“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talkin’ about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon, or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” —Stephen King
As writers use the term today, the muse represents an intangible element that influences and inspires their writing. For some it’s a spiritual influence. For others, it takes the form of a person who inspires them to write. For screenwriters, like Quentin Tarantino, it’s often an actress like Uma Thurman who inspired The Bride character in Kill Bill.
Where does the concept of the muse come from?
Back in ancient Greece, people spent a lot of time thinking about life, and how best to live it. They also spent a lot of time thinking about the way we think and how we create. Maybe it was because they didn’t have a lot of real world distractions like movie theaters, cell phones, cars, computers, or the live streaming capabilities we have on Facebook.
This was before people started thinking about themselves in terms of self-determination. In those days the Greek Gods were at the center of the universe — and in fact were the center of all thought – including creativity.
When the philosophers started wondering how people could sit down and write, they decided the Gods had to be involved. They came up with the idea that these Gods (they had a separate God for poetry, adventure stories, comedy, and for some reason – another one for astronomy) somehow worked heir magic through us.
A certain amount of that kind of thinking continues today. After all the process of bringing a work of fiction into the world still seems a fairly mysterious and somewhat magical. The concept of a muse still serves a purpose for some writers.
Getting through the next book.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a Ted talk about her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, in which she talked about carrying this burden after it became a huge hit –and then a hit film. She began to worry whether she could come up with a worthy successor.
One day she was discussing the writing process with the singer/songwriter Tom Waits. He told her he was driving around L.A. and the melody to a song “just came to him.” Since he was in the car he couldn’t stop and write it down or record it, so he just looked up – as if to God – and said something like ‘excuse me can you not see that I’m driving?’
As the rest of the story goes, he asked God at that point if he could come back when he was in the studio, when it would be more convenient. After Gilbert heard this story she found it helped her get through her next book. She was doing her part, she’d say –showing up at the keyboard every day. If the muse didn’t take over, that wasn’t her fault.
At play in the fields of the Lord.
Ray Bradbury, the prolific science fiction author (and screenwriter) also invoked the notion that God gave him his stories. He talked about writing as if it was something he opened himself up to, and was able to channel. He gave credit to God, but at other times referred to the muse as a her, him, it or whatever.
Bradbury didn’t mean to say that writing came easy. On the contrary he talked about the necessity of writing a thousand words a day every day for the rest of your life. He talked about writers having to read poetry, essays, short stories and novels in order to prepare to accept muse’s gift.
A career in writing was about assembling a lifetime’s worth of experiences, learned first hand, or through reading, or viewing films, or through self-reflection. It was about reading the novels, short stories or screenplays of writers who wrote the way we’d like to write, who thought the way we’d like to think.
Only with this kind of rigorous preparation would a writer be ready to accept the ideas, the poems and stories that flowed from his muse and transcribe them into works of art. The process was not just about sitting back and waiting for inspiration, but about perfecting the craft in order to be ready when inspiration struck.
“I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this,” Bradbury told his biographer about his body of work, “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.’ ”
Do you feel there’s a spiritual influence on your writing? Does the idea of being a vessel for creative energies resonate with you? Are you inspired by the persona of a beautiful woman like so many writers throughout history? Wherever your inspiration comes from, you’re lucky to have it – don’t take it for granted.