Does the Muse Really Exist?

Sure…she’s that elderly woman who lives with her sister, the Tooth Fairy, across the street from Santa Claus. Of course, the Muse does not exist! (Though there are muses – lower case—which I’ll get to in a minute.) What some writers consider to be an external, spiritual entity–some esoteric, magical being that visits them only on rare occasions–is really nothing more than a combination of plain old physical, not-other-worldly, concrete inspiration and imagination. For some would-be writers, believing in the concept of a spiritual Muse can be a crippling handicap to productivity. They spend their time waiting blindly for their Muse to visit them, and when she (it always seems to be a “she”) doesn’t show up, they get little-to-no writing done. For other writers, the “inattentive” spiritual Muse becomes nothing more than an excuse to themselves and to others for not doing something that is, frankly, HARD TO DO. It is hard to sit down and dig into the depths of your concrete imagination in order to dredge up everything from story elements to story structure, not to mention the actual prose itself. Writing is not easy. But those who are successful, those who do get the work done despite it being hard, day after day, seem to have one thing in common. They do not wait for a spiritual Muse to visit them. They believe in the concrete. And they are proactive. They understand that getting the work done means they have to take responsibility for providing their own inspiration and for facilitating access to into their own imagination.

Here are a few tips for doing just that.

On inspiration…

Instead of waiting for a spiritual Muse to visit and drag you to the writing chair, figure out ways to entice yourself. As every one of us is different, what motivates us will be different. Only you can figure out what will get your butt in the chair and your fingers dancing over the keyboard. The trick is to be honest with yourself. Choose the types of things you know will get your excitement revved up and ready to go. A few things that might help are:

• Offer yourself a reward for getting only five minutes of work done. The odds are, after five minutes of struggle, you will have built up a head of steam to continue on for another five minutes. Or ten. Or twenty… If not, save your five minutes of work and reap your reward! That’s far better than getting no work done at all.

• Find some aspect in what you are about to write that excites you. If you have preplanned your writing in advance, and know what scene you’re working on, find something in the scene that will give you the inspiration to sit down and get to work. If there isn’t anything in your scene that inspires you, add something that does. If it isn’t inspiring to write, odds are it won’t be interesting to read. If you haven’t preplanned anything in advance, come up with a general topic or a scene or a character or a setting or an action that inspires you and will get you planted in the writing chair. Do this away from the writing chair. Sitting in your chair staring at a blank Word document with no idea where to go or what to write about is not only anti-inspirational, it’s downright depressing. The more you do that, the more you will associate that depressed feeling with sitting at your writing chair. Pavlov takes over, and soon you will never get anything done because you have falsely connected the act of writing with depression.

• Find someone who inspires you. This can be a person you want to write for. It can be a person you want to write about. It can be a person you want to impress, or emulate, or make proud. It can be a spiritual entity. This person or entity becomes a muse for you. Lower case. Use the energy that person or entity inspires in you to get to the writing chair.

On imagination…

At some point in your work, you will have to rely on your imagination. No external spiritual Muse is going to visit you and whisper a topic or scene or idea into your ear. A muse might, but a Muse won’t. When a topic or scene or idea does come to you out of the blue, this is your concrete imagination bubbling up into your conscious awareness. Don’t wait for this to happen. Some people have very active imaginations and can turn on this ability nearly at will. Others don’t. Whichever type of person you are, do not wait for new ideas to come to you. Go to your imagination. Do things that will trigger it to respond. Here’re a few ideas to help:

• When do ideas come to you? What situations are you in when your imagination starts to bubble? For some, it’s doing mindless activities that keep the conscious mind busy, while allowing the subconscious mind (imagination) to do its thing. Take a long walk. Chop wood. Clean the house. Take a drive. Listen to music. Figure out your own imagination-triggering activities or situations and take the time to do them. Often. Listen to what your imagination tells you. Let your mind wander, and be ready to snatch any golden nugget your imagination offers up. To that end, carry a little notebook with you to capture it. Or use your smartphone to email the idea to yourself. Don’t assume you will remember the idea, because often you won’t. This applies equally well to the space of time right before falling asleep, and right before waking up, when the subconscious is most accessible. Train yourself to be aware of these activities and situations and to automatically note ANY idea that pops up. You never know when or where that nugget will come in handy.

