Getting To Know Your Muse
Inspiration may appear in dreams. New ideas or complete phrases might pop into your head when you’re doing the dishes. Or, you’ll be in the shower when you suddenly think of a wonderful approach for something you’re writing.
Our best ideas seem to come from places beyond our intentional control. That’s probably why the Greeks personified inspiration in the nine muses. Cognitive science suggests that these muses reside in the complex circuitry of our brains.
The last blog post discussed two inner systems involved in writing, The Muse and the Scribe.
We spend most of our time with the intentional, effortful processes of the Scribe. We often identify with its narrating voice telling us that we’re in control of our actions and our writing.
The Muse operates below the surface of conscious thoughts. It remains in the shadows until those moments it contributes ideas.
Because of its vital role in writing, I’m going to shine a light on the elusive Muse. This post and a few that follow will share lessons I’ve learned from observing my own Muse. The usual disclaimers apply: your results may vary.
When the Muse Runs Away
The Muse doesn’t always enjoy the limelight. We may learn important lessons from its absence – the times that it refuses to show up when needed.
As an English major in college, I steadfastly refused to take any creative writing classes. I knew, deep in my gut, that I could not handle writing creatively on deadline and for a grade.
I already understood something about my Muse: she’s sensitive to criticism. Perhaps hyper-sensitive. Jumpy. Tetchy, even.
The idea of being graded was enough to send her into hiding.
I’m not alone in this regard: harsh criticism from others can deter us from creating.
Not everything the Muse produces is wonderful; the Scribe’s job is to evaluate and filter those contributions before putting them out into the world. And you must be careful; if you are too self-critical, your Muse may head for the hills.
Many years after college, I enrolled in a Continuing Education poetry writing class — a class I would never have taken as an undergraduate! I was older and more confident in my writing skills.
The Muse started showing up regularly between classes, dropping complete lines of poetry into my head as starting points for poems.
The exercises in poetic forms offered welcome constraints within which the Muse could operate, while providing shelter from criticism. (“It’s not a great sonnet, but hey, I wrote a sonnet!”) And, instead of grades, we had discussions and feedback.
The class created a safe and welcoming environment for the Muse to participate.
Lessons about Approaching the Sensitive Muse
Honestly, many of my Muse’s brilliant ideas aren’t worth pursuing. (Shh… don’t let her know I said that.)
But that’s okay, because some of the ideas are good. If I shoot down every suggestion the moment it pops up, she goes silent.
My Scribe’s job is to filter and evaluate the contributions in such a way that the Muse still feels welcome.
Here are a few strategies that I’ve come up with for making the Muse a regular participant in the writing process.
Quiet the critic: Shut down the criticism when seeking input from the Muse. You may have to filter out many ideas before hitting on one that works. So, be kind and encouraging. When you come up with a mediocre idea, defer judgment and say to yourself, “That’s a possibility, and I wonder what else would work?”
Be prolific: When looking for subtitles for The Writer’s Process, I challenged myself to come up with 100 possibilities, fully expecting that most would be horrible. I’d only need a three percent hit rate to have a few good choices! Setting up this situation gave the Muse permission to associate and explore freely, without worrying about being shot down early in the process.
Work in phases. Separate information gathering from drafting and editing. Leave time for the Muse to contribute, before you have to filter and judge.
For a detailed description of how the Muse participates in the writing process, see the book The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear.
Other blogs in this series:
Writing Fast and Slow describes the inner processes of Muse and the Scribe.