Team Muse

 

Years ago, before the advent of computers and electronic organizers, I kept a manila file folder filled with clippings.  I tucked away poems I found especially moving.  I kept funny cartoons, interesting speeches reprinted in the newspaper, book reviews and critical essays torn from magazines.  As years of reading and re-reading passed, I unfolded those fragile pages ever more carefully, watching the paper brown with age and begin to grow fragile. The file became a touchstone of sorts, and it always was close at hand.

Eventually, I lost the file.  Where or when it happened is a mystery.  I simply reached for it, and it was gone.  Since that day, I’ve spent years searching for a half-remembered poem about a dog, a poinsettia, and loss, not to mention a commencement speech about climbing a mountain.  I’ve not much hope of finding either, because I remember only a few words from each and have no idea of their original source.

On the other hand, I do remember some of the cartoons. One of my favorites showed a disheveled Graeco-Roman woman standing outside a cafe filled with patrons engrossed in books or bent over coffee cups, writing in notebooks.  Barefooted, dressed in a flowing robe and sporting a laurel wreath in her hair, she clutched  a sign that said, “Will inspire for residuals”.

I didn’t do a lick of writing at the time, but I knew enough to laugh.  The thought  of a down-on-her-luck Muse soliciting business outside a cafe is humorous because it’s so absurd.  The Muses don’t need to solicit anything.  They’re strong, in control, and as busy as they want to be.  The Muses don’t need residuals.  The Muses are sitting on a pile of capital.  They give what they please and take whatever they want from their hapless or hopeless supplicants – then laugh all the way to the cultural bank.

Five of the Nine Muses ~ Cyrene, Libya

Or that’s how it seems, on this side of the Great Inspirational Divide.   Ask any writer about the nature of the Muse, and you’re heading straight into the heart of one of the most interesting phenomena in the world.  However they envision their Muse, writers clearly have relationships with them, and speak of them with a combination of wry humor and utter exasperation.  To hear writers talk, Muses can be as frustrating as recalcitrant children, as arbitrary and rigid as the most old-fashioned pedagogue, and as delightfully intimate as the best lover or friend.  When they decide to breeze into the library, pour themselves a drink and pour torrents of words into the writer’s listening ear, life is pure delight. When they choose to absent themselves, it’s a different matter. 

From the earliest days, Muses were known to be capricious and arbitrary, given to fits of pique and willing to grant or withdraw their favors at a moment’s notice.  Pondering the creative process a few months ago, I fretted, “There’s simply no assurance the Muses won’t read a work, grow dispirited and pack their bags, heading off to Paris, or Poughkeepsie or Phuket in search of more interesting challenges.”  When the Muses go missing, reactions range from panic to resignation, and the sense of abandonment is real.  It’s an issue every writer faces – no less a talent than John Updike said, with a certain wistfulness,  “I would especially like to re-court the Muse of Poetry, who ran off with the mailman four years ago, and drops me only a scribbled postcard from time to time.”

Given the difficulties of creation and the unpredictable nature of inspiration, obsession with the presence or absence of The Muse probably is unavoidable, and may explain why so many essays have been written about the elusive creatures.  One of my favorite descriptions of the Muse/writer dynamic turns the source of inspiration into a deadbeat Dad:

“Oh, he loves me all right, he’s just not what you’d call, you know, reliable. He’ll disappear without a trace for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Not a call, not a postcard, nothing.
Then suddenly, just when I’m trying to actually picture the make and model of the truck that has surely mown him down, he’ll show up on my doorstep—with a wily smile, a fistful of candy bars, and a lot of promises which are mostly variations of, “I’ll never stay away that long again.” I’m not sure I believe him, of course, but he’s a charmer, my muse, so I let him in… And for that time, all is forgiven. His presence is a gift.
But then… I hear that screen door slam and he is gone again. I run to the window and I see him, just the outline of him, really, practically jogging now, down the front path into the twilight … his hands stuffed in his pockets…his steps swift. Sometimes he’ll call over his shoulder, “Just going to grab a pack of smokes, honey…be back in an hour!” But we both know he’s lying. He’ll be back when he’s damned good and ready. And not a moment before.”

