I’m going to be using the word “muse” a lot in this post. When I do I’m referring to people with the power to influence your material, not the arpeggio-laden rock band, or the nine daughters of Zeus and any of the sexist connotations that go with them (that conversation is being held in the lecture hall across campus, if you hurry you can still make it).
Call me a cosmonaut but I believe the arts are a form of telepathy, a way to express thoughts and feelings that simply talking (or texting) fail to do. I believe a subtle story of heartbreak has more power to resonate than a loud I feelstatement. By showing instead of telling the story draws out the reader’s empathy. It compels them to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. The abstraction makes the expression all the more genuine. It forces the reader to participate, to draw their own conclusions, and unearth their own theme.
So if art is telepathy and artists are psychics it stands to reason many of us have ideal minds we long to inhabit. Let’s call them muses. These muses could be family members, romantic partners, or associates with mutual interests.
Good muses enhance our writing. When we write with a close confident in mind we put our guard down, get intimate, and create work that resonates, but when we write with the wrong muse our work gets guarded, diplomatic, and disingenuous.
So how the hell are we to know the difference?
Lessons on Screening Muses from Saint Anthony
Saint Anthony the Great is considered to be the father of all monks (and more importantly one of the first Obi-Wan Kenobi figures). Anthony started life with every advantage. His parents were wealthy landowners. He had a stable full of camels and a pocket full of bling, but when he heard Jesus’s message of trading material treasures for treasures in heaven he gave away everything.
Anthony cast off his inheritance, ventured into the desert, and wandered the land. He abandoned human companionship in favor of the divine. He fasted, exposed himself to the harsh Egyptian sun and eventually he started to see things. Anthony had visitations from ethereal figures whose divine leanings weren’t always clear to him.
Angels appeared as scrubs. Demons came on as ballers. It was hard to tell the difference between an angel in humble attire and a devil that had cleaned up well.
Antony’s visions were impaired. Not every angel wore a halo made of tinsel and not every demon wore a vinyl smock with a picture of who they were supposed to be on the chest. Anthony had to rely on his feelings to know which of the creatures he’d encountered.
He realized angels left him feeling rejuvenated, hopeful, and optimistic, while Demons left him feeling drained, exposed, and humiliated.
When screening for muses consider your feelings for the people in question. Really consider. Just because someone is important to you, just because you admire them, doesn’t mean they’re the right person to have in mind when you put pen to paper. That person you’ve been crushing on could be throwing you off your game.
The Person You Most Admire Might Be the Wrong Muse for You
I’m drawn to emotionally unavailable people, people who say, “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. Not anything serious.”
I want something substantial yet I’m drawn to those people. Of course I don’t consciously admit I have a thing for vagabonds. I’m not the one driving when my subconscious decides whom I get to have a crush on. Yet when I do take the wheel I find myself fighting to stay on a winding road that in all likelihood lead straight into a ravine.
These relationships are built on a rocky foundation of abstraction, emotional dithering, and the tension that comes from knowing that at any moment the whole thing come crashing down.
What I’ve learned from my pursuit of these impossible people is they slow my narrative writing right down. People who make you nervous in your heart don’t make for great muses in your art. They do if you’re writing about the individual in question, but not if you’re trying to cover the broad spectrum of human experience. Especially not if you’re delving into a topic that’s outside of the scope of their interest.
Do An Inventor of Your Muses
You can’t always decide who you’re drawn to, but you can decide whom your ideal reader is. Maybe that person shouldn’t be the one you’re trying so damn hard to impress in life. A bad muse will make you feel too embarrassed to write something heartfelt. They will make you censor your life experiences and hide your humiliation. They will have you filing down your jagged edges when you ought to be making them sharper.
If your muse hates horror you’ll find yourself taking all the teeth out of your terror. If they’re prudish you’ll find yourself softening your sex scenes. If they have conservative leanings you’ll find yourself hiding your rebellious streak.
Conversely, if your muse thinks romance is an antiquated notion for sexist baby boomers guess what your stories are going to be lacking? If they harbor a deep hatred of yuppie squares you might get freakier than you really are. If they gag on sentimentality you’ll find yourself getting more sarcastic than you care to be.
A bad muse can stunt your growth or take your writing somewhere insincere. A bad muse slows your flow, they compel you to edit as you go, and ultimately give you writers block.
Just because you want to impress someone doesn’t mean they’re the right person to let into your headspace when you start writing. Use Saint Anthony’s metric for screening demons. Ask yourself: How does this person make me feel the moment they leave the room. Rejuvenated or drained? If they’re someone who consistently pokes holes in your ego odds are they aren’t going to read your writing anyway. So who cares what they think?
Write for the people who hear what you’re working on and ask a slew of follow up questions, for the people who remember story details from one conversation to the next, for the people who make you feel good even after they’ve left.