What is a muse?
The ancient Greeks thought of the Muses as gods, nine daughters of Zeus, who graced creative individuals with divine inspiration. This idea lets individuals off the hook for inventing the work on their own; the painting, play, poem, musical composition or solution to a scientific problem, results from the gods working through them.
Artists are like radio antennae, channeling the gods’ inspiration. All they have to do is show up, open the channel and get to work. Getting something down is much easier than making it up.
Later, muses evolved into living people, such as Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whose likeness he abstracted during his cubist period. Author Dani Shapiro identifies her mother as her muse in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, because most of her work addresses maternal relationships and estrangements.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes his muse as an imaginary guy in the basement smoking a cigar. As long as King shows up to do the work, the guy in the basement supplies the magic. But make no mistake, King shows up every day. He knows that guy in the basement won’t write a damn thing.
For me, there remains an element of the divine in my concept of a personal muse.
At one time people used divining rods to seek out ground water and locate wells. They had faith that a higher power could send a message through a Y-shaped twig held by a person open to receiving it as he walked across an open field. The rod would vibrate and shake to alert him to the presence of water below.
My muse works like a diviner, pointing the way. When I am moving across the page towards something beyond cliché, something that is real and true, I feel phantom tingles on my shoulder. I imagine that it’s my muse, her ice cream cone dripping onto me. This sensation spurs me to keep at it, to trust what is coming forward and not judge it, at least not yet.
A ten-year-old girl, untainted by duty and shame, my muse is completely free to be herself. She spends most of her time doing what the Italians call dolce far niente, which is to say she pleasures in doing nothing. She understands that constant busyness brings death to any creative effort. It numbs the brain, creating the illusion that we are in control. It shields the mind against vulnerability, and the muse demands vulnerability, faith and trust.
Creativity benefits from idleness.
The work—our creative practice whether we are writers, musicians, dancers, painters or scientists—requires us to show up at our studios or laboratories between certain hours, but the filling of the creative well results from time spent being rather than doing. Most creative practitioners know that too much practice can become as detrimental as not enough. It’s called burnout, and it applies to most types of work.
My muse, let’s call her Tina, is usually eating ice cream when she shows up. She wears pink shorts, no shoes. Topping the shorts is a shirt that her brother brought back from Barbados. Its dominant color is red. She likes both red and pink. She likes having something exotic to wear and doesn’t care that the shirt doesn’t match the shorts. Tina doesn’t care if others like her attitude or not; she doesn’t yet know that the culture is against her.
Loss, confusion, and neglect have already touched her, yet she still believes in the value of hanging out on the lawn with an ice cream cone, and takes pleasure in this idleness. It feeds her spirit, mind, and body, giving her the strength to go forward and to supply my creative well.
I know that Tina is with me, not judging the work but channeling the energy to type the words, because I can feel that they are alive and true. Her presence takes me beyond thoughts of authorship, beyond cliché, beyond labor, to the joy of idling away the hours on the page.
When I’ve failed to refill my creative well and it runs dry, I fear that my muse has moved on. Grief sets in; words clunk from my pen like stones shifted from one rock pile to another. Being kind to myself, buying ice cream, lying on the grass, walking without aim, losing myself to an afternoon of idleness, these are the activities that refill the creative well and coax the muse back to my shoulder.
It’s no accident that my muse is a projection of myself as a child. Her presence represents a measure of self-respect regained over time, the kind of self-respect that requires an intrinsic sense of worthiness, an understanding that I am enough.
When I was a girl, I didn’t worry about what others thought of me. It was later, between puberty and early adulthood, that I developed a need to be all things to all people, and in doing so upended my self-respect for a while. During this period of my life I stopped writing stories. I lost my nerve. The well ran dry. I worked for a chemical company.
Later, when I reconciled the risks of being myself, understanding that self-respect had nothing to do with the approval of others, a funny thing happened. I dared to call myself a writer. I picked up a pen and began a story. The muse showed up in her pink shorts and baptized my shoulder with drips of ice cream. Butter pecan or possibly rum raisin, she indulges in both.
There’s gelato in the freezer. I think I’ll get some now and take it outside to the patio that faces the mountains.