pen and ink sketch of a female muse holding a harp

No Muse Is Good Muse: Embracing the Freedom to Imagine

I’m probably going to upset several writers today. I’ll straight out say it- there is no ‘muse’.

Sure, since joining the world of writers, I have heard about ‘The Muse.’ I totally get the concept. Many writers are quite keen to embrace the notion of a muse.

Let me explain why you, as a writer, need to let go of the concept of a muse, for your own writing and cognitive health, and give yourself permission to embrace your own imagination.

pen and ink sketch of a female muse holding a harp

What is a muse?

Actually, the right question is: who were the muses? Depending on various Greek mythological beliefs, there were anywhere from 3 to 9 muses. These daughters of Zeus were heralded as the keepers of inspiration, imagination, and creativity among artists and poets. They could offer great artistic insight… or deny it.

The modern day muse

Modern day artists, including writers, continue to adopt the idea of a muse being a gateway, or barrier, to creativity.

For some, their muse is a person: a lover, an unrequited love, a greatly admired historical artist. Here are some rather unique (and oft times weird) examples of muses associated with a few famous authors.

These romantic-associated muses do have an impact, in an indirect way. Being in love (or believing a strong emotional connection exists) creates strong physiological changes. These changes can relax the mind, create positivity, allow an investment in imagining the future. According to Scientific American, being in love stimulates the brain into more global mental processing, which enhances creative ideas, while suppressing the analytical side of the brain. (This latter effect might also explain the illogical behaviors of some people in love,but that ‘s a post for another day!)

For others, this muse is spoken of as a powerful force that gives life to creative ideas and thoughts. But when the force is absent, inspiration fails, writer’s block hits, and creative stallout arises.

Yes, but what is the muse, really?

Regardless of who the muse is for a particular author, it acts as a vehicle to permit the cultivation of creative thought and delving into imaginary worlds.

Why do authors seem to need this permission?

As children, we are allowed (and encouraged to have) imaginary play time. As children grow older, playing with toys, building blocks, dolls, etc. with other children builds from that foundational imagination. There is no shame in the behavior. In fact, children who spend time in imaginary play and playing with toys are learning important principles in getting along in society and with other children. In addition, children experience happiness and joy as part of play. For more, see this interesting article from the American Journal of Play.

Unfortunately, as we grow older, between societal expectations and peer pressure, most youth abandon toys in the 10-12 year old range. Our society pushes this as a progression away from childish endeavors toward adulthood. Interestingly enough, there are even Reddit threads with parents asking guidance for the age at which they should take away their children’s toys to “make them grow up.”

By the time we are adults, kneeling on the floor to play with our own children/nephews/nieces etc. may be the closest permission we get to publically tap into our creative and imaginary world mind. Even then, it’s often stilted. (Ever see a parent playing with a Barbie or a set of Legos? They rarely go “all in.”)

In fact, the children even notice. A behavioral therapist I know had one young client who preferred when that therapist visited. Why? Well, according to the client’s parents, the therapist was one of the few that would fully let go and play imaginary sword fights and games as if they, themselves, were still a child.

Unfortunately, most adults often feel the need to have a specific reason– a permission- to release their inner imaginary play mind. And for many authors, writing a book itself often isn’t enough of an excuse to let go.

So, writers turn to the accepted concept of the muse. It takes away the embarrassment or the guilt of spending time as an adult electively daydreaming, in hopes to complete a story. It’s much easier to say, “My muse helped me create another chapter today.” It also takes away the frustration with oneself, when the well-healed imagination doesn’t want to drop the stoic stance on a given day. Blaming the muse is easier than grappling with the realization that your own imagination may have stagnated. That you may have grown up too much.

How to overcome your muse

In high school, I found my way to drama club and the theater. THIS was the place I could be someone else, to have permission to pretend. Others working in dramatic arts, such as Hollywood, Broadway, and community theater make a living tapping into their imagination. This is, of course, a self-selected group willing to set aside the embarrassment factor, and allow their inner creative child out of the box. Still, the venue (the stage, a renaissance festival, etc) becomes the permission.

