Abuse Your Muse

Muse - Staples Center - September 25, 2010

They will not force us…They will not control us…Rise up and take the power back!

How many of you have read Northern Lights? (that’s The Golden Compass to you northamericaners.) Remember those animal daemons that followed the characters around? They were human souls made manifest.

I sometimes picture our Muses in a similar fashion, except that we writers have a greater variety of sizes, types and numbers. Some folks may even claim to be absolutely museless, or polygamuse.

There’s something about the concept of the muse that evokes the image of something mysterious, numinous, of something akin to divine inspiration. Muses were goddesses, and why not? For me and many other writers, the process of creating can feel mystical, euphoric, religious. But I think it’s dangerous to think of the Muse as other, as something outside of ourselves.

For example, many have a relationship to their muse not unlike that of the Prophet Muhammad and the angel Gabriel. They channel their inspiration like it is the infallible word of God and their words are the lyrical sutra of the Qur’an. Writers often use their muse as an excuse to maintain their personal status quo–to ignore well-deserved critiques, to cling to worn-out tropes, to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

I think this problem is exacerbated by successful authors who encourage us to write for ourselves, to tell our own stories, to follow our muses, as it were. Connie Willis once gave me the following advice (channeling one of her heroes, Dorothy Sayers): “The only you can possibly do is write what one wants and hope for the best.” I’ve heard advice like this from a number of the writers I all but stalk worship (I have a half-dozen pictures of Neil Gaiman posted in various places, including one by my bed), and since I have a bit of a rebellious streak, I’d like to challenge this writerly conventional wisdom, or at least examine it a bit.

Here’s my problem with this collective advice: editors are buried under slush pile avalanches (Daddy, what’s a paper manuscript?) of inspired stories that people wrote while following their muses, while telling their stories. I don’t want to write and hope for the best–I want to channel my muse in the best direction. And the problem isn’t just that writers need to improve their craft–even technically solid authors perpetuate the worst stereotypes and churn out banal tropes that editors have seen thousands of times before. Check out these examples from Strange HorizonsStories We’ve Seen Too Often:

  • 2e. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  • 14. White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk. [I admit to having written something like this before.]
  • 30. Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
  • 32. Fatness is used as a signal of evil, dissolution, and/or moral decay, usually with the unspoken assumption that it’s completely obvious that fat people are immoral and disgusting.

I consider creativity to be my chief strength as a writer, but one of my story ideas was in there: “29c. The afterlife is a bureaucracy.”

So here’s my idea, which I wish someone had told me earlier in my writing career: We own our muses, not the other way around. They are not cats, or addictions, or sacrifice-demanding, dictating deities. Here are three ways you can abuse your muse:

1. Force-feed Your Muse: You control your Muse’s diet. Your muse devours what you do. If you read nothing but stories about Cthulhu and watch a bunch of low budget horror flicks, then your muse may inspire you to write Lovecraftian pastiches, as I did in high school. Fortunately, you can counter this by changing your diet. After fighting writer’s block for my Week Four Clarion West story, I binged on Banksy graffiti, non-American steampunk art, and octopod hentai woodblock prints. When the story got going, writing it was an ecstatic experience. It was enjoyed by most of my class and by instructor/author Ian McDonald, who praised it for being “very cinematic.”

2. Sleep-Deprive Your Muse: I tend to wait for bursts of creative inspiration. When I do this, it can be months between stories. Going to Clarion, I realized that I could make myself to write on demand. Right now, I’m forcing myself to get my ass out of bed and into the seat in front of my laptop each morning. If my technology has a problem, then I switch to writing on a cheap pad of paper or a 3×5 notecard. To paraphrase James Earl Jones in the Field of Dreams, if you write it, your Muse will come. If that fails, drag it kicking and screaming out of bed.

3. Dominate Your Muse: Your posterior is finally in that seat, and your writing is inspired. the words flow, and you feel great! You’ve created the next Hugo-Nebula-Campbell-winner for sure! But then you send it to your beta readers. They tell you that although the prose is strong, the story is riddled with noble savages, weak women in need of rescue, and evil obese amputees. Or they cite five other recent examples of “Surprise! The humans were the actual aliens”-type stories. Don’t discount the initial inspiration. But you’re not stuck with what your muse gave you. Interrogate your tropes and stereotypes (and your prose and voice, etc., if necessary). See if you can build on what your muse has gifted you, but don’t be afraid to dismantle and rebuild it on terms that work for you, for your audience, and for the editors whose eyes you’re trying to catch. Remember that you are the boss of your muse.

