In my last blog, Write or Type, I quoted John Steinbeck, who always wrote longhand, discussing his pencils, where, almost incidentally, he said that
“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”
That ‘kind of unconsciousness’ has mystified artists for thousands of years; even the Greeks, where muses originated, could not agree on what muses are. Many writers acknowledge a debt to muses, the mysterious source of inspiration; muses are an attractive idea (to men anyway), beautiful goddesses bestowing wisdom on mere mortals at their whim, possessing all the world’s secrets but giving only small snippets to those who wish to tell truthful stories of human existence.
Do you need inspiration to work, or at least produce work that satisfies you? Or do you believe that everything is about technique, planning and hard work, that the muses are just a pleasant fantasy, adding mystery to what is a job like any other, that can be learned and mastered?
Not all writers have faith in the muse. Flaubert distrusted them. William Golding thought the idea of inspiration ridiculous. On being asked about DH Lawrence’s statement
“Never trust the artist, trust the tale”
“Oh, that’s absolute nonsense. The man who tells the tale, if he has a tale worth telling will know exactly what he is about, and this business of the artist as a sort of starry-eyed, inspired creature, dancing along with his feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prints he’s leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth.”
While I agree with much of what Golding says – the successful ‘starry eyed’ artist is rare – he does ignore the fact that the man who knows ‘exactly what he is about’ can still receive help from a source he does not know ‘exactly’, help from the unconscious, from the muse. Was Golding a writer who used his intelligence and ability only, always aware of exactly what he was doing, planning meticulously and never changing direction due to flashes of inspiration? Are writers divided between those who believe that they are sole creators and those who admit to outside help?
Gerard Manley Hopkins thought inspiration
“a great, abnormal mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive.”
I haven’t found much on what women think about muses, if they think in those terms at all, although Anais Nin believed that
“this dangerous alchemy called creation, or fiction, has become as dangerous for me as the machine.”
I’ll try to discover what women think about this subject (I’m sure the information is available), but would also like to hear from women writers about their belief, or lack of it, in muses and inspiration.
I do believe that good writing is the result of hard work, but also that during that hard work, inspiration can take over, providing mysterious insight, its origins not fully understood. It can change the direction of stories, give characters a life of their own, produce tales that were not consciously planned. I do like to think of the muse as female (mostly) but my sources of inspiration can vary according to mood, a bit like belief in an unidentifiable God – something is always there, you have faith in it, but you don’t know what it is.
The nine Greek muses were female: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Clio (History), Erato (Love Poetry), Euterpe (Music), Melpomene (Tragedy), Polyhymnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance) Thalia (Comedy), and Urania (Astronomy). There was no muse for novelists at that time due to them not existing, so I suppose Calliope represented the muse that would most likely provide inspiration for writers today. Calliope was a superior muse. She kept the company of kings and princes in order to impose justice and serenity, was the protector of heroic poems and rhetoric art. According to myth, Homer asked Calliope to inspire him while writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Stephen King has both experience and success. He possesses a fantastic imagination, and the ability to translate it into wonderful stories that appeal to millions of readers. Although he is not a starry-eyed dreamer, far from it, he nevertheless gives credit to outside assistance. While his muse may not have the allure of scantily clad Greek beauties or Calliope’s obvious brilliance, there is no doubting King’s belief in its existence
“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well. There is a muse. Traditionally, muses were women, but mine’s a guy. He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
King typically stresses the relationship between hard work and the support of his muse. The fact that hard work is essential is stressed repeatedly in King’s excellent On Writing. Another straight talker, Steven Pressman, also puts it succinctly
“Sometimes we baulk at embarking on an enterprise because we are afraid of being alone. We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.”
Pressman quoted Somerset Maugham
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Maugham, said Pressman, recognised a deeper truth
“that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting his work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronised her watch with his.”
“The muse favours working stiffs. She hates prima donnas.”
John Lennon, while not identifying his help, or recommending hard work, said
“So I’m lying around and this thing comes as a whole piece, you know, words and music, and I think well, you know, can I say I wrote it? I don’t know who the hell wrote it.”
The comedian John Cleese, on being asked where he got his ideas, said
“A little man in Swindon gives them to me, but I don’t know where he gets them from.”
Despite writers’ strange and diverse beliefs: Cleese’s little man in Swindon, King’s cigar smoking slob or Anais Nin’s ‘dangerous’ alchemy – one thing is certain – whomever or whatever your muse is, they will not come and they won’t help until you have put in the work. They will sit idly by, holding back your secrets, your tales yet to be told, secure in their ability to pluck wisdom, genius or just a good story out of the air and, when you have worked and suffered and you’re close to giving up, they might, just might, if they like what you’re doing, give you a little help.
Who’s your muse?
If you choose only two books to help you to write, not only to write, but perhaps more importantly to develop a system of work that, providing you have sufficient talent, will give you a fair chance of success, then I recommend Steven King’s On Writing and Steven Pressman’s The War Of Art. Both books give brutally honest advice and I strongly recommend them to any aspiring writer.