Recently, while Finn sleeps, I’ve been working on something I’ve wanted to do for years: actually fleshing out a started story. I have an embarrassing number of short stories that were begun but never finished, with very worthy excuses ranging from “it’s not good enough” (sound familiar?) to “forgot.”
Working on it has got me thinking about creativity. I’m married to a songwriter who once described to me how he thought of his process: sometimes a song wasn’t “written” as much as it just seemed to be “caught,” as if it had always existed, or you’d heard it a long time ago and forgot you weren’t the one who wrote it after all. Any congratulatory remarks could be taken as an acknowledgement of a successful capture of a piece that somehow belongs to all of us.
Remember how J.K. Rowling recently released a follow-up Harry Potter piece, and people of all ages freaked out? That’s nothing: Harper Lee just published a new novel revealing new side of Atticus Finch that I’m sure readers are talking over with their therapist as we speak. No matter who created them, Harry and Atticus just seem to be ours, and we defend them the same way we’d defend our brother and father. It’s the same reason why, when I hear a song by the Avett Brothers, I am spooked by how they seem to know and choose only to sing about me.
The ancient Greeks had a name for this phenomenon: Muse. The muses were goddesses of inspiration who visited mortals. If something an artist wrote, sang, performed, or made was a success, the muse was given the glory and the artist was protected from pride. If it was a failure, it wasn’t the artist’s fault; that it was that rotten muse. And if you wanted to be visited by one, you’d better go to the place they lived: artists knew that the more they worked, the better their chances of a visit would be.
In return, the masses could be assured that art was a gift from the gods which belonged to everyone. Poetry, song, and dance was communication between people and the divine. So if we were in ancient Athens, I would actually assume I was being spoken to at an Avett Brothers concert, and no one would think I was crazy.
It’s helpful to keep this in mind while writing, especially the part about lousy work not necessarily being my fault. Failing to measure up is a reason many of us give ourselves for never trying or giving up, especially if you’re a person with good taste in whatever it is you’re trying to create. Whatever we have to do to protect ourselves from that is probably worthwhile.
Even if it’s conjuring up ancient greek goddesses to blame in case of an emergency.