Thursday, 7 January 2010

Muse, don't look at me like that!

Beatrice, Edie Sedgewick, the Dark Lady. Nine of them who flounced around Mount Helicon. Not to mention a great guitar band. Artists and writers frequently talk about their muses. The person - or, indeed, object, or place (Woody Allen's New York, for example) - who not only stirs something creative insode them, but makes that creativity come gushing out in golden form - transforms it as it touches the page into greatness.

But is there a darker side to the muse? In one sense, there very obvioulsy is, and it goes back to Platonism and the worship and objectifictaion of the spiritual. The muse is placed on a pedestal, worshipped, and, as a result, denied genuine reality - museishness is to blame for a lot of our less beneficial conceptions of women, for example.

But I mean another dark side - for the artist or writer or musician.

For me, the idea of a muse is rather terrifying. I imagine my muse, if I had one, staring at me - taunting or sneering - "You dare to call THAT worthy of me?" she harumphs, turning her back and leaving me staring at a blank page.

The point I want to make is this. there is a very fine line between inspiration and intimidation. Between the object of beauty who touches you and opens a creative spring and an ethereal form that's just "out of your league" - that you could never do justice, so you end up snivelling in self-pity, and struck down by block, like an opera composer waiting a lifetime till they're ready to produce a piece for the voice of their generation.

When you're a teenager you're desperate for a muse. A boy or girl in the class above, possibly a friend of your brother or sister - someone to bring out the Byronic in you. And when you find them, you aften will write a great torrent of, er, romantic twaddle, in your efforst to impress. Later you will look back ashamedly, and every time you write FOR someone or thing you will possibly be struck with fear of doing a similar hatchet job. Add in a mix of idealisation and you have a recipe for paralysis - we can, after all, never give a sacrifice worthy of the gods.

For me it's not people who act as intimidating muses - it's notebooks. I imagine if I have a beautiful hand-boundleather journal I will write something worthy of it. But I can never find a sentence good enough and so I sit and stare, and anything any good I DO write by hand is always in a skanky notebook I bought in bulk from a Polish supermarket.

Yet we feel instinctively that art is about eros, about love, about, in short, muses. So how do we avoid paralysis and create something decent as the result of having a muse?

The answer's simple: forget about doing justice TO your subject; forget about writing something FOR someone. Instead, this is a time when a writer/artist needs to be introspective. What is it your subject/muse inspires in YOU? Look within, and describe the fire, the turmoil and the raging passion you find there. Considerations of worthiness go out of the window - the muse will enter only as a marginal character, a penumbra for the piece, but unmistakably present in the form of those qualities that inspire those particular thoughts. This way you will ACTUALLY do justice to them - not as idealised object but as active subject stirring your passions. And you will connect with your audience, will enable them not just to admire but to feel as you feel.


  1. Rather than a muse, I regard it as the portrait of Dorian Gray into which all the ugly stuff gets word spattered on, leaving me clean, fresh and wholesome... (well I did pun a & muse within the first four words).

    There is an aesthetic element to writing (though less so to print), but I don't really look to create a work of great beauty. Emotional power, intellectual provocation and the rest maybe (that is in the eye of the beholder, to wit, the reader).

    I also look not to honour literary giants who have gone before me, but maybe to slay them (sorry Dan, I know that's quite biggie with you). So if I may just finish with quoting Sonic Youth:

    "Kill your idols
    With Sonic Death
    It's the end of the world
    Confusion is next"

  2. 'MUTAN' was security word. Just missing a 't' at the end?

  3. I also am intimidated by fancy notebooks. People give them to me all the time and I feel like the only things I should write in there are finished pieces. (Plus, I have terrible handwriting.)

    I am far more likely to use up Sainsburys random notepads than anything pretty from paperchase - as much as I go into paperchase and lust over said notebooks!

