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.