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Meeting Your Muse

Faculty PDF Version
Student PDF Version

This is an exercise designed to help students discover a "muse," by which I mean a source of energy that inspires artistic production. The idea is to give each person a sense of what their very own personal creative energy is like and what feeds and inspires it. It can help students articulate the conditions that best support their work.

It's good to do this exercise relatively early in a course: it gives students a kind of creative anchor for their work as well as creative direction. It also helps students get to know each other and invites them to support one another's "muses."

It can be fun to do this exercise shortly before or after Twyla Tharp's "Creative Autobiography" exercise, which asks, "Who is your muse?"

I have found that there's a lot of energy in this exercise and that people are often startled at what emerges. Even artists who have been working a long time may discover things about their creative processes that they didn't know.

The exercise is based on the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, which, in a nutshell, means looking at what has worked well in the past and figuring out how you can do more of it (my apologies to the real practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry for that reductive summary).

The exercise may appear to be a bit complex, but it's worth the trouble. The exercise MUST be done with a partner. Do not attempt it alone; it won't work. -I suggest that if you are going to teach this exercise, you do the exercise first with a friend so you have had the experience yourself. It's very fun and surprising!

The Set Up

When teaching this exercise, I like to start by reading William Stafford's poem "When I Met my Muse" (see poem below). You could have some discussion of conceptions of what the muse is, including some deconstruction of the traditional trope of the female muse that inspires the male artist. I encourage students to suspend all preconceptions when they actually begin the exercise.

I tell them that the muse that emerges could be anything. Some examples from other students: an atom; fois gras; a woman with green eyes; a swirl of blue and purple; a lake; the Stanley Cup. I also ask students to trust their imaginations, no matter how strange their answers may seem.

What's interesting to me about this exercise is how specific the "muses" are about what they require. Some people need to work with shapes; some need color in their surroundings; some need to be located where they can observe people but not interact with them; some need to work with pre-existing materials; some need a clean house and some need chaos, or to be outdoors.

The Steps

Working in pairs, go twice through the entire sequence outlined below, once for each person. Do not go back and forth between the two partners (each answers question one, each answers question two, etc.). That diffuses the focus and won't give good results.

Let's say that Lisa and I are partners and we're working first with Lisa's muse. I will go through the list below, asking Lisa each question and taking notes about what she says. I won't comment along the way; I'm just reading the questions and recording her answers. (This is not ultimately about my brilliant insight into Lisa's muse.) At Step 8, I can offer my thoughts. After we've finished the sequence with Lisa, she will ask me the questions and record my answers.

The Exercise
  1. Think of a time or times when you felt especially creative, when your creative energy was flowing. Describe those times. You might want to consider: Why were you especially creative then? What was going on in your life? What was the creative activity? What did the energy feel like?

    Note that "creativity" doesn't necessarily mean you were making paintings or writing poems-you could have been gardening or cooking or boxing or doing math or running a meeting or -just about any activity in which you felt a heightened sense of energy.
  1. If you haven't already addressed this, analyze what the factors were that contributed to your creativity. (The partner will record the list.)
  1. If you were to recreate a set of circumstances that would foster such creativity now, what would you do?
  1. Think for a minute about yourself and the quality of your energy when you're in a creative state. What is that energy like? Try to get a sense in your bodyof what the energy feels like and where you feel it most strongly.
  1. Now imagine that energy as an entity in itself. This is your muse. Visualize that entity. See if it has a gender or a name or a hairstyle. It may be a non-human entity.
  1. Ask your muse what would make them happy. Don't censor and don't worry if it sounds odd. Is there a particular place or kind of place that makes your muse happy?
  1. Can you commit to doing at least one of the things you named in step 6 during the next week?
  1. Ask your partner for any connections they have made while listening to you.
  1. Your partner will write up a quick summary of how to make your muse happy and give it to you to keep.
Follow Up

Provide art supplies (or ask students at home to gather up whatever they can find-even typing paper and a pencil will do if nothing else is at hand) and ask each student to make a visual representation of their muse. Make the representation in the spirit of the muse: it doesn't need to be well executed, but rather it will serve to remind them that they have a muse and that they can connect with their muse at any time (especially when feeling stuck!). It's fun to put all the representations of the muses on the wall or around the room or to share them virtually and have each student introduce their muse.

What is really important about this exercise is that it gets students to think about what conditions support their creativity. If one of our aims is to help students develop lifelong creative practices and lifelong habits of creative thinking, it is highly valuable for students to know what helps each one of them, individually, to support their creativity.

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off-they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. "I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.

--William Stafford

--Exercise developed by Jane Hilberry, published in Wingbeats: Exercises and Practices in Poetry, Dos Gatos Press

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/17/2020