O for a Muse of Fire

It all started with an essay by Elizabeth Bachner on the nature of genius and the mysticism of art. She points out that “Genius is not, etymologically speaking, a trait, like prettiness or stupidity or discretion. Genii, in the Roman tradition, are spirits that enter a man’s body at his birth and leave at his death.” Bachner is dismayed by what she perceives as an anti-genius bias in today’s society. But it was her mention of the Roman genius that got me thinking. Thinking about the nature of inspiration and the realities of turning that inspiration into finished work and not just hopes for the future.

Part of the role of the tutelary genius was to guard, if not actually determine, a person’s character; thus, in the sixteenth century genius came to be used in direct reference to a person’s inclination or bent of mind, as in Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poetry (1595): “A Poet, no industrie can make, if his owne Genius bee not carried vnto it.” In the next century this led to the sense of ‘a strongly marked aptitude.’ This sense of genius was often used of poets and artists, and in England in the eighteenth century the Romantics began to use genius to mean ‘an extraordinary native intellectual power,’ especially as manifested in an unusual capacity for creative activity of any kind.

—from The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories

There’s a misconception that says that in order to do your best work, you should only work when the spirit seizes you. It’s an old Romantic notion, and not really subscribed to by many who do creative work seriously. If we only worked when we really felt like it, we wouldn’t get anything done (I discovered this through hard experience.) Art involves a lot of hard work and unglamorous dedication. To succeed, you need to make (and keep) good working habits and keep at it even when your artwork feels like, well, work. Keeping habits, being productive, it doesn’t exactly sound like Shakespeare’s muse of fire, does it? But it’s critical.

The problem is, the rejection of the Romantic notion leads some too far in the opposite direction: that you need not a muse of fire, but to “fire your muse:” buckle down and Get Things Done. Get productive and start working and forget that mystical happy talk about muses and inspiration and geniuses. But in that case, why make art at all? God knows, it’s a damned impractical thing to be doing in the first place. Without the inspiration, the genius, the muse, well, what’s the point of making art? You’re much better off being a lawyer. Unless, of course, there is something in you that is demanding that you create and just won’t shut up about it, like the Romans’ tutelary genius. The truth of it is that you need both to thrive. Art is a calling and it’s not foolishness to call it that. But it also requires showing up and working every day: your genius will come, but it usually finds you when you’re working.

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note: Originally posted in 2009, this essay got lost when I transferred to WordPress and redesigned the site (thank you, Wayback Machine!) It was brought to mind again when I was creating my eraser stamps. I have little to add except that I actually agree with everything Merlin Mann wrote in the essay linked in the final paragraph, except for the firing muses part. I like the idea of muses.

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