Historically sexist images of the Muse aside, is the personification of creativity a helpful construct? Ray Bradbury seemed to think so in his fourth essay of Zen in the Art of Writing, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.” The essay continues to unpack his theory that memory and the subconscious are the primary engines of our creativity. Unlike his earlier essays, here he speaks in more practical terms on how a writer, or creative person in general, can find, feed, and keep their Muse.
Everyone has a Muse Bradbury supposes. You can see it manifest in anyone when they begin to talk about something they love. People in general are aware of their Muse only slightly and many have lost the ability to connect with it. The successful writer knows how to cultivate a working relationship with their creative engine(s) and nurture further development.
The Muse to Bradbury is like a fairy in Peter Pan’s universe. All people are born with one. Most people know of them as a child. Most people kill their fairy/Muse when they “mature” and speak the words, “I don’t believe in fairies.” Only an act of sheer illogical joy, like clapping, can bring a fairy back to life. So too with the Muse says Bradbury, it takes acts of passion to revitalize one’s shriveled Muse.
The Muse is a useful metaphor of our creativity, which, according to Bradbury, resides in the deep pool of our subconscious mind and can be accessed via memory and exercise. The Muse is like a creative conduit that connects our deepest mind with our higher brain functions to produce writing, singing, painting, etc.
It’s easy enough for everyone to find their conduit to creativity, it’s active whenever one is telling a story, building something, or daydreaming. Bradbury thinks if one focuses too long on creativity itself the work created isn’t the best, it is stunted because of the attention it is given. For example, it is like the difference between a clever person and a person trying to be clever.
Once one is aware of their creative conduit, aka Muse, to keep it working one must do creative work. To keep the conduit fresh and interesting, one must learn how to feed it.
To feed the Muse, a person needs to be awake to the world and their own passions. If you love baseball feed your muse by reading and experiencing a variety of things related to baseball. If you want to learn how to write more like the authors you love, by all means read them. The mind will eat up what it is given. If you are passionate about whatever you ingest, your Muse will be well fed and reward the next creative effort.
However, it is possible to starve or malnourish one’s Muse.
A creative person starves and malnourishes their Muse when they are trying to force themselves to like something they don’t. If I think I should be writing about property law but have no desire about it, every moment I am reading about property law or listening to litigation my Muse is not being fed. If I think I need to write more like Henry James but cannot stand his work, I am starving my Muse. When I tell myself I need to love sports since potential readers love sports, I am starving my Muse.
Because the impulse for creating, when it produces the most amazing work, comes from passion. If I am dispassionate about something, the work will show it. Sure, I could write about property law, learn how to create complex sentences like Henry James, or even speak about modern football, but my Muse will be disengaged. I will write like a machine or a bored automaton. No fire will be in the words. My readers will know.
Does this mean I should glut the Muse on meaningless candy? Of course not, there is a time and a place for being exposed to ideas and experiences you don’t enjoy. If one makes a habit of doing and learning unenjoyable things, it has the real potential of shutting down the creative conduit. Curiosity is laudable, prolonged forced discomfort is not.
I feed my creativity whenever I am reading an author I enjoy or admire. I feed it through conversations with my wife and playtime with our toddler. A museum or antique store is a buffet; a board game with friends is a feast. Letting myself get bored or deliberately driving to work without the radio helps my mind digest. Sleep and dreams mix my experiences together. Writing plants seeds that lead to a creative harvest.
But that’s only if I am doing the work.
I have starved my creativity: When I tried to convince myself that I loved difficult literature or experimental poetry. When I read only comics and graphic novels from cartoonists I thought I should like but did not. When I told myself everything I wrote had to be perfect off the cuff. Imagining successful projects I would never start. Arguing with imaginary critics. The year I told myself I would only read Proust’s work, but failed to make it through the first chapter in Swann’s Way after three attempts. Denying myself any video games or fantasy novels, thinking these are beneath a “true artist.”
Because I was starving my creative conduit I lost track of it completely. The illustration work I was doing, while technically creative, was passionless and bland. I had given up on writing as a career. I had given up on creating comics too. I would build things in my rational mind, but the conduit to my deeper, richer mind had atrophied so much I could never execute my ideas. I had lost sight of my Muse.
Then I began writing in ernest two months ago.
Since then my mind has been acting like a starved beast. It craves comic books with heroes and villains, it devours essays, and it cherishes moments with friends and family more than it had in years. My Muse was found through the act of writing. Reading Bradbury’s essays brought up forgotten treasure from my deep mind and called me back to a path of creativity. I am feeding my Muse daily and with pleasureful purpose.
I worry about how to keep my Muse. It is easy in the flow of adult life to lose sight of or hyper focus on it, either being deadly. For Bradbury, keeping a Muse is a matter of doing creative work. He doesn’t say discipline, but I think he wouldn’t disagree. For many people the word discipline is negative and would seem to be counter to feeding a Muse, but I see discipline as a positive, deliberate action. Sitting down to write at a set time each day can wake up the Muse. Beginning to design or draw something can get the engine started. Discipline is doing an act deliberately. It helps to keep creativity engaged and humming. Even if what it produces during those deliberate times of creation isn’t a bestselling product, it gives the subconscious and conscious mind time to work together via the creative conduit.
When I was at the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2008, I first heard about the concept of ten thousand hours. Basically, one cannot begin to master something until they have done it deliberately for at least ten thousand hours. Roughly, it would take two years if one worked a normal work week only doing the thing they wanted to master. For someone who only gets a few hours a week to write, it will take me a while before I am a better writer.
It takes time. It takes discipline. It isn’t something I can buy or attain without doing the work.
Ray Bradbury knew the truth of how to find, feed, and keep his Muse of creativity. It isn’t enough to just find the Muse. It isn’t enough to only feed a Muse. It isn’t enough to do work disconnected from the Muse. It is a mix of awareness, joyful absorption, and work. It is delicate. It is mostly an internal self-awareness which drives the process of finding, feeding, and keeping the Muse. Because of these, it can be difficult.
I am still learning. I am aware of my Muse. It is feeding on all it can. I need to keep exercising it. I need to hold it lightly. And yes, I know it is all in my mind. But it is helpful to think of the Muse as something…foreign to myself. The coming years will give testament to how well or poorly I can keep my Muse alive, fed, and healthy.