What’s a Muse? And Why Do I Need One?

Photo of Marble statue of Isis by Carole Raddato via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Photo of Marble statue of Isis by Carole Raddato via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

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.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield takes a more active approach. He’s all for showing up and working hard (he call it “turning pro”) but suggests that writers should actively solicit the Muse’s attention by performing an invocation before sitting down to write. Pressfield uses the invocation to the Muse from the beginning of the Odyssey. Here’s T. E. Lawrence’s translation:

O Divine Poesy
Goddess-daughter of Zeus,
Sustain for me
This song of the various-minded man,
Who after he had plundered
The innermost citadel of hallowed Troy
Was made to stray grievously
About the coasts of men,
The sport of their customs good or bad,
While his heart
Through all the seafaring
Ached in an agony to redeem himself
And bring his company safe home.

Vain hope – for them!
For his fellows he strove in vain,
Their own witlessness cast them away;
The fools,
To destroy for meat
The oxen of the most exalted sun!
Wherefore the sun-god blotted out
The day of their return.

Make the tale live for us
In all its many bearings,
O Muse.

(Line breaks copied from Howard Andrew Jones, who also shares his own invocation.)

Pressfield uses this invocation verbatim, but others, such as Jones, create their own invocations. I think you will be fine either way. Or you could try cookies.

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