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The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?

• August 23, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: ROMAN YA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.

The Muse, that which whispers forth ideas and inspiration into the hearts and souls of the creative, is divine, is total bull, and is everything in between.

I’ve made most of my living the past few years in journalism, but I’ve been working on some fiction for the past year. And yeah, it’d be really fun to believe that something from another realm touched my mind and gave me awesome stories that only I could tell. I recently wrote 8,000 words in just a few hours, which finished the first draft of my novel that’s due out next summer. On days like that, it’s hard not to think that maybe God Himself descended from the heavens and into your very being to bring forth his mind through your fingers into your laptop.

“Do your job. Every time I hear writers talk about ‘the muse,’ I just want to bitch-slap them.”

But I’m also a journalist and a skeptic, and when my editor said, “Hey, why not write The Muse: Real or Bullshit?,” I jumped at it.

What I found, as it often goes with matters of faith, is that both sides of the argument are wrong … and, in their ways, right.

THE CONCEPT OF THE Muse has been around at least 800 BCE. In The Odyssey, Homer prays the Invocation of the Muse, which begins, “O Divine Poesy, goddess-daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man,” and many flowery words later ends, “Make the tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.”

Plato described “possession by the Muses” as “a kind of madness,” but in a good way, saying that sane men had no place in halls of art.

The concept survived well into the 20th century: Ray Bradbury, author Fahrenheit 451, once said, “I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.”

And now, three thousand years after it was first written, people still pray Homer’s prayer. Every day, before he begins his work, Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, prays the Invocation. And this, he seems to believe, is the key to—or at least, a very large part of—his success. In The War of Art, he writes:

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

But as impassioned as the Muse’s believers might be, so too are the non-believers.

PLENTY OF PRESSFIELD’S CONTEMPORARIES fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. Stephen King, he of more than 350 million copies sold, walks the line between belief and cynicism in his book On Writing: “Don’t wait for the muse. … This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Jodi Picoult, who has 14 million copies of her books out in the world, says: “Writing is total grunt work. A lot of people think it’s all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don’t buy that. It’s a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don’t. Every day I sit down and write.”

And Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 mostly-successful novels, puts it in perhaps the plainest terms: “It’s a job. Do your job. Every time I hear writers talk about ‘the muse,’ I just want to bitch-slap them.”

Well then.

With plenty of successful writers believing both ways, science needed to break the tie.

SCIENTISTS HAVE STUDIED HOW the human brain creates since at least the mid-1800s, but they’ve only found any real evidence in the past couple of decades—and it’s not concrete.

Neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreasen, who long ago stumped one of her college professors by asking “How does the brain think?,” has studied the brain since before the Society for Neuroscience was founded. In her book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, she writes that the brain’s abilities are “near miraculous,” and the process of creating something like a novel “is neither easy nor obvious.”

Our brains have a trillion neurons and a quadrillion synapses just firing throughout our gray matter. On top of that, our brain is a self-organizing system—meaning that it could easily be chaos, with quadrillions of living, moving parts, but it somehow keeps itself in order, not unlike flocks of birds or ant colonies.

Every human being possesses what’s known as “ordinary creativity,” which goes back to our basic instincts: Our brains learn to recognize patterns in order to aid in our survival. When creative people are creating, on the other hand, they very well may be operating with substantially enhanced neural processes.

Mozart described composing in moments like this as “a pleasing lively dream.” And similarly, Peter Tchaikovsky said, “It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way.”

Andreasen describes this descent—or ascent—into unconsciousness as going “over the precipice,” and for all her years of neuroscientific study, she isn’t sure exactly how that works. Her best hypothesis is that the brain begins by disorganizing and then making connections between various shadows, symbols, words, memories, and the like which were not previously connected.

“Out of this disorganization,” she writes, “self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain. The result is a completely new and original thing.”

SO, IS ALL OF this just a really crazy trick of the brain, or is it The Muse?

Albeit a bit fantastical, it’s possible—and totally fun to believe—that there are forces and beings in some realm invisible but in line with ours that aid us in our creative endeavors.

But more likely, and more tangibly, it’s just our brains—although really, it’s more like: DUDE, look at our BRAINS! It’s incredible that they’re capable of such ridiculous creative moments, and that they can even think to credit such moments to something beyond ourselves.

That’s not to say that The Muse is total bull. It just might be that The Muse we’re talking about has a different definition: It’s whatever helps you make whatever you need to make. It’s whatever causes your brain to do the crazy things it’s capable of. It’s similar to what Carl Jung described as our collective unconscious—our personal creative unconscious, perhaps.

And that’s why Stephen King also writes. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon. Or seven ’til three,” he wrote in On Writing. “If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”

Basically, our moments of creative explosion are as messy and spectacular as a Diet Coke and minty Mentos eruption. (If you’ve somehow never heard of it: You drop Mentos into a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke, and the thing shoots higher than the roof of a house.) The reason it works is because (thanks Mythbusters and YouTube) Diet Coke and minty Mentos contain exactly the right combination of stuff. It doesn’t work with, say, fruity Mentos, and if you use regular Coke, it’ll work, but nowhere near as awesomely as with Diet.

Our Muse is the combination of everything in our life that makes that inspiration explosion possible. If we’re not working with the right stuff, it’s going to fall flat and fizzle out. But with the right stuff? Kaboom.

Brandon Sneed
Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina and the author of The Edge of Legend. He's had other stories published by ESPN The Magazine, GQ, Outside, and more. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.

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