The word “muse” comes from Greek mythology where in the pantheon of gods there were nine goddesses, the Muses, each inspiring a particular area of thought: Thalia for comedy, Melpomene, for tragedy, Terpsichore for dance, Calliope for epic poetry and so on. (“And so on” being shorthand for “I can’t remember the rest”).
The naming of the Muses was, I like to think, a way of personifying the mysteries of inspiration.
Somehow, from the images of these divine Muses, came the much later Romantic image of a muse – usually a beautiful young woman who inspires a great artist. So, when I ask you who your muse is, I’m aware it is a question that comes with a lot of history, a lot of baggage. But your muse is simply a source of inspiration. And it serves you to notice who and where those sources are, so that you can begin to call on them when you need them.
Your muse won’t necessarily take a conventional shape. Stephen King’s certainly doesn’t. He says:
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of 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, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.
He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night 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.
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Hilary Mantel wrote many books before she landed on the age of Tudors. In many interviews she spoke of the sense that while she was writing her other novels and memoirs, she was casting about for “her subject”– and when she came closer to Thomas Cromwell, she finally recognised that shiver of possibility that might herald the arrival of her muse.
But Cromwell wasn’t her only muse. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were dedicated to Mary Robertson, who before her retirement in 2013 was the curator of British Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. Mantel said she was enormously inspired by Robertson, after developing a “luminous” correspondence with her. What started as a research puzzle became, as Mantel said, a deep friendship. But Mantel also used another word to describe Robertson: muse.
Your own muse may not look anything like a Greek goddess, or a Pre-Raphaelite model, or an American librarian or a cigar-smoking basement guy. It’s your muse, after all.
So now get your journal out. Start writing a dialogue with your muse.
Begin with a simple two-line prompt and keep going for around ten minutes if you can. The idea with these prompts, as always, is to show your ideas that they are welcome, to allow your creative instinct to surprise you – and to let your own muse appear.
Begin with these two call-and-response lines:
Write in that call and response for between five and ten minutes – let it lead you where it will. Try not to dictate who the “you” or “I” are for now. Perhaps the “I” is the muse saying, “I am here waiting…” or perhaps it’s you saying, “I am empty and expectant…”. Just open the door, invite it in. If you find that the “I am” leads into a page of writing, that’s fine. Follow your instinct!
If you feel there’s more to ask at the end of that ten minutes or so, you might want ask your muse some gentle questions, and allow your muse to answer back, in writing.
Hello muse, what are you expecting of me?
What are you hoping for?
What do you have to offer me?
Is there something I need to ask of you?
Noticing and naming the Muses allowed the Greeks to pay homage – For us, it’s a chance to give thanks. Your sources of inspiration are part of your creative toolkit – when you hit a moment of sludge, remind yourself of your own private pantheon of muses and know that you can call on them at any time. And they will answer.
In the quiet of the morning