Waiting for the muse



It’s something of a slippery concept. A muse (noun) is, the dictionary tells us: ‘a person, or an imaginary being or force that gives someone ideas and helps them to write, paint, or make music.’ On the one hand, that sounds fairly concrete. On the other, this definition tells us a muse can be, well, pretty much anything at all. Anything that inspires you, provides creative ideas. Muses, sources from which we derive inspiration, are highly personal.

The Ancient Greeks gave embodied form to this insubstantial concept in the shape of the nine muses in goddess form. These were: epic poetry (Calliope); love poetry (Erato); sacred poetry (Polyhymnia); history (Clio); tragedy (Melpomene); comedy (Thalia); music (Euterpe); dance (Terpsichore); and astronomy (Urania). So this, to them, was about more than the creative arts – or at least, to Ancient Greeks, science was an art form.

Since then, muses have commonly often been cited as people. Beatrice (Beatrice di Folco Portinari) for Dante Alighieri, for instance, Shakespeare with his ‘Dark Lady’ and ‘Fair Youth’. In art, Camille Claudel for Auguste Rodin; Elizabeth Siddal for Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Gala for Salvador Dalí… Though there is a lot of conjecture in these early examples (and the reason we have so many women cited as muses by men is an entire topic on its own).

Grab the muse or wait for it to come?

More recently, some writers have been direct and concrete about this. “My muse is my wife. It’s not some vague thing that flutters around the astrosphere or wherever it is,” singer, songwriter and author Nick Cave has been quoted as saying. In a seemingly rare (as far as I can tell) instance of a man being noted as a muse by a woman, Gillian Flynn said in one interview: “The funny thing, I guess, is that my husband ended up being the muse of a book about the worst marriage in the world…” – though that one may be a little tongue in cheek… And, famously, artist Frida Kahlo is quoted as saying “I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. I am the subject I want to know better.”

Whether oneself or another, a muse is not always a person, of course, be it music, nature, science. “… Disaster is my muse,” wrote graphic author Art Spiegelman in relation to his brutally moving work. Any line between muse and influence appears to be a hair’s breadth.

Alternatively, ‘muse’ can be a more airy, holistic concept, a broader sense of being visited by inspiration – ‘muse’ versus ‘a muse’, perhaps.

The question for creators is: do you wait for the muse to visit you, or do you simply press on regardless – start writing, drawing, making…

In his guide On Writing, author Stephen King’s advice is direct and no-nonsense: “Don’t wait for the muse,” he urges, “As I’ve said, he’s a hard-headed guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.” 

In the other camp (as it were), writer Vikram Seth advises: “Do not write if there is no tremendous urge to do so. At the heart, there must be an inspiration or muse or one of those old-fashioned things. Else, why bore yourself, destroy other people’s interest and kill trees?

These two approaches need not, of course, be mutually excluding. Just because you believe in, or feel the need to be visited by, a muse, to spark your creativity, this does not mean you’re not putting in the graft, the hours; it does not necessarily mean you’re relinquishing control as a writer or creator. The words of novelist and poet Barbara Kingsolver (who also runs a farm) appears to strike a position between these camps in saying: “You always need that spark of imagination. Sometimes I’m midway through a book before it happens. However, I don’t wait for the muse to descend, I sit down every day and I work when I’m not delivering lambs on the farm.” It’s a ‘start building it and the muse will come’ position, if you will. Writing a novel, Kingsolver goes on to note, “…is 99 parts hard work and one part magic.”

Perhaps this relates to what Tchaikovsky meant when stating that “The muse doesn’t come without being called.”

What about you: which position do you align with?
Does ‘the muse’ exist and do you have ‘a muse’?
Do you wait for ‘muse’ to come, or get on with a creative task regardless?


Image thanks
Main image: Image by Michael Drummond from Pixabay
Smaller image Photo by Luca Nardone from Pexels

18 thoughts on “Waiting for the muse

  1. Hmmmm….I don’t wait for the muse when blogging. I do wait for it when working on other things. My muse does like solitude though…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting how muse is part of oneself, yet also like a separate entity. It supports, but also dictates. Reminds me of the daemons in Philp Pullman’s Dark Materials books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Never read them but will take your word for it

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Graeme Jun 22, 2021 — 7:30 pm

    As a psychological phenomenon, I think the muse is real enough. I see it as an energy within us that I suppose has no real shape, but one I like to personify, internally. I’ll cast it onto a fantasy figure, a dream figure, or sometimes a character in my story. Being a guy, I find it easier to imagine the muse as a woman. That way, she maps onto the Jungian Anima. I think in Roman literature it was called the genius. Personally, I never project it onto living subjects, though I have been known to write poetry full of moon to girls when I was a kid. It didn’t get me anywhere. They just thought I was barking. In my defence, I was probably just born into the wrong century.