• Learn your craft!! I can’t stress this enough, because often the Muse-driven writer will dismiss issues of craft because it’s easier to pretend the Muse will handle all that un-artistic stuff. If you want to assist your imagination, you must learn as much about the craft of writing as you can. For instance, you might imagine a great idea for a main character. Someone who has a uniquely interesting trait. Your imagination provided this little nugget to you unasked for, with no other information to go by. If you haven’t studied your craft, you now have to go back to your imagination and try to entice it to come up with the rest of the story, with only the knowledge of this character trait to work with. But if you understand your craft, you can limit the types of choices your imagination has to deal with, which gives your imagination some hints and clues as to where it needs to go next. That is, if you know that most stories deal with a character trying to obtain an internal/external goal, while at the same time dealing with an internal/external issue, your imagination does not have to work completely in the dark. Your imagination can work with your initial idea (a uniquely interesting trait) and know where it would most likely come into play in a story: in relation to the story goal and/or issue. This guides your imagination in a direction, giving it something more to work with. So, instead of asking your imagination the wide-open question “what else do you got?”, you ask it a far more specific question like, “what kind of story goal and/or issue could tie into this trait?” When you limit the scope in which your imagination has to work, by using your knowledge of craft to consciously narrow and focus ideas, you are more likely to get your imagination to spit back something worthwhile. Else you may get nothing back because you’re asking too much of your imagination, or perhaps you’ll get something back, but it’s useless. (Sounds like the definition of writer’s block, doesn’t it?)

In short: There is no such thing as an external, spiritual Muse! There is only your concrete inspiration (what gets you into the writing chair) and concrete imagination (what gives you something to write about). Take responsibility. Be proactive. Learn to inspire yourself. Learn how to harness the power of your imagination. And then, while all the other foo-foo would-be writers in your writing group spend year after year blaming their failures on inattentive Muses, you can spend your time finishing one great work of fiction after another, and you can take all the credit, concretely and spiritually, because you did it yourself.

4 comments for “Does the Muse Really Exist?

  1. October 11, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    This article is a very useful deconstruction of the process of imagination and the concept of the Muse. There’s a lot of good advice in it. I do, however, like to romanticize the process of imagination and specifically the manifestation of story ideas and their “bubbling upward” from the unconscious to the conscious mind. I think you can analyze that process empirically or you can take a more mystical perspective–or both. Provided one’s perspective doesn’t negatively impact one’s production of ideas I think both perspectives can be viable and potentially satisfying. Could there be a risk of “analysis paralysis” when taking an empirical perspective that’s comparable to the risk of “writer’s block” when taking a mystical perspective?

  2. Jim
    October 11, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Good question. I think the “mystical” sources of inspiration are perfectly valid, so long as they are still handled as “muses” and not “Muses.” I’ve seen far too may would-be writers wallow in mediocrity because they believe a Muse is controlling them, not only their story ideas, but also their grammar, style, structure, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variant on the “I don’t concern myself with [insert craft element here]. I just let my Muse tell me what to write.” If a writer is serious about his/her craft, he/she will take responsibility for learning every aspect of the craft. If they do that and also want to believe some external source is driving their creativity, more power to ‘em. And yes….you could also probably put too much conscious pressure on your subconscious to “perform.” But there are some great books out there on how to deal with that problem if it ever arises. I’ve yet to find a book that gives serious advice on how to channel an actual Muse. ;-)

  3. October 14, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    This was a back handed slap in the face I’ve been needing. Thanks. Do you want to be a muse?

    • Jim
      October 14, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      Hehehe….does anyone really ever have a choice in the matter?

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