Why I Hate Muses

“Point is: the Muse is bullshit. Stop relying on phantoms and phantasms and write. You are your own Muse.”
Chuck Wendig, who gets it right

I posted this on Tumblr, and as things tend to do online, the quote attracted a question. A user named literarybinge responded with “Hm. Interesting. What about when your muse is a person?” To which I said, “Hi! We’re strangers, but let me share my strong feelings on this issue with you,” and wrote the following.

I’ve had very few sit-up-in-my-chair-screaming-in-agreement moments in my life, but one of the most important ones I have had came in college. An artist named Dale Pesmen came and talked to the small workshop I was in; it was a class on creation and creativity, and she spent a lot of time talking about collage. In collage, she said, new meanings and new insights come from juxtaposition. It is the mixing that takes what is previously ordinary and makes it say something original and interesting and exciting.

She related this to the concept of the muse by pointing out that as a thing, it’s kind of horrific. This parasitic, fussy thing that inhabits and wracks an artist at its whim, that blocks and gives inspiration when it chooses, that claws at you from the inside and hounds you like a demon, that makes demands and dictates and relegates the artist not to creator but vessel? Because these are all things that artists throughout the ages have ascribed to muses. What if, rather than playing host to a capricious divinity, blaming it for our failures and thanking it for our successes, we actually allowed ourselves to be whole human beings interacting with a world of other whole human beings, and that what makes us creative is the way we juxtapose ourselves with the rest of the world?

This means that we, as artists, take full responsibility for and ownership of our art, good and bad. We’re the ones who have ideas, who do the work, who take our inspiration from the world around us, who learn our craft, read books, seek out conversations, push through the block, work with other artists and bring our experience of the world to the table. This, to me, is a much healthier, fully human way of creating art and being a person. I would say that if your muse is a person, you’ve been lucky enough to find someone who makes you see new things in the world, but I personally wouldn’t call that person a muse.

So yeah, hearing Dale Pesmen reject the concept of the muse was a pretty big watershed moment in my life. I’d never heard anyone articulate my irritation with muses so well — because like Chuck Wendig says: do the work. You have something to say that no one else can say! And ultimately, when you say it, that’s not a mystical spirit or an otherworldly possession or an obscure process: it’s you. It’s you. And that’s freaking amazing.

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