I’m not trying to discount all the well-intentioned advice that respected authors and teachers have given us. But I do hope I’ve added some nuance to something that is often presented to us in nebulous terms. We are not slaves to our muses. Our stories do not pour forth from some source completely separate from our personal experiences, our cultural context, our audiences. We can and do influence what we’re inspired to write.

I believe in my Muse, my goddess of inspiration and giver of delight, but we’ve struggled hard to come to an understanding, and we work together, she and I.

What is your relationship with your muse? Please share your hopes and fears, your wisdom and experience!

(Image of Muse performance by starbright31, used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license)

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  • Galendara

    love this.

    as someone who constantly feels bitch-slapped by my muse this makes me think I should at least start smart-talking back, or something.

    thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • It’s sometimes a bit of a cop -out to blame the muse. You own you. 

  • Erika Holt

    My muse seems to appear only when I get into a writing routine–she won’t show up otherwise. The more time I spend writing, the more inspired I am to write. When I’m in the zone, I will think about my story(ies) while folding laundry, walking the dog, or even watching tv, and have to scurry to the computer to jot down notes. Words flow.

    However, at least for me, my stories didn’t start to sell until I began writing with an eye to the market and more particularly to plot. The ones I wrote just for myself are…still just for myself. hehe

    Great, fun post–thank you!

  • A Stuart Williams

    My Muse is really a Mouse…

    When I look into the darkness he sits there upon the gnarly root of a blasted oak, looking back at me with glittering eyes and preening his whiskers.

    He’s daring me to write what I see, and let him run free…

  • Great post!

    This makes me think of what Kate Wilhelm calls “The Silent Partner” of your subconscious. In my handy-dandy Working Writer’s Dayplanner, Kelly Link paraphrases Wilhelm, saying “Your Silent Partner doesn’t discriminate between the good, the bad, the ugly, and the odd. That’s your job.”

  • Great post as always, John.

    Muses are fickle and need to know who’s the boss. I understand the romantic notion of the muse (and have even fallen for it a time or two) but the truth, if you have a hope of making a career out of this writer thing, is that you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. The muse/writer relationship is a working one and goes both ways.

    I’m also a big fan of feeding my muse. I love information and I imagine it’s a bit like strapping my muse into a chair and force-feeding it data. My research bookshelf(s) are indicative of that. My RSS reader is filled with feeds from science and business news to pop culture and modern-day philosophers. The music I listen to, tv and movies that I watch, are all part of the diet that gets digested and regurgitated in the form of an idea that interests me.

  • Oho! This is just perfect. I’ve written on my mad muddled muse and I’ve jumped on the belligerence of my self-imposed writing rules, but this goes beyond and bands them together. Yes, yes! And it’s exactly why I am in bad need of a sleep.

    Thank you for this. 

  • Great post. I wrote about the muses in a recent post on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

    I love the idea of taking control of your muse. I discussed my favorite quote about this idea. Someone once asked W. Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” 

  • Great post. I wrote about the muses in a recent post on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

    I love the idea of taking control of your muse. I discussed my favorite quote about this idea. Someone once asked W. Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” 

  • Eye catching title and great post!
    The two aspects of me that are my Muses are very different: the female looks like the muse in Lee Seed’s drawing “Autumn Muse” (appropriate as my birthday is Sept 22) and the male looks like Ron Perlman’s character Angel from the movie “Cronos”. 

  • Bob Bobberson

    …because the proper relationship to have with the creative impulse is one of abuse and slave labor.

    As the thinly veiled religious statement goes, “He’s not a tame lion.”  We are the lion tamers of literature. It’s true that those who give it all freedom and don’t take any action themselves get torn to shreds but your philosophy is tantamount to cutting the lions legs off.  Yes, it’s safer, yes it’s not as scary, but it is also a very boring show.

    • I think, perhaps, you’re taking the analogy a little too seriously.