What I’m about to say is blasphemy in much of the writing world. Maybe it’s my pragmatism, my science background, my lack of belief in guardian angels, karma and fate, but—here goes—I don’t believe in the muse.
In fact, whenever other writers talk about their muse being on a vacation or sitting on their shoulder, whispering in their ear, I find it rather, well, silly. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I even tried it out once or twice, writing about “my muse,” but it was so disingenuous, I hated myself for doing it.
There’s no denying that we, as writers, sometimes feel as if there are outside forces at work, when the words flow like water from a hidden spring or when those words are reread at a later date and we wonder, “Who wrote that?” Many, I might even say most, writers carry around a shitload of insecurities about their talent, their ability to string the words together in the best way possible and, once it’s done, whether they’ll be able to do it again the next time. And the next. And the time after that.
I think that’s where the idea of the muse conveniently comes into play. It’s a way to give the credit to (or place the blame on) someone or something other than ourselves for the words on the page. Or when we’ve staring at a blank page for what feels like hours.
The term Muse comes from the Nine Muses in Greek mythology, who were Greek goddesses, ruling over the arts and sciences and offering inspiration. They were the daughters of Zeus, lord of all gods, and the goddess, Mnemosyne, who represented memory. Not a bad family tree.
Artists, of course, have always had muses, Èdouard Manet had Victorine Meurant, Pablo Picasso had Marie-Thérèse Walter, Salvador Dali had Gala Diakonova, and Francis Bacon had George Dyer. But these were flesh-and-blood people who influenced their lives, sometimes tragically, and inspired their art.
I’m not sure why it came to be that a writer’s muse was deemed an imaginary creature, one I’ve always pictured as Tinkerbell, hovering over the computer screen or typewriter sprinkling pixie dust. Or making unrealistic demands. And I don’t find that inspiring. I find it kind of creepy. But maybe that’s just me.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has expressed an almost spiritual belief in the muse as an entity independent from ourselves, one that speaks to us as we write. And when the words won’t come, she says, it’s because the muse hasn’t held up its side of the bargain. Some people even name their muses. I read somewhere that one writer named her muse Chris Hemsworth. Good choice, I must say. When I was in college I named my car Norman, but other than that, I’m not big on naming anything other than children and pets.
Others say the muse is more of a deep meditative state, than an actual entity guiding us along. That makes more sense to me. When the words come, it’s usually the result of intense focus, as you enter your characters’ world and open your mind to all the delicious possibilities. It’s not outlining or diagraming or whiteboarding; it’s more like giving an extemporaneous speech, only you’re writing it down and there is no audience to render judgment and reinforce your insecurities.
It’s interesting to note that Muse is also a band (love their music); a career advice website; a hotel in New York City; a movie with Albert Brooks, about a writer’s muse come to life; a page on Jezebel.com; the name of Boston’s Grubstreet annual writers’ conference; and a personal meditation assistant (a brain-sensing headband to make meditation easier). Muse is clearly a popular term.
If the idea of having a muse works for you, who am I to discourage that process? But I believe that when the writing works, we need to milk every last drop of that hard-earned, much-deserved credit, rather than attribute it to some outside force that is never seen, never heard, and often can’t be depended upon to show up when the need is greatest.
Or so I’ve been told.
Densie Webb (not Denise) has spent a long career as a freelance nonfiction writer and editor. Her debut novel “You’ll Be Thinking of Me” was released by Soul Mate Publishing in January 2015. She is an avid walker (not of the dead variety), drinks too much coffee and has a small “devil dog” that keeps her on her toes. She is currently working on a second novel.