“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.
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.