A Short Treatise on Training the Muse

Anyone who does anything creative will likely admit that there seems to be something beyond the daily, everyday self that collaborates with us in the making of things.

Many people call that something the muse. The ancient Greeks called that mysterious force the “muse;” the Romans called it the “genius.” Writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks dubbed it “the angel inside me.”

Many creative people complain about their relationship with that capricious, invisible force that enables their work. They feel like victims of its vagaries – when it shows up, how it shows up, and (heaven forbid), when it disappears for long periods of time. When I first began writing songs in my early 30’s, I also felt put upon by my muse and its strange habits.

For one thing, it used to wake me up in the middle of the night like a large rambunctious puppy, frisky and ready to play. At the time I had a day job that required me to show up rested and on my toes. After a series of these late-night “visits” that kept me up into the wee hours, I had a serious talk with her/him/it/them.

“Listen,” I said (firmly, grouchily, sleepily), “I have a body. I live in the realm of time. You don’t. So if you want these brilliant ideas of yours to come into form – and they are brilliant – you’re going to need to work with me differently. You can’t keep waking me up in the middle of the night! Come when I am awake and we’ll have a much better chance of working together.”

I felt a bit silly talking out loud to a disembodied presence, but here’s the thing – it worked. I stopped waking up with song ideas in the middle of the night. I also started showing up at my piano more frequently during the day so if there were songs hanging around, I’d be in a better position to catch them. I imagined that this negotiation of mine was unique….that other creative people didn’t have misbehaving muses like mine.

I was wrong.

Decades after my own experience, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert tell a story about singer/songwriter Tom Waits on the Radiolab podcast (http://www.radiolab.org/story/117165-help/). Waits is best known for his gravelly voice singing songs that deliver a strange blend of gritty reality and unexpected sweetness.

In an interview with Gilbert, Waits told about hearing a melody in his head while driving down an eight-lane freeway in LA. He had no way to catch the song – no paper, pencil, or recording device. His frustration at losing such a gem led him to look up at the sky and say, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come visit me during the eight hours I spend in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Just last week I passed both my story and that of Tom Waits along to one of my voice coaching clients. She’s engaged in writing songs for the first time and ….surprise….is finding herself awakened in the middle of the night by her muse. Somewhere out there right now is a muse who is learning how to dance with a human being.


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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9 Responses to A Short Treatise on Training the Muse

  1. Julia says:

    Yes I’m up at 3 am wordsmithing with ease … An inconvient gift freely given as directed by the the Divine. Such as an Empath’s nighttime awakenings🛐

  2. Great reflection! Vern

    “The code of the universe is written in beauty.”


  3. stanleykipper@comcast.net says:

    Barbara…lol, right on !

  4. Avril says:

    Ha – that’s a wonderful story! Or rather, stories. Maybe I need to prepare a big meal for my muse, because she isn’t showing up anywhere these days. What the heck, it’s worth a try – especially if she’s Jewish…

    xoxo Avril

  5. Lynn OBrien Music says:

    LOVE this one! And so would Liz Gilbert 🙂


  6. Susan Blackstone says:

    Beautiful story, Barbara. Thank you for sharing it!

  7. Bruce O'Brien says:

    Reading printed music is painfully slow for me, though I know how it works. I once had a melody in my head and no way to record it, so I tried to write it down on paper. I looked into my various song and music books to pick up what it might look like on paper, and I wrote something down that was crude but usable, and I still have it (somewhere) today. Still, as a self-“ear trained” musician, I’m not very well “paper trained”. The other night I had a dream where I was with other musicians and following a song written down, I realized that the music score was incomplete, they had left out a descant or echo on the verses. The song was the Beatles’ “Help”. Metaphors be with you.

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