By Mary Gillgannon
In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.
The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person's creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands: how the creative process works.
Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.
I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.
I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.
Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.
Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.