and balderdash
    Rise from scientific souls all around

    I’ll keep my childish fantasies
    And let my Muse inspired madness abound

    Because though there is scientific reason
    For every creative thing I have done

    I sing my oath to my Muse and here ilk
    Cause they’re a hell of a lot more fun

    Thanks for another great read Mark!!!

  19. I find inspiration on trains, drawing, writing in a diary/poems. Mostly it comes when you are immersed in an activity and are not distracted. Thanks for a thought-provoking read Mark!

    • Trains are underrated sources of inspiration. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing on trains. They create a wonderful kind of enforced idleness, very conducive to daydreaming and doodling in a notebook…

  20. Lines for poems come into my head all the time. Mostly when I am gardening. Pulling weeds is a great time for me, or digging and planting bulbs as I did today. My conscious mind is busy, and the rest of me seems ready to listen to whatever other voices are there. Also I hear lines sometimes when I’m just waking up or falling asleep. I also find a long aimless walk in the city a great way to let ideas and images flow into me.