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.
I’ve been to a lot of readings: poetry, fiction, memoir, etc. Seems like no matter what, if there’s a Q & A portion of the reading, someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”
I understand why this always comes up. It comes up because no matter how imaginative we are, when we sit down to write, we are facing the blank page. Or the blank screen. Then, if you’re me, the ideas you’ve had about what to write fly out of your head and you stare at the page in despair. This is why I keep lists of things to write about.
“Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I’ve read a lot of books about creativity, making art, and becoming a better writer. In many of these books, there are one or two great ideas, and then some ideas that I find are not useful, or not original, or both.
The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.
– Lev Grossman, How Not to Write Your First Novel
When I read Lev Grossman’s piece on how he graduated from college and tried (and failed) to write his first novel, I had a rueful moment of recognition– his plan to be a solitary genius and to ‘live the creative life’ in a farmhouse in rural Maine seemed like something I could have done, if I’d had the bravery to do it. I did not go as far as he did, but only because I was primarily a poet, and even I knew nobody makes any money publishing poetry.* As Grossman laid out the premise– traveling away from everything he knew, believing he needed near-complete solitude to write, not wanting to be a sell-out– it was clear that he was going to fail, and fail badly. After six months he packed up and left for the real world. But we know that eventually Grossman did manage to write critically-acclaimed best-selling books. So what is the point? The point is you don’t have to be lonely genius to write a book– in fact, that it’s better to be around other people, and working in an office doesn’t preclude writing books.
He ends the piece with the quote that I put at the beginning of this piece, which hit me squarely in the big bag of excuses I drag around for not doing my creative work– I’m too old, too boring, too bad at writing, etc. He’s right– It’s never too late. The Muse will take you back again and again.