Musings on the Muse

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about nurturing creativity on YouTube the other day. She focused mainly on the idea that we must listen to our muse, or our divine attendant spirits, as she defined it. We must be ready for him/it/her, trust that it/she/him will show up and we can then transcribe whatever genius the thing has to say. She said that she had to learn to do this because of her own freakishly amazing success. I hated this advice, in part because I am jealous of that very success. But I hated it too because hearing a writer speak of her muse smacks a bit like pretension and faux modesty. It also mythologizes what I think is quite a much more basic process, the importance of the daily act of writing. By mostly,  I objected to it because I don’t believe in THE MUSE. What does this muse look like? Does he wear a hat with bells? Is he slightly amorphous, made of smoke, and prone to fits of Yeats in an Irish accent? Hearkening to your muse reminds me of theater majors I knew in college who did lots of mushrooms, lost themselves in drum circles, and talked about waiting for their characters to speak to them.  And this, in turn, reminds me of Laurence Olivier’s possibly made-up quote to an exhausted Dustin Hoffman, who had stayed up for three nights in order to be convincing in this role: "Try acting, dear boy." 

In the same vein, I’d advise you, instead of waiting for your divine being to show up and extinguish his hooka, try writing.  By yourself. With Belle and Sebastian playing in the background if that inspires you, but not with a genie lamp on your lap. There is no secret to writing, no mystical being who is giving you your images, your memories, your characters. It is the continual act of facing a blank screen, the empty page and moving forward word by word even when you don’t really want to do the work.  Imaging that writing comes from beyond ourselves or must be inspired by God or Allah allows for a ready excuse when we’re too tired or too bored or too distracted–we can say that our muse is vacationing down the shore and go make a sandwich instead. Here’s what I say: don’t wait for him. Write it.

However, if it helps you to believe that your writing is inspired by divinity, then that’s okay too. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself in front of computer or the notebook or the papyrus scroll. Write all the bad scenes where your characters behave in cliched ways and where you kill everyone off in the end in a fiery car crash. If you just stick with it, every day, all the time, I promise you, magic can happen. Magic that you make on your own.

Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.

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