Inviting the Muse

I hear about it all the time. People tell me they write when they’re inspired. Some write on a schedule, or at least they aspire to. And some people write by the seasons; wintertime becomes a perfect time to create and polish.

Author Terry Tempest Williams is one who writes by the seasons. She said this about her creative life: I have a sequence to my creative life. In spring and fall, I am above ground and commit to community. In the summer, I’m outside. It is a time for family. And in the winter, I am underground. Home. This is when I do my work as a writer—in hibernation. I write with the bears.

This got me thinking about my own creative life and its seasons. Tempest Williams lives in Utah, where winter comes with bitter cold and snow. Writing time seems more precious and private in cozy lamplight when it’s storming outside. I live in coastal Northern California, where winter is best known by bare branches and some rain. The days are shorter, but flowers bloom year-round.

My writing time doesn’t have a seasonal sequence. We don’t hibernate out here on the Northern California coast. That means I can’t wait for inspiration. I have to plan in the time and ask for it.

I thought of the muse when I read what Terry Tempest Williams had to say about her creative life.

In ancient poetry, poets often invoked the muse for inspiration. There were nine muses in Greek mythology, the daughters Zeus and Mnemosyne. Calliope (“beautiful-voiced”) was the muse of epic poetry. She is best known as the inspiration for Homer’s Odyssey and the Illiad. Calliope is always seen with a writing tablet in her hand. She is also sometimes depicted carrying a roll of paper or a book or as wearing a gold crown.

The muse, as we understand it today, refers to a guiding spirit or a source of inspiration. I have called on the muse many times in my life. In my twenties the muse came when I played the same song over and over. It was Andy Warhol’s method. He played the same song over and over when he was painting, to create a mood he could drop right down into and stay in. I turned on a certain CD and the mood to write came on like a boat sailing into my harbor. When I was done for the day, I turned off the music.

Since then, I’ve used music to help set a mood that’s right to invite the muse. I take walks sometimes when I know I can be in solitude, and I notice what’s around me while keeping my mind on the subject I’ll write about as soon as I get home. The muse gives me good titles this way or helps me make creative decisions that seem hard to make at my writing desk. And if she doesn’t show up during a writing time I’ve set, I stay open. I know I’m accomplishing something just by showing up at my computer for the time I’ve set aside for writing.

After all, setting aside time for writing is the first step to finding the muse. You need to have time for her to come in and you’d better be there when she arrives.

And remember: Inspiration needs an invitation. It can’t be forced. Impatience only scares it away. The approach has to be gentle, even coaxing.

Some tips for inviting the muse:

• Make the time to write. Plan writing times into your calendar every week and make them unbreakable appointments.

• Don’t stand yourself up. If you can’t keep the date with yourself, change it on your calendar, too, like you would any appointment.

Prepare ahead. If you have prep to do to get into a creative space, like the walk I described, don’t include it in your writing time. Writing time should be writing time. It can include relevant research, but don’t let anything only tangentially relevant carry you away. Come back to it later, when you’re not on the clock. This is your time. It’s incredibly valuable.