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Meeting Your Muse

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This is an exercise designed to help you discover a “muse,” a source of energy that inspires artistic production. 

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. Even if you are doing this remotely, it is possible!

The Set Up

Start off by reading the following poem:

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

People often think of the muse as a woman who inspires a man or as a classical female figure (possibly in a white dress), etc. For this exercise, it’s crucial to to suspend all your preconceptions of what a muse is. Your muse that emerges could be anything.  Some examples from other students:  an atom; fois gras; a mountain lion with green eyes; a swirl of blue and purple; a lake; the Stanley Cup. Trust your imagination, no matter how strange your 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 Questions
  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. It might help to close your eyes. What is that energy like? Try to get a sense in your body of what the energy feels like and where you feel it most strongly. Does it reside in one or more parts of your body? Does it have a color, texture, or sound associated with it? Does the energy move? 
  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

Now, make a visual representation of your 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 you that you have a muse and that you can connect with their muse at any time (especially when feeling stuck!)

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