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, 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? 

Origins: Where did the idea of the muse come from? 

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. 

Examples of Writers who Refer to the 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 about it all.

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! Wow! 

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 i.e. 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. 

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.