Finding and Harnessing Your Muse

My computer screen blacked out into sleep mode more times than I care to admit before I wrote this opening sentence. Then, like Newton’s proverbial apple, inspiration knocked me on the head—that classic yet elusive “Aha!” moment. For writers, inspiration is the Holy Grail. We’ve all sought it and heard tales of it; throughout history, people seized by inspiration have often admitted to feeling an almost “divine” presence take hold.

So how can writers harness this drifting, fickle entity? And who’s to blame when the creative juices run dry?

To think of inspiration as “divine” may actually provide some relief. Rather than muddying the mind with self-sabotaging thoughts like, I’m not gifted enough and all the good ideas are taken, writers can view inspiration as a muse that delivers creative intervention every so often. If nothing else, it takes the pressure off.

In her TED talk (, author Elizabeth Gilbert explains how, after she wrote the bestselling sensation Eat, Pray, Love, people said to her, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that?” And she openly admits, “It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.” But Gilbert describes how she’s found comfort in ancient Greek and Roman history, looking to a time when people believed that an invisible spirit from an occult source imparted creative counsel to humans. They called this spirit a “genius,” and it lived in the walls of artists’ houses, coming out occasionally to loan inspiration.

It’s this idea of inspiration being “on loan” that could ease a writer’s mind. That way, the artist can’t take full credit—thereby protecting her from narcissism—and it’s also not the artist’s fault if