It’s a delightful image that speaks volumes about our modern understanding of the Muse.  We speak of having “a Muse”, of being “abandoned by my Muse”, or of “cultivating a Muse” as though Muse is always singular.   In fact, Calliope, Terpsichore, Erato and the rest of the crew were a Graeco-Roman version of BFFs.  The nine ancient Muses who presided over the Arts were understood to share responsibilities, often “teaming up” with one another to inspire poets and artists.   According to Hesiod, they not only worked together, they were “all of one mind, their hearts set upon song and their spirit free from care.”     

Will Pupa ~ The Nine Muses  ~ Loyola Marymount College

This corporate view of Musedom was recognized even by the Buddha ( (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, 563-483 B.C.) who noted that “The virtues, like the Muses, always are seen in groups.”  Even today, when the Muses are invoked in popular culture, as in the Krewe of Muses parade during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, all nine are present.  In modern art and sculpture, their form may have changed, but their number has not.  Something, it seems, is important about that group.

When Greeks and Romans envisioned the Muses as nine females - giving them names and histories, allowing them to live with the gods and interact with humanity, it was not the precise number which was important, but what it represented about the nature of the creative spark.The Muses weren’t ethereal solitaries wafting in from a wholly other world to speak directly to an artist’s soul in some disembodied way. Each Muse was part of a community, embedded there as the perfect embodiment of vital and creative forces roaming unfettered through the universe.  

When a Muse speaks her word of inspiration, she speaks through the created order: the natural world in which we live, the communities which nurture us, the imagination, curiosity and thought which characterize human life.  The Muse may speak through the fragrance of the night, the lilt of the bird or the grace of grasses bending in the breeze, but she just as surely speaks from that deadbeat Dad, the echoes of war or the passion and pain of relationship lost.

The Nine Muses ~ Carlos Dorrien, DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park

Becca picks up on this reality in her last Write on Wednesday prompt.  “If you have a moment to write during these next days,” she says, ” you might share your thoughts on the people who have inspired you in your writing journey.”   She understands that the muse can – and often does – speak through those who surround us, and she suggests teachers and parents, children, authors and friends as sources of inspiration. 

Pondering her list, I realized that, if I hope to catch a glimpse of my Muse, I look first to my readers. It’s my readers who most dependably challenge and confront, console and encourage.  Their words help to clarify my thoughts and sensitize my spirit. Above all, they read and respond in such prolific variety that, if I clipped and saved every interesting or worthwhile comment, they’d fill a hundred manila folders.  

The Muses ~ Maurice Denis ~ National Museum of Modern Art, Paris

In ancient times, the Muses wore gowns and laurel,  carrying lyres, tablets or globes as their tokens.  Modern Muses are more likely to be running the country in tee shirts and jeans, carrying a Blackberry Bold and doing the ipod shuffle.  Sometimes they’re found surfing through blogsites, scattering comments like laurel leaves. If you look closely, you can even see a Muse or two wearing the Nike swoosh, with its famous legend, Just do It.  That’s a Muse who understands reality, and I’d be happy to be on her team.

We are a team, my readers and I, and I’ve known it for months.  In fact, I’ve become so convinced of this strange reality I’ve wanted to find a way to honor its existence.  Becca gave me a shove with her prompt, and so is born Team Muse – a way to acknowledge, one by one, those who are making my writing possible .

Each week or two, or now and then, or when Inspiration strikes, I’ll add to the tee-shirt the name of a reader who’s stirred me to creative thought, and the title of the poem or essay that resulted.  When your turn comes, you not only get a bit of recognition for your insight and commentary, you’ll get a virtual tee-shirt to show off to your friends and a place on my Team Muse page. 