Entrepreneurs are another group that often thrive from imagination- such as the vision for a new product or shattering new scientific boundaries. Ventures such as SpaceX could never have occurred if Elon Musk had tried to bury his imagination.

Just like many famous authors have used the great power of imagination to bring us incredible stories, from Peter Pan to the Agatha Christie mysteries to Sherlock Holmes, we should be willing to follow suit.

The negative health impact of stifling imagination

If you want a really good excuse to re-develop your childhood imagination, a study in Neurology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that those who pursued creative outlets in midlife were less likely to have cognitive impairment as they aged. Now that’s a great reason to allow your brain to daydream!

How to adult your imagination (or move over, muse!)

How do you find a way to cultivate that hidden childhood imagination and quit depending on (or blaming) a muse for permission? Let’s dive into some tips from TedXMileHigh to get started:

The silhouette of a man walking into the ocean at sunset for a swim.
  • Get out of your comfort zone
    • Seek adventure! Get involved with a formalized group, from a simple tour group to a more elaborate adventure group, such as kayaking, hiking, etc. There are even a number of companies that have handicap accessible tours and adventures. Local sports stores, such as REI, or international tour groups, such as Road Scholar (gotta love that name!) have many options.
    • If that is too much for your inner introvert (and believe me, I get it), challenge yourself by planning your own adventure. There are lots of resources, from Frommer’s “Planning a Trip’ section to TravelZoo. Obviously, costs can be quite an issue with these adventures, but you are in control of the magnitude. Even a day trip to part of your own town that you haven’t seen before can be quite a start.
A woman sitting atop a rock at the top of a mountain overlooking other mountain vistas with a bright white obscuring part of the horizon.
  • Be still
    • Take note of the amount of input you are getting from everywhere during the day. Your brain’s neurons are being constantly inundated with input: social media, the constant messages or texts on your phone, emails, youtube, Instagram, Facebook…you name it. We allow ourselves to be engulfed in data input all. day. long. How can there be any energy left for your own exhausted brain to create? It takes a lot of energy for your mind to imagine, create, visualize. It also takes some quiet time!
    • So…put down the media. Give yourself a time allowance for your daily social media marketing and to catch up with some friends, but then:
  • PUT A TIME LIMIT on it: I set my phone to notify me when I’ve hit my daily limit. I was initially surprised how often the limit popped up, but I have used that to train myself to get off social media faster.
    • Test the input: ask yourself with each thread or conversation you are scrolling past: what does this really do to add to my day? To my life? To my writing? Asking this may keep you from going down that “just one more click” rabbit hole of social media, leaving you more time for your writing to flourish.
    • Give yourself some quiet time to let your imagination take over- a quiet walk, meditation, sipping coffee watching a sunrise.

Too exhausted to develop your imagination? Check out these tips for restoring your emotional tank so you have the energy to write and become creative again.

  • Play
    • This is the awkward, hard one. Get out some Legos or dolls or (as in my case) dragons, and play pretend for a few minutes. Yes, it will be uncomfortable, at first. But with practice, you’ll be able to let go a bit more. If that is a little to weird for you…try to go to a costume party, a renaissance faire, or some other similar venue.
  • Method writing, anyone?
    • Ok- this one is NOT specifically discussed in the TedX post, but there are many authors who ‘become’ their main character to act out a scene, test the dialogue, and give them a better visualization of what to write. My own YA contemporary draft found me crawling around the kitchen floor at night, pretending to avoid the beams of police flashlights through the window, as I dictated the first person present POV into a recorder. (Yeah…glad the family wasn’t home that night!)

I hope this has helped you reframe the need for your imagination as a writer and the importance of taking personal responsibility to not only cultivate it, but to be proud of it. If so, you should be ready to stop being subject to an arbitrary ‘muse’ and embrace your own creativity.

What tips do you have to keep your imagination young for your writing? Share your tips in the comments!

Happy Daydreaming!

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