All writers need sometimes is a little bit of inspiration to get them started. We often ask, where do ideas come from? How can I find the inspiration and focus to finish a piece of writing? How can I get motivated to write? These questions have historically been personified and embodied in the creative muse!
Even the greatest writers of all time need encouragement to have their creative ability awakened, to feel creatively energised, and ignited. Writers want something that will trigger their ability, and let them generate their best writing. Something to enliven their short stories and poems, and kindle their words.
What is a muse in creative writing? Fiction writers, poets, screenwriters and just about every other variety of writer often talk about waiting for the muse to strike, or finding inspiration in a muse.
There are many reasons for this need for external stimulation, but one is that we often don’t really know where creative ideas come from. We put aside the time and space for creative ideas to arrive in our minds, but there is still a slightly mysterious generative process that leads to those ideas showing up.
So how can we encourage the muse to show up more and fill us with great creative ideas? How can we tap into a source of inspiration and encouragement that will set our writing on fire? Let’s explore the concept of the muse, and then move to some practical exercises to get us writing!
What is a Creative Muse?
The idea starts in Greece! There were undoubtedly Gods and Goddesses of inspiration and artistry prior to the Ancient Greeks, but when people talk about the ‘nine muses’ they are usually referring to the inspirational Goddesses who embodied the knowledge contained in the fields of the arts, science, literature, poetry, mythology, song and many other areas.
Which Writers Have Used a Muse?
Countless writes and artists refer colloquially to being inspired by a muse. Sometimes this is someone they know. Men have referred historically to certain women acting as their muse: this is another way of saying they feel inspired to creative when in the presence of the person. Let’s take a look at some literary examples throughout history.
Did Homer Use a Muse?
Homer was a slightly mysterious figure to whom contemporary scholars attribute authorship of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. These two foundational epic poems tell the tale of Helen of Troy’s abduction, and the Greek war on Troy to retrieve her, and the journey home. You may remember the Brad Pitt film.
Homer opens one of his epics like this:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
(Robert Fagles translation)
Think for a moment about the effect of opening the tale in this way. It elevates the tale immediately doesn’t it? This is no longer just a story being told by one person to another, it’s coming form the Gods themselves!
Did Shakespeare Use a Muse?
Shakespeare starts Henry V like this:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
This is Shakespeare being very cheeky and subversive. He is referencing the literary tradition of claiming the work has come from the Goddess muses. But he is saying ‘O I wish I had a ‘muse of fire’ to tell this tale.’ The rest of the prologue is devoted to imploring the audience to forgive the theatre company for having fairly meagre resources to tell such an astonishing tale. He ends with:
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Shakespeare is saying that he in fact does not have access to a muse, but asks that the audience allow him (or ‘me’) to relate the tale as chorus.
Of course there is another layer of reality at work here, as the actor is in fact not Shakespeare, so the author has created a character who is pretending to be the one who is creating the tale … when in fact it’s Shakey … complex and playful.
Why do Authors Claim to be Inspired by the Muse?
Authors use the concept of the muse for a lot of reasons. We tend to have superstitious feelings towards processes that we don’t completely understand, and many authors live in fear of their well of creativity drying up, or ‘writers’ block’ as it is sometimes called.
By personifying the creative process in the muse we humanise it, and make it less terrifying. We can also then pray to this personification, and implore it not to abandon us.
Another reason is that audiences expect to be successfully emotionally manipulated by creative writers. Audiences / readers pay hard earned dollars to have powerful emotional experiences while they sit in the cinema, or read a novel. But audiences don’t want to feel ’emotionally manipulated’, do they? It’s a complicated process.
So when authors like Shakespeare and Homer refer to being inspired by the muse they are telling the reader that the tale that is about to be related does not come from the author, but from the Gods themselves (or from a divine place of creativity that humanity does not fully understand).
Another way of saying this is that the author is tapped into ‘the other place’. The other place we all know things come to us from but hardly ever think about directly … it’s a place of truth, and feeling right? The place we tap into a little when we write.
Authors are signalling that they are not in fact emotion manipulators who have studied the craft of story telling their entire lives, but are instead just conduits for pure creativity and inspiration to flow through. This diminishes the sense in the responder (to the artwork) that they are being emotionally manipulated.
Practical Guide to Writing Inspiration and Motivation
Calling on divine entities to help with writing is all good and well. But when we sit down to write sometimes we need more practical advice to help us wet the page with ink. So let’s explore some techniques that the greatest writers have used to summon their inner muse and get writing.
Should I Keep a Writing Journal?
Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt often describes the way she carries a journal or notebook with her everywhere, so she can jot down little lines and observations as they occur to her. This means that when she comes to write a novel, she has a wealth of material to draw on.
This is an excellent way to overcome the fear associated with the blank page! She also says she’s useless at dinner parties because she will constantly run out of the room to make notes based on what she’s hearing.
It’s also handy for things like capturing the seasons! In summer it can be hard to remember exactly what winter is like, and if you have a notebook full of observations of the weather and the natural world, all you have to do is dip back in.
Should I Write from My Own Life?
Oddly, the more specific you make a tale, the more likely others are to recognise their own experiences of life in it.
Of course you have to be careful about defamation – make sure to hide the characters in your story enough so that people can’t recognise themselves too well! Or they may sue you for damage to their reputation. Always seek legal advice before acting on information you read online.
Also, you don’t have to portray your exact experience. If you’ve experienced love, maybe you can recontextualise that love in Ancient Greece, for instance.
Find Writing Inspiration in the News
Still drawing a blank? Your own life not making your creative juices flow?
Turn on the news for five minutes and check out the incredible stories that occur around the world each day. These stories form the basis for some of the most popular forms of entertainment, like crime fiction.
Remember, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder” – G.K. Chesterton.
Also make sure not to defame anyone if writing from the news.
Where Should I Write?
JK Rowling and Donna Tartt talk about writing in coffee shops and libraries, so that if they ever need a new character they just glance up and voila! There they are.
You can also overhear snippets of conversation in public places that let you know how people are really talking these days.
This is particularly useful for writing that depicts young characters, as the language young people use changes so quickly.
Make sure to eavesdrop in a respectful and non creepy way though. Don’t follow anyone.
The Pros and Cons of Writer’s Groups
You gotta be in a writer’s group!
You know that thing you find hard? So does everyone else.
You know that literary comp that you don’t know about yet? Technically you don’t know about it yet but someone in the group you’re going to join does!
Ask your new friends where they find inspiration. Tag along with them to listen to their favourite authors speak. Read the writer’s they recommend, and share the best of your knowledge with them too! Writer’s groups can be an invaluable source of inspiration and friendship.
We believe in the importance of literature and new writing. If you have a story or poem ready to go, make sure to take a look at our Letter Review Prize for Short Stories, and Prize for Poetry. Both offer great prize money, and publication at Letter Review. All entries are considered for publication. You can also submit to our regular submissions all year round.