Musing over the concept these past weeks, I’ve found it amuses me terrifically.   Even more, it reminds me to honor the fact that we’re all in this together, readers and writers alike.   Like the sisterhood of the Nine Muses, we need one another to do our work.  Like the Nine Muses, we’ve been granted that gift by the gods.

 

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I enjoyed the history in this post, but your perspective truly gave it life and humor.

    “Modern Muses are more likely to be running the country in tee shirts and jeans, carrying a Blackberry Bold and doing the iPod shuffle.”

    The Muses are definitely mercurial in nature. Of course, their unreliable nature makes them all the more desirable. I think they amuse themselves by keeping us pining for them.

    Bella,

    Muses? Amusing themselves at our expense? No doubt they do, from time to time, and you’re exactly right when you say that’s part of their appeal.

    There was a wonderful article in a recent New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer. It was called The Eureka Hunt, and details what Lehrer called “the insight experience”. It was a fascinating article, utterly true to life and filled with wonderful insights of its own about mental blocks, cognitive breakthroughs and imaginative movement. I vaguely remember a good bit of left-brain-right-brain talk, too. It was one of the most appealing attempts I’ve run across to explain insight and creativity from a scientific point of view. I still prefer the Muses.

    Such a delight to have you stop by again. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Linda

  2. Love the entry…I have tried for years to find the right outlet for my creativity. Maybe I have yet to find or listen to my Muse. I will look with different eyes and listen with more attentive ears after reading this.

    Hi, oshnblu,

    What a treat to see you again. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and I really appreciate the comment.

    Creativity’s a funny thing – it can take so many forms. One of the things I’ve had to learn over the years is to listen to that little voice that says “yea” or “nay” when it comes to creative pursuits. For example, my Mom has tried for years to get me to knit or crochet. I’d rather eat a sock. Helping her to understand that wasn’t easy, but I didn’t intend to spend a single hour gagging on a ball of yarn.

    Sometimes I think we don’t give sufficient value to what we like and don’t like. If we just don’t enjoy something, there’s no sense wasting time at it – no matter how “creative” it’s supposed to be.
    And when we discover what it is we want to do, it can be difficult to allow ourselves the time and freedom to pursue the dream.

    Months ago, when I first started writing, I was really hesitant, sensitive to criticism and a little dependent on others’ opinions. One of the things I did was walk 2 miles every day, listening to Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life. It was one of the best things I ever did. That song permeated my soul somehow, and never failed to lift me up. I don’t know why I find it so inspiring, but it helped me begin writing. I suppose having Jon BonJovi as a Muse wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world!

    Thanks again for stopping by, and have a terrific week!

    Linda

  3. How cool is that? (NOT one of my more literary exclamations) but it’s my sincere reaction to your Team Muse idea.

    More later … looking for a file and got distracted…

    Hi, Oh,

    You know, that tee-shirt’s been lurking in my files a few months. It took a while to figure out how to photoshop it into what I wanted, and then I just pulled it out and laughed at it every now and then. I didn’t have a clue how I could incorporate it into my blog pages, but I think I’ve got that taken care of!

    Linda

  4. I think my muse put her foot out and tripped me up when I was just going along nicely thank you. nice post

    gentledove,

    Now, that wouldn’t be very nice, would it? Well, unless you were headed off in the wrong direction. Those Muses do have a way of getting our attention from time to time!

    I’ve enjoyed your poetry so much these past months, and it seems to me your Muse is doing a fine job. You’re a joy to read!

    Linda

  5. Linda,

    I think in many ways you may be one of my muses! You remind me that I must write! Thank you for your lovely words….

    D

    Hi, Beach,

    I’d rather be your Muse than your conscience! When the time is right, and it’s too cold for the Yolo Board, and the money’s all been raised and it’s raining, maybe that will be the day you start. On the other hand, check out who’s on the board next to you. If she’s trying to hand you a pen and paper, pay attention!

    Linda

  6. Thank you for your story about the muses.

    I didn’t know they existed in other cultures than the Greek and Roman (who’s mythology is still going strong as great stories).

