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Stop believing in “The Muse”

When people talk about creativity, they often talk about “The Muse.” Supposedly, a mystical creature floats down from the heavens and gives them their ideas. They never know when The Muse will come.

Stephen Pressfield says a prayer to The Muse before each writing session. Elizabeth Gilbert apparently calls it Big Magic.

Nothing against either of them. They’re both great writers. Objectively better writers than I am. It clearly works for them.

But, I think it’s nonsense. Hogwash. Bullshit.

I feel reluctant to put it out there, as if I were admitting atheism in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. As I type it, I receive faint images of being strapped onto the rack or waterboarded while a mangy rat gnaws on my toenail.

And I know it reeks of hubris. I even feel a superstitious fear that by proclaiming I don’t believe in The Muse, I’ll be punished with a lifetime of writer’s block.

That will be hard for The Muse to do—since The Muse doesn’t exist.

I think it’s a cop-out to believe in The Muse. It robs you of investigating what you can control about the creative process. You just dump off responsibility to some mystical force, like saying god makes you beat your children.

Additionally, the widespread belief in The Muse protects us from the uncomfortable truth: Art is hard work. It helps us ignore that Beethoven had to compose more than 600 pieces to create the handful you love, or that Picasso painted 1,800 canvases so you could see The Old Guitarist on a field trip in grade school. If The Muse exists, then all that stands between us and greatness is a lightning strike of inspiration, and a couple weeks of free time—if only we weren’t so busy. If only we could quit our day job. If only it weren’t for Game of Thrones.

I understand the temptation to believe in The Muse. Yes, inspiration can come when you least expect it. Yes, sometimes you sit down and write and it comes easily — and other times your whole body feels like rigor mortis has set in.

But just because you can’t explain it doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. Just because you don’t recognize the patterns doesn’t mean there are none. What if Copernicus had just gazed at the stars and said, “meh, I guess it’s just God”?

I don’t believe in The Muse, and I believe creative breakthroughs can be explained. I believe you can boost your creative output, and somewhere in there you’ll make your masterpiece.

We know now more than ever where creative insights come from. We know now more than ever how pushing for a creative solution just leads to creative blocks.

Maybe you can’t make a creative breakthrough happen right now, the same way The Grand Canyon wasn’t carved in a single evening. But there are things you can do, and methods you can employ, to create the ideal conditions. Throw away the mysticism, take pleasure in the discomfort of hard work. The Muse may not be real, but I believe you’ll find that the art inside you is.

I’m writing Getting Art Done because I don’t believe in The Muse.

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David Kadavy

David Kadavy

Author, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’ https://amzn.to/3p5xpcV Former design & productivity advisor to Timeful (Google acq’d).

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