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).
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?