Dispelling the Muse
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
Ahh, the elusive muse—otherwise known as inspiration. Sidekick to the myth that true writers and artists must suffer for their art is the myth that writers must sit around idly for their muse, must wait for inspiration to lighting-strike!
Inspiration is a fickle friend; it's as likely to leave the party without a goodbye as it is to show up unannounced. So, as writers, what can we do when inspiration declines our invitation for weeks, months... even years?
I have gathered six tips on how to survive an inspiration drought—but first, let's delve into the history of the muse.
So, where does the idea of the muse come from?
In classical Greek mythology, the nine muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory). Considering the deep desire to be remembered through creative works that so many writers and artists harbour, I find it poignant that the muses hail from the goddess of memory. But I digress! According to the Oxford English Dictionary, each of the nine muses presided over a creative domain:
Calliope: the muse of epic poetry
Clio: the muse of history
Erato: the muse of love poetry
Euterpe: the muse of music, song, and lyric poetry
Melpomene: the muse of tragedy
Polyhymnia: the muse of sacred poetry & sacred hymns
Terpsichore: the muse of dance
Thalia: the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry
Urania: the muse of astronomy
Truly, any of the muses would be welcome at my table!
Literary tradition of the muse:
There is a well established literary tradition of male writers and artists being inspired by their female love interests—whether long term loves or of-the-moment love affairs.
For example, some of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets reference lady-muses, such as the Dark Lady mentioned in sonnets 127-154. And later on, the Romantics were often inspired by their lady-loves; Percy Shelley called his first wife Elizabeth Hitchener his "second self" and the "sister of his soul." But inspiration is fleeting, and when Shelley became disenchanted with his "second self," he left her for Mary Wollstonecraft. Later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote about a prostitute in a poem entitled "Jenny." Rossetti's paintings were also heavily influenced by model Elizabeth Siddal, and many of the female subjects in his artworks had her facial features and her bright red hair.
This trope still thrives, and modern media readily accepts the narrative, even romanticizes it—just think about Andy Warhol and his many models. It's almost as if a male creative must pair with female inspiration in order to "birth" a creative work. In fact, many writers, male and female, view their various writings as their children.
While being open to experiencing powerful emotion and remaining receptive to beauty certainly often leads to inspiration, this masculine tradition excludes female writers and creatives.
So while inspiration is certainly a part of the creative process, I recommend letting go of the strict idea that you need to wait for inspiration to arrive in the package of a pretty person, or that you need to be deep in love (or lust) with a person to find inspiration.
If you fall in love with writing itself, inspiration will come. Which brings us to the question, how can you encourage inspiration? Or at least, what can you do to survive an inspiration drought?
What to do to encourage inspiration:
1. Dispel the muse
First, dispel the idea that you must be visited by your muse in order to write, to work on your craft. While the idea that true ideas come from divine inspiration sounds appealing—even romantic—this belief takes the responsibility of creating out of your hands. It's disempowering to not be able to write even when you might desire to. While it's true that when in the flow it feels like something bigger is working through you, not every minute can be so effortless, so easy.
There are natural rhythms to everything in life, and a lack of inspiration just means it's time to go inward, to rest and walk a while so when it's time to run, you can.
2. Take time to edit and refine old work
If you're anything like me, then you have stacks of old poems and short stories just waiting for an edit. When feeling blocked, just dust off your red pen and work on some of your backlog.
Alternatively, if you have polished pieces of writing ready and waiting, why not take the time to organize your work into submissions for literary magazines. Take the time to write cover letters and get the nitty-gritty details out of the way so that when something sparks the desire in you to write again, your desk and mind are clear.
3. Live life, gain experience
So often inspiration comes from noticing the beautiful, interesting, weird, unjust, or horrific things around you.
Writers do not write in a vacuum. The myth of writer almost always centers around writers as reclusive and solitary. But writing, good writing, responds to the complexity of life. Writing is imbued, unsettled, full of magic and meaning, questions and answers. So much of writing's social currency is it's ability to engage either subtly or overtly with complex human issues. So, while imagination and vivid ideas are the crux of writing, it means nothing without life-experience and craftsmanship.
4. Try writing exercises
Sometimes when feeling stuck, all you need is some guidance to get the ball rolling. Remember that responding to a question or prompt is sometimes easier than responding to the blank page.
See my post, "How to Freewrite and Why Every Writer Should Do It" for some writing exercises!
5. Take time to read
One of the best ways to get inspired is to read the work of writers you admire. Read works that make you feel—make you laugh aloud or cry. Works with characters you want to meet. Works you never want to end. Nothing puts me in the mood to write like coming off the high of an immersive story or a marvelous line of poetry.
At an event, one of my favourite poets, Lorna Crozier, gave the advice to aspiring poets to read, really read. And it's good advice. After all, how can you aspire to write when you don't read? And when I met her and asked her how she honed her poetic voice, she said, "by writing." This advice may seem simple, but it's truthful. To be inspired, you must read and write and be engaged in the creative process.
Years ago, in my first university poetry class, my professor asked, "Who here wants to write poetry?" Of course, we all raised our hands proudly. But then he asked, "And who here reads contemporary poetry?" and everyone, including me, lowered their hands in shame.
So, get to know the community you want to be apart of and allow that vibrant community to inspire you!
6. Let go of fear, perfectionism and judgement
If you're worried about your poem or story or novel being perfect before you've even begun, it's like spraying weed killer on your ideas before they can sprout. So, let go of fear and judgement, they'll only snuff inspiration out.
We write because we want to write. Writing is necessary and delightful. So go on, give yourself permission to have fun with it.
Inspiration cycles, waxes and wanes, comes in waves. So let it. Let it strike you while strolling. Let it sit beside you when you are stuck in traffic. Let it flow when you are supposed to be writing an exam.
Delight in the unexpected visit. But don't ever let inspiration find you waiting around, pining.
Leave an open invitation for inspiration to join you at the writing table, then get to work. Pour the coffee, drink the wine. Inspiration will come, in time.
"Jenny." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 510.
"Dante Gabriel Rossetti." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Second Edition, Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 508-509.