    I think I’ll do a print-out of this and glue in my notebook. A writer should know everything about the muses :-) How should we survive without them?

    Hi, Desiree,

    How should we survive without them? We wouldn’t! They’re the ones who show up and whisper in our ear, “Keep going”, even when no one else is offering encouragement. If I may say so, they’re the ones who show up and take our hand to cross the street when Mama is distracted, and the sister is off playing Mah Jongg and the best friend has found her sixteenth true love of the year and is off getting a pedicure and a new outfit.

    I don’t know my Muse’s name, but I doggone well know she’s around. It’s a funny experience that I enjoy talking about, but I’ll never be able to explain it!

    Happy writing!

    Linda

  7. It does seem the search for inspiration is as old as or possibly has preceeded the creation of fire. It is human nature to look outside ourselves for something to complete our thoughts. Be it Gods or Muses, Angels or Devils it is to an ethereal being we pray to or blame for what we create.

    Myself, I blame my creativity on occasionally being possessed by naughty spirits. From them often come hilarious, yet inappropriate words or actions that mortify some and cause others to double up in laughter.

    From here comes a question; With the need for a God, a Muse or some external and ethereal inspiration being such an ingrained part of the human psyche, does the artist who creates entirely from within themself become a God?

    Hi, Nanette,

    I spent a good bit of yesterday afternoon thinking about your question: does the artist who creates entirely from within themself become a God? In the end, I decided my answer would be “Yes, but…” IF there were someone creating entirely independently, with no need for anything or anyone to produce their art, God would be a pretty good term of definition. After all, that’s what Genesis implies about creation – earth was without form, and void, and then God showed up and took on the task of creation.

    On the other hand, in the Genesis story, in the Babylonian creation myths, in every account of how things came to be, there’s always “something” pre-existing the story, even if it is only the void, or chaos. I think the implication for more lowly artists is clear – no one creates out of whole cloth. We’re physical beings, grounded in history, and even if we locked ourselves in a room to “create” at, say, age 18, we already would be carrying all that baggage of life. Beyond that, the tools of creation come loaded with history, and the physical necessities of their nature. There are things you can do with oil paint, and things you can’t. You can use a hammer and chisel on stone, but don’t try it on that walrus tooth, or your scrimshaw project isn’t going very far.

    Only my opinion, but I think we always end up back at the kaleidescope. Is there a completely original thought in the world? Theoretically, it might be possible, but realistically, it’s just us, taking all that’s gone before, and giving that little tube another twist to change the nature of the pattern.

    What fun it is when you come along with your questions! We would always arm-wrestle for answers!

    Linda

  8. GREAT question! Painters and Sculptors of the Quattrocentro certainly viewed themselves as representatives of Divine forces and likely, Michelangelo was the first to be considered by his contemporaries as the perfect embodiment of God. He became the “Yardstick”, if you will, from the middle of the 16th century and even today there is no denying the divine passion of his works. He achieved this status as a result of his ability to create works of art that surpassed the normal bounds of individual ability. His versatility in sculpture, painting and architecture was unmatched in his day. He was a radical, a living vessel. As an anthropologist who’s area of focus was Traditional/Primitive Art Form and Function, I am always looking at how art is made contemporized through the ages. Radicals do it!!

    The first time I heard “thou art God” I believed it! It made sense that I must turn inward to find MY relationship with God. God, being such a loaded word….a truly unimaginable force which stimulates a multitude of visual images for most folks. I think if one could actually lay one’s eyes on God, what would be seen, would be a constantly changing image that, can only be seen in the present, by being present. At our “Godpoint”. While past and future have effect on our present mind, I think that artists who create images that compel the viewer to feel kinship with something….anything, divine…..have created from their “Godpoint”. We all have one. Maybe artists are just more likely to go there regularly than, say, Joe the Plumber.