  4. @Marc - a muse needn't demand great beauty. I had a girlfriend about 10 years ago who used to try and get me to be iconoclastic. The more I swore and raged and vented the more she liked it. Wait, no, that was an 0898 number

    @QZ - YES - I have a pile of pristine beautiful notebooks I daren't use. And a plastic wrapper of exercise books so flimsy they fall apart on contact that I use all the time. I think it goes back to school days - the level of excitement when I starte a new exercise book - and the disappointment when I made my first mistake, or my handwriting slipped - then the dash to fill it and get to the next new one!!

  5. I agree about the introspection. I have to go into an almost dream-like state, bury myself deep in my head. Its damn hard to get there inbetween school run & all the other day to day palava. Once I am there, I'm reluctant to leave.
    Notebooks! I always allow myself a lame first few pages & then I'm off & running. My fave are from Paperchase, black fake leather with graph pages - friendlier than blank pages, not as restrictive as lined, cool for words & drawings. & thay HAVE to be chunky because I like them to last as long as possible. They become homes for me & I dread moving house.

  6. Ooh, Penny, I know those notebooks. I LOVE the chunky ones but I can't get them to stay open - the slightly bigger ones work like an absolute dream though. And you're right - tehre's something about squares that works.

  7. All I require is a broken promise, a large gin cocktail, perhaps two, or a random phrase overheard at the coffee shop. It triggers my need to re-state it, or it brings to the surface a lovely random thought that is somehow, but not quite related. Its wonderful re-reading all my "poor me" poetry years after the hurt has been burnished off and I think, you wrote that crap? Who the fuck where you back then? Notebooks, napkins, Evernote, and on and on... yes its me

  8. I'm all about the tiny notebooks - half of an A4 size. Too big and it's a pain to carry around, plus all the white space makes me anxious!

    I also divvy up the notebook oddly. Right now I have one for my ongoing serial as well as a horror serial I'm planning. To work on my current serial, I open the notebook normally, go to the first white page, and start writing. To work on the horror serial I start from the reverse side of the notebook (and also write upside-down). That way the two almost have their own journal, in one journal!

  9. Great post! I landed here via yearzerowriters.
    I've had similar experiences with notebooks too beautiful to be besmirched with anything less than perfection (whatver that might be!)
    I favour traditional school-type excercise books, where anything goes.
    I've never thought about a 'Muse' - for me it's more a case of trying to keep my critical self at bay for long enough to produce something I can work on.

  10. anon - yes, I sometimes look back through my teenage writing for my first girlfriend wondering if there's anything worth polishing up. There isn't, of course, and whilst it makes me cringe, it's also great for a laugh :)

    @QZ - very good plan - I still use the back of my notebooks for random notes, which is still a hangover from schooldays. I must say the moelskine size suits me best - 5.5x3.5 inches - because it goes in a pocket - exercise books (8.5 x 6.5) are still where the actual work happens though. Hmm - should I start on pens?

    Hi Christine - I wonder if it's to do with school - do we derive some kind of strange comfort and lack of inhibition from the exercise book?

  11. I'm all for the tatty notebook, the scrawl on the back of an old manuscript, the 70 million post-its stuck around the place. I've had it with expensive paper, expensive stretched canvasses, materials you've spent a fortune on and still don't get the result you want - now there's a block to creativity if ever there was one.
    I've never had a muse that I'm aware of, more of an inner censor who shreds everything and barks 'not good enough' at every attempt. Overcoming that is a lifetimes work I'm sure - and one of the first things you try and deal with in art students.

  12. What a brilliant blog you have here! I'm amazed at the range of information given by some blogs (as compared to my little baby)
    Anyway, I'm from the "Birthday Party" and I'm following you...:-)

  13. Yes, it's so important to be able to make mistakes and get things out on the page/canvas, with all forms of internal censor turned off!

  14. As someone who stares at the blank pages of beautiful journals, not wanting to ruin them with the wrong words, I really appreciate this post. *applause*