    I agree, it’s mostly a two-way thing. As a writer we have to at least show up and start the process, punch out some words and hope the muse will be interested enough to take over. I assume the stuff that goes nowhere and which I eventually ditch, the muse couldn’t do anything with. That said, there are occasions when a scene pops into my head, and then I know she’s working from scratch, and I’d better take note.

    It’s a fascinating subject. Have you heard the TED talk on the muse by Elisabeth Gilbert? https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_your_elusive_creative_genius#t-18436

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    1. Wow, thanks for your thoughts and insights. I am the same. If I ‘visualise’ muse at all, it’s ghostly, not corporeal. I am interested in how people often seem to personify their muse, where it’s not a real-life individual.
      I hadn’t thought of the anima in relation to Jung and the collective unconscious (about which I know very little!) That may also be feminine resistance to the animus as the rational intelligence. I need more thought.
      Born into the wrong century – yes, early and mid-nineteenth century should do it, plenty of muses around for the romantic poets and Pre-Raphaelites – allegedly, at least.
      I haven’t heard the Elisabeth Gilbert Ted Talk, thanks for the link (love a TED talk). The concept of elusive genius is fascinating, and of course very related. I have seen Gilbert describe her late partner as ‘my muse’, what a terrible personal tragedy

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michael Graeme Jun 23, 2021 — 9:42 pm

        Hi, yes. I’ve just been reading up on her life, post EPL. Very sad indeed. I enjoyed that book very much, such an insightful writer.

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  3. Gillian Flynn’s (you say) ‘tongue in cheek’ thoughts made me smile, but I wonder if a man could get away with that one? I’m not so sure I believe ‘a muse’ exists as an entity, Steven King’s no nonsense advice to just write is something I’ve seen suggested elsewhere…………..whichever, there’s no substitute for hard graft and that’s applicable to life in general. Reminds me of Sir David Lean’s advice to Film Directors “don’t walk around the woods hoping for inspiration”………… (I’m paraphrasing that quote from memory btw). As always I really enjoyed this one Libre Paley. After a long period of lockdown sexual abstinence, I’m again sleeping with women so perhaps that’ll be my muse for a new posting? We’ll see, I think I’ve lived my literary 15 minutes of fame!

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    1. My first thought is to agree Flynn’s comment, even jokingly said, would be riskier for a man. Whether that relates to power balance and history or a double standard, I am not sure (and I do believe at least some double standards do exist – for instance, we appear to have the ‘female gaze’ as well as the ‘male gaze’ in media, even if it’s less prevelant).
      In terms of muse as an entity, as I was writing, I wasn’t clear as I was looking into this on boundaries between muse / inspiration / influence – probably doesn’t matter; they can all spark off creativity.
      The David Lean advice is great – I generally find this sort of terse, non-arsty fartsy advice bracing. It’s easy to get lost in the woods, metaphorically, and we all need pulling out of it by some practicality sometimes.
      Best of luck on the new post lockdown activity! Hope you’ll be blogging again.

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  4. Jackie has always been my muse in person; now it is expanded to all around me. An excellent discourse on the theme

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    1. That is lovely. I wondered about the difference between being a muse and a source of inspiration – but I see that a source of inspiration can be a one-off, but a muse inspires, restores, and revitalises every day.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. To me, a muse and a source of inspiration are totally different. ANYTHING (or anyone) can inspire me. A muse is within me.

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  5. I never wait for a muse or the muse. I usually always have something to write, though, mainly because I always have thoughts about fill-in-the-blank topic. I will say that when the muse strikes, a much deeper work follows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good analysis of it. A general consensus appears to be a. Don’t wait: start writing and see what happens, and b. This helps get to a deeper place – call it what we will, muse, inspiration, creative flow….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. my personal opinion:
    1. If you want to make money – then you should sit and write daily. It’s your job. I’d say a minimum of 4-6 hrs a day.
    2. If you are writing for writing itself – then you are waiting for a spark (muse) to arrive. There’s no rush… often it comes when you less expect, too 🙂
    3. I don’t write every day. I prefer to get an image or scene in my head first… so I guess, I want /or wait/ for ‘muse’ to come 🙂 plus, I’m lazy and not a genius as people you mentioned in your blog post 😀☝️☝️🤓

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right. Writing is a job, and one where (I imagine!) you have to be disciplined as you’re your own boss. Imagining myself telling my boss inspiration just hasn’t struck today, so I’m not coming in! I start with a strong sensory image or audial, too, but wouldn’t call that a muse, necessarily.

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  7. Absolutely loved the way you put it across. For me there has to be something to frame on your mind before I write, a person, nature or a object of illusion. I agree with you, muse could be anything

    Liked by 1 person

  8. To me, a muse is something intangible. It’s a state of mind. I don’t think it comes on its own. It is me who has to make accommodations (proper headspace) to unlock it. Sometimes, I just push it ut of its dark corner.

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