    I believe we are all vessels for God’s manifestation and, if you can train yourself to be mindful and aware of that process moving through you, you can have success as an artist…..or anything else! Being open and receptive to divine inspiration is the work of it. Letting go of ownership is key. We tend in the everyday to look outward for validation, instead of learning to self validate; that keeps us from our own divine presence. People are moved by art because it takes them to a place they recognize in their own psyche. It connects them with their “Godpulse”, if even only briefly. We are reminded that rapture happens!!!

    Also……sometimes even the Gods/Goddesses are angry little brats!!! LOL

    Good morning, Laura,

    I dallied a bit over the richness of your comment. Last night, I would have started in one place, but this morning I’m caught instead by your point that we tend to look outward for validation, rather than learning to self-validate. When I began writing, I was just as concerned as anyone about the opinion of those around me: would they like my writing? would they even read it? what would I do if they didn’t like it? Eventually, I came to my own bit of wisdom about the issues: “Write, and let go”. After thinking, imagining, shaping and doing my best to ensure that my words reflected the reality I “saw” in my mind, my task was simply to post my words, and move on.

    It’s been enormously freeing, both in terms of time and emotional energy. For one thing, speaking honestly – even with the written word – increases confidence and a sense of self. My favorite professor used to say, “Good writing and salvation both depend on one thing – the willingness to say ‘I’”. Some day I’m going to unpack that one, too!

    As for this – “I believe we are all vessels for God’s manifestation” – you’re making very much the point I did in my recent WU post when I said, ” the fact that God embedded himself in the world, in creation, means that absolutely anything can mediate God’s presence to us”. Michaelangelo’s Madonnas, with or without the Christ child, certainly can give us a sense of the divine – but so can Man Ray, or Monet, or Magritte or Matisse. The “ahhhhhh….” moment, the moment of recognition, is not ours to control. It seems to me that the vision of God, the experience of the divine in the midst of life, is dependent on that encounter. It doesn’t reside in the object itself, but in the experience of a viewer (listener, reader) being encountered by the artist through the chosen medium.

    There is so much here to ponder. Obviously, thoughts can roam as free in those hills as the bison and antelope. Stay warm, and happy creating.

    Linda

  9. While it is true there are nine Muses in all, I feel lucky if even one Muse should grace me with her charms. And even then, my fickle friend might decide to show up at the most inopportune of times. Just as I am drifting off to sleep or right in the middle of my morning shower are two of her favorite moments to make her presence known.

    Great post, Linda!

    Hi, tee,

    I’m completely amazed and astonished by your comment. Bear with me a minute, because I’m going to try and work my way through something a bit complex.

    In the July 26 issue of the New Yorker magazine, Jonah Lehrer wrote an article on the nature of inspiration, called “The Eureka Hunt”.
    It’s filled with science, research studies and a good bit of left brain/right brain theorizing, but some of the conclusions are startling.

    If I understand it, his point is that the left brain and right brain have to work together in order for insights to emerge. It’s his contention that a state of relaxation is best for allowing that to happen. Here’s the paragraph your comment brought to mind: “The insight process…is a delicate balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But,once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote associations in the right hemisphere which will provide the insight.

    ‘The relaxation phase is crucial,’ Jung-Beeman said. ‘That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.’ Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas… We do some of our best thinking while we’re still half asleep.”

    So there you have it! On the one hand, your morning shower and drifting-off-to-sleep insights and thoughts may have a basis in hard science. On the other hand, Mr. Lehrer might have saved himself a few thousand words by simply acknowledging what we all know – the Muse likes to show up when we’re least able to fight her off!

    Have a terrific day. I’m going to spend some time musing about all this!

    Linda

  10. Oh I LOVE this idea of the virtual T-shirt, but not being as eloquent as the rest of your readers, I’ll just continue to read, learn, enjoy, and be selfishly inspired! Your stories, essays, and offerings never cease to educate, entertain, and enlighten. Thank you for taking those hands from sandpaper to keyboard, as often as time and Muse allow! BW


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