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Between the Muse and Me

On Resuming the Conversation With Creativity

“The artist and the model” (1968), Ion Chibzii (via Creative Commons)

I. The Muse

I haven’t written in months. There was a time when I generated reams of plays, short stories, and a novel or three. It had been a compulsion. And, in the final tally, it was all for the joy of it. It was all for me. Literally, I should say. Thanks to economic and cultural realities (and perhaps my own peculiar aesthetic), I remain unread, unknown, and unpublished.

“Write for yourself” is what we think once the rejection emails pour in. See, publishers no longer waste the postage on the paper letters that once served as a material motivator to wake up and start again. After all, the Information Age—if information comes at all—is callous by its nature.

Starting again is how I used to look at the creative process; starting over would be too painful. I’d simply set an alarm, wake up my computer, and open a fresh Word file.

We often compare a finished work to a newborn child. The idea is that artists birth it, nurture its infancy, provide the requisite care and attention, and then send it out into the world fully formed. It’s as if the entire creative process could be distilled to a Norman Rockwell painting.

I’ve come to look at the act differently. In my mind, each work is merely the expression of a relationship that starts when the muse comes knocking at your door.

Unfortunately, the “muse” has come to represent some kind of romantic (male) fantasy. Once just a modest Greek goddess, muse now conjures up images of lithe youths in states of various undress. Woody Allen, for one, is notorious for creating an entire oeuvre around progressively younger women, embodying Matthew Mcconaughey’s iconic line from Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age.”

Man Ray had Kiki de Montparnasse, Picasso had Françoise Gilot, Manet had Victorian Meurent, Dalí had Gala Diakonova, Klimt had Emile Flöge. The conventional thinking is these muses inspired great works—whether through irrepressible sexuality, an indomitable spirit, or, simply, by being a proto-manic pixie dreamgirl.

Darren Aronofsky most recently explored this theme in his polarizing new film mother!. (I have an idea that critics and copyeditors resent anything with compulsory lowercase or punctuation in its title. This, of course, has both.) And though Aronofsky contends mother! is an allegory for climate change (see here), the film didn’t work on that level for me. For one thing, rendering Mother Nature literal is, excuse the pun, low-hanging fruit.

I, like other critics, think mother! isn’t about what Aronofsky thinks it is. I saw a movie that documented the creative process—namely his—and laid bare the conflicted and often vicious nature of the unconscious. Sure, he made an “allegory about climate change.” But he also played on the common and retrograde tropes that have come to embody the relationship between the artist and his imagination (for the cliché is often heteronormative).

To be clear, I’m not certain this process was entirely conscious on his part. Allegories are like dreams—there’s the image and then there’s the symbolic meaning. But sometimes the dream really is about having sex with your mom.

Aronofsky’s muse is the one of popular conception—an external source of inspiration that acts as a broker between the artist and his work. And, as with the character of the poet in mother!, the work is all that matters. But the work is merely the conduit for one’s relationship to the muse as I understand “her,” which is, at root, merely the fundamental urge to create. Each creative work — whether a film or modest Medium essay — is this relationship rendered in light, sound, or words.

Creativity is an unseen, elusive, and nurturing force—not just an ends-justifying means. And when it comes to my own sometimes muddled relationship to the muse, I’ve always been better off when I simply respect and honor it. In other words, I feel better about myself—and am a better person to those who care about me—when I ignore the outcomes.

That’s why writers and artists never start over—they resume.

Sure, starting over is more romantic. It implies the kind of new beginning you might read about in a memoir of self-discovery, where the middle-aged author has some life-affirming fling. Resuming, on the other hand, is more platonic. Picture that close friend to whom you might speak infrequently—and, yet, it’s like picking up the thread whenever you do.

II. And Me

There are no new beginnings in the creative process. There is only one ongoing relationship: the creator and the muse. And each composition is simply a piece of dialogue—that relationship transcribed.

Lately, I’ve ignored my muse. I stopped answering its calls, pretending that the muse, like me, was on vacation or too busy. I even thought we might have finally broken up for good. But the muse never stops trying to make the relationship work.

At this point, you might be rolling your eyes at the esoteric sappiness of it all. The mere concept implies that artists are not ultimately in control of the process. I don’t believe that either.

Art is work.

Whenever I tell people I’ve written three novels (again, unpublished), some will inevitably say they would like to write a novel “one day.” My sense is that they wish for a future where they will have written a novel. But the actual work of chipping away at a word count is a tedious mix of lukewarm coffee and low-back pain.

In other words, the muse might be waiting in the studio but the artist must show up—ready and willing.

The muse could be a spirit, universal resonance, or naked body lounging on a divan. But those are all just common ways of understanding something deeper, more personal, and often hidden from ourselves. The real muse is an impulse and communication from something unconscious—if not the unconscious itself.

The influential British analyst Donald Winnicott saw creative play as one of the purest expressions of this unseen urge. For him, creativity was at the heart of living either an authentic or false life. Adults, he believed, must do something to channel the instinct to reengage in the gameplay and make-believe we see in children. He recognized that the moral structures of society (e.g., schools and religious institutions) obliterate this desire in later life. The result is that you tamp down a certain inner truth—a need for self-expression—at the expense of complying to the lowest common denominator of collective good.

This isn’t to say that everyone should just ditch the smartphone and paint happy little trees. Winnicott emphasized that this “True Self” can be a secret—even to you. But pure creative expression—whether in an art studio or analyst’s office—helps us reconnect with this authenticity. It is creative expression free of expectation.

If you’ve ever sat at a computer and simply written, without telling yourself that your work is bogshite, then you’ve been in touch with the muse. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have a full-blown committed partnership—but you’re certainly flirting with one.

The power of the muse lies in making yourself vulnerable to the ambiguity of not knowing. It’s about placing your trust in the process—that when the two of you show up, something will happen. The work might not be good. It might never see the backlight of an e-reader or even escape the “trash” button of permanent deletion. But it will have happened.

The seduction of creativity is in the fantasy that your work will be seen and, more importantly, heard. No matter what they might say or think, writers, filmmakers, and artists inherently want to reach an audience and, on some basic level, move them.

But we never control that process. I can’t stop anyone from judging me and, thus, my relationship to the muse. Sure, I’d love to inspire readers to think differently. But they’re more likely to evaluate my work like they might assess the relationship of an unlikely couple: you never know what goes on behind closed doors.

All that matters when you finally press that “publish” button is the interplay of this relationship. You just have to show up and see what happens—make an earnest effort to try your best and hear the muse. The relationship doesn’t even have to produce anything. In fact, it will remain barren without faith or trust. And anyway, the work is only a child in the Other’s eyes.

The true creative act isn’t some bloodless reproductive process—it’s the ongoing dialogue that happens when you make love without a goal. That’s why you never start over with the muse. You simply resume the romance.