You may have heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED talk about about creativity and inspiration, in which she discussed the idea that writers and other creative people are visited by a Muse while they work. This extraordinary being (angel? daemon? goddess? blithe spirit?) drops by to guide the writer’s hand and leads the writer to produce something beyond what her normal abilities would allow her to produce. This is a very old idea– so old, in fact, that the Muses as we know them date back to the classical period in Greece. If you look around on the web, you can find lists of their names and information about their appearances in classical literature.
It’s an interesting idea, for sure. But Gilbert suggests that this is more than idea. It is the way that you make peace with your creativity. You understand that your part of the deal as an artist is to show up and work hard. The rest is up to the Muse. It’s not up to you, the writer, to be an amazing creative genius. Therefore you don’t need to feel badly if the writing isn’t going as well as you’d like. You just keep going. Sooner or later the Muse will show up.
Last Thursday I listened to a This American Life podcast that featured an audio documentary about William Burroughs. I was amazed that somebody who was addicted to drugs for most of his life had such a long and productive literary career. I’ll admit right now that I am not that familiar with Beat literature except for some of the poetry, such as Howl and A Coney Island of the Mind. So, although I’ve heard of Naked Lunch, I haven’t read it, nor any other of Burroughs’ novels. Even without reading Burroughs’ work, I’d say the documentary is worth a listen if you want to know more about him or about the Beat writers.
Among other things, the documentary described the cut-up technique, which Burroughs learned from Brion Gysin, a visual artist.
Lately I have found myself thinking about poetry and fiction, and why they are different, and how that difference affects the writing process. Some people think the difference is rhyme, or figurative language, or line length. In this view, poetry has these devices, and fiction does not. As for me, I think the difference is conflict.