What’s in a Muse?

There are a great many ways to think of a muse. Starting with the party pooper who believes that writing or other creative endeavors are all toil. I’m not telling you there isn’t work involved. On the contrary, creating something from nothing is simultaneously the most beautiful and most impossible thing that you can possibly do. All the muse does is oil up the gears, so to speak. Which makes them invaluable to you in your work. Though if you’ve made your mind up not to believe in muses, they’ll certainly never properly haunt you. The types of muses vary, but they all have the same end result. They make you want to create. The classical Greek approach of the nine muses a rough, abstract way of looking at it. And mysterious. Unpredictable, even. The muse of a lover is the most common. The muse of a friend can’t be overlooked. And the muse of another creative that you don’t even know through their work more than their existence. Then there’s the muse of a place. None of these are wrong. They’re all muses in their own right. But they are all different. And all have value in different senses.

The nine muses are crucial to greek mythology. The first alphabetically being the one most crucial to writing, Calliope, summoned by Homer while writing The Oddesy. But that’s a story for another day. The greek mode of thought on muses reflect what most people seem to view as a muse. A mystical sort of being that graces you with her presence. She’s the reason that you can create whatever it is that you create. And very little is known about why she came or what she’s doing hanging out with the likes of you. But this is a sort of silly way to look at it. This is why many people believe that the muse is a myth. Because this type of muse is indeed mythical. Sort of. If you’ve ever had one of those days where you’ve created for hours before you realize how much work you’ve done, you can thank Callipe, or perhaps Melpomene, Erato, or Thalia depending on your genre. Best case scenario, you don’t know why the muse visits you. Worst case, you spend your time waiting for her to strike instead of working to seek her out. It isn’t possible to explain, but it does exist if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. What I do know? Maybe I’ll try lighting some candles and praying to Polymnia when I try to edit. Gods know I can’t do any worse with her than with my own wits.

The next most commonly thought of muse is that of a lover. There have been scads of long-term, oft-suffering wives behind geniuses over the years. Women who are too often overlooked by history. But no muse ever dies. Like an artist. They’re captured in another’s work. A sort of time capsule. The best of these? Two creatives. Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. Stephen and Tabitha King. The Brownings, of course. The Shelleys. Anais Nin and Henry Miller is an infamous one. So were Plath and Hughes. Many of these rather volatile at best. But such is the nature of the artistic psyche. Especially when there are two of them involved. I guess I’ll have to stick with non-creatives. I’m volatile as it is. But these love affairs don’t have to be long lasting. Like the brief but brilliant affair between Giger and Tobler. Or even truly happen at all. Someone who broke your heart is just as good, and sometimes better. Jane Auten had a horrible, unrequited love affair that inspired many of her works. Ayn Rand’s teenage crush, a neighbor, inspired Kovalensky in We The Living.  Yeats’ unrequited love of a revolutionary undoubtedly fueled some of his more angsty poetry. What would we do without fuel like that? Tragic loves are a specialty of mine, both in fiction and in life. Which may or not be a chicken and egg situation. All I do know is that nothing makes me want to write more furiously than falling in or out of love. That’s something that ought to be given a try. And sought out at all costs.

The muse of a platonic friend can be its own source of brilliance as well, though often overlooked. A beautiful, real life example is Kerouac and Cassady. Cassady popped up in varying incarnations in nearly all of Kerouac’s works. He was infinitely fascinating to Kerouac. He wanted to study him, in a sense. And the same is true for a lot of relationships. Friendships that energize you are hard to come by. But when you do, they should be preserved at (nearly) all costs. Often this type of muse is a two-way street. Formed by two or more creative people. Paris in the 20’s. Greenwich for the beats. Shelley and Byron. Both Shelleys. In some senses, it can be seen as a bit of a game of one-upmanship. And that’s okay. Creatives like to see each other succeed. Unless they’re absolute selfish pricks. And I like to think most of us aren’t. Right? The muse relationship with someone platonic may often seem like it’s less brilliant, in a sense. But it’s also a relationship you’re more apt to be able to count on. I’m lucky enough to have a few of these currently. And I wouldn’t trade them for anything at all, though I’ve let a few slip through my fingers over the years. In most cases, that’s because I’d have preferred them to be the former type of muse, but that’s beside the point. The moral here is to hold onto your friends if they inspire you. If they make you want to do something besides sit on the couch and watch TV mindlessly like the rest of the world. That’s why you’re different after all. And what a beautiful different it is. They see that. Keep them. Please.

A lot of inspiration can be drawn from other people’s work. Even if that’s someone you don’t know at all. I can’t even begin to count and record the number of muses this has brought my way. People I’ll never know. Many died before I was even born. Some before my parents were born. I’ll try to be concise and list just a few of these here. To give you an idea. One that I always seem to return to is Jeff Buckley. He made me fall in love with a sort of melancholy that only got more and more intense with time. A love affair for the ages, if you will. Enter Edgar Allan Poe. And Lord Byron. And Percey Shelley. Their sort of Gothic Romanticism sort of shaped the way I look at a lot of things. Language. My own romances.Shakespeare teaches the importance of language, and how all words create a sort of music if they’re used in the correct way. Plath made me see poetry and prose as a sort of sacred confessional. King was my first love of a fiction novelist. I read everything of his I could get my hands on from the time I was thirteen. At first unbeknownst to my parents. Every time I watch something by Lynch, it leaves me wanting to create. Foster Wallace made me realize what an essay could be, and that I could push my writing in a different direction if I liked. And I do. I try to at least. Hemingway’s concision and Fitzgerald’s almost purple prose appealed to me for different reasons. But they all had one thing in common. They’re a part of who I’ve shaped into being. And I’m happy for that. It makes me feel a little less alone, though only two of the people mentioned here are still alive. But that’s okay too. You have to seek out what speaks to you and run with it. I’m not telling you to emulate them. Just keep them with you, alright?

And finally, the muse of a place. This is perhaps the most subjective of all. Different people find magic in different places. Manet’s gardens are a beautiful example. I think most of us would like to think that we can create anywhere. And this is truer than we often give ourselves credit for. But the inspiration of being in exactly the right setting can’t be overlooked or understated. Maybe this place is as simple as being in one’s own home. Or maybe it’s triggered by the feeling of the wind in your hair and salt in your lungs. I’m more of a mountain person myself. Give me a cabin in the woods any day. I think for most people, this sort of magic that’s brought on by place seems to focus on an element of solitude. I know it does for me, at least. I like to think I can create anywhere as long as people will leave me the fuck alone. I can’t often write when there are people in the room. Either that or I haven’t tried to write around the right people. Creating is a solitary act. That’s just a fact. For me, at the very least. The entire idea is to go somewhere by yourself and make something out of nothing. It’s an absurd thing to do. But it’s made easier by the muse, whatever form she (or he) takes. It doesn’ t much matter, really, what form it is. And sometimes the muses don’t grace you at all. Now that’s a hard pill to swallow. But that’s something for another day.

What about you? Have you ever been haunted by any of these muses? All of them?


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