In William Faulkner's Paris Review interview, the gritty Southerner summed up the sentiment of many of us creatives: "I don't know anything about inspiration, because I don't know what inspiration is - I've heard about it, but I never saw it."
But maybe the spitfire writer who loved spirits of another label simply didn't recognize his muse when she showed up. Maybe a fresh look at what "the muse" is and isn't can help us creatives know what it takes to court it and keep it.
2. Perils of the "Muse" Word
I've questioned the "M" word for years. A decade ago I coined the phrase "Yoga As Muse" to describe the creative processes and systems I train people in.
And in that time "muse" has rubbed more than one creative pro the wrong way. A writer in Taos once said something like, "I like what you're doing, but something about the word 'muse' doesn't sit right with me. Something about some entity outside of me," and her flittering fingers made a gesture that implied fairy dust.
My retort about the muse being within and within our capacity to muster to show didn't lower her eyebrows. To her, Muse still equaled Tinkerbell.
The idea of a "muse out there" is dangerous for some aspiring writers.
On a recent tele-seminar I offered, a young writer said that for years she's only written spontaneously when she felt "inspired" - "something comes over me" - but has zero control over when those feelings arise. She'd like to write more consistently but just doesn't feel "inspired" often enough.
That's the danger. Some young writers think that to be a "real writer" you must work yourself up into an intoxicated frenzy or get dizzy on the Himalayan peaks and write unfettered and free-form a la myths of Jack Kerouac. Whether booze or Headstand, the muse is supposed to propel them into ecstasy-driven verses and memoirs.
But what about the other 364 days of the year when you're doing the laundry, raising kids, and driving to work? The muse is not "out there," I tell these aspiring writers. You don't have to wait for the muse to show up, I say. It's here. You show up for it. (And leave the bottled spirits to the tortured literary ghosts of the past.)
3. Breathe, Pray, Write: How Elizabeth Gilbert Shakes It Up Again
Then, Elizabeth Gilbert comes along and shakes up my take in her smart TED talk. She persuasively suggests we at least imagine again the Greco-Roman idea of the "personal genius" as a creative person's muse.
This idea of "genius" - from which the word "genie" derives - is that we each have a genius, not that any one is a genius. It's sort of like having your own personal assistant, only this assistant teems with novel ideas and insights, fresh associations, riveting characters and voices, a panoply of material. At least, that is, if you're assigned a good genius or if your genius is having a good day.
Imagining such an idea - what's the harm of imagining? - gives writers a necessary distance on their process. Gilbert says writers then don't have to feel mortified if they've produced a wretched novel: Their genius didn't work especially hard. And they also cannot gloat if their book takes the globe by surprise like, say, Eat, Pray, Love: It was mostly the personal genius's work. Such an idea of the personal genius could, Gilbert suggests, hold the writer's ego in check.
It's a seductive idea. I want to imagine my personal genius. Right now, she's probably an over-worked task-master. But when I listen to her, take walks with her, and just sit quietly with her by a creek or by a window, she invariably fills me with a manic stream of metaphors or sound clusters that help me wade again in a pool of language. Sometimes she carries me away on a metaphor ferry.
She's edgy and earthy, has dried moss for hair in the shape of dreadlocks, and tells me bawdy jokes about insects and plants that I don't really get. She laughs anyway. And she also does something to my skin. Sort of strokes it as I write so I can feel the words on the page like entities themselves instead of just letting words shoot out like widgets from a machine. She puts the spell in spelling.
4. The Muse is Not Magic
But I also know some things about Homer and Virgil and Ovid and all those marvelous bards who called upon the muses.
They weren't speaking figuratively when they called upon the muses "to breathe into" them. The Greek word pneuman and the Latin word spiritus both mean "breath" but also mean "wind" and "breeze" and "soul" and "spirit." It is the life force that moves through them and allows them to do what earth's elements do so effortlessly - create. The root of the word inspiration is spirare, this way of breathing the life force that is wind and soul.
What the Romans called spiritus the yogis call prana. And pranayama is the art of harnessing this creative force within the body. A person learns this art first by learning breathing exercises. That's the beginning of the art.
Over time, a creative professional learns several ways to shift fatigue, self-doubt, and a crowded mind to a creative frame of mind. They may not be "inspired" with trumpets blaring as the red sun rises, but they do muster the equanimity to put one word in front of the other and walk with a bit more ease on the page.
The Muse is not inspiration. Alone. Maybe the Muse = aspiration + inspiration + perspiration. All rooted in spirare.
Check out the Greeks again.
The Three first Muse Sisters' names translate loosely to
- The Practice of Thought & Meditation (Melete)
- Deep Memory of Content & Know-how (Mneme)
- Song & Voice (Aoide)
That's it. Sort of non-magical, aren't they? Faulkner may not have ever met angels in his study, but these three sisters were residents.
Maybe the Muse is intention + primed imagination & intellect & memory + focus + sweaty know-how execution.
The Muse is a Maestro of the creative mind. Practice primes the mind to receive the personal genius, if you want to frame it that way.
5. The Muse's Last Laugh
I can hear my little genius laughing in my study. She's lounging on the chaise lounge that looks onto the wide-mouthed pond out back.
"What are you laughing at?" I ask.
"You. You have to be so practical, so rational all the time. That prana stuff is not all science, you know?" She winds a tender finger in her dreadlock moss and whispers, "Let a little magic and mystery in."
I get up and move to the living room. At this moment, a wood fire blazes in the cast-iron stove. A fourteen-year-old cat licks its matted fur and then gazes at the flames. A woman fries eggs in a skillet. And a two-year-old girl dances on the hardwood floor, fascinated with a stripe of sunlight.
How do you understand your muse? Are you at its whims? How do you stay productive and connected to what matters most amidst your busy life?
See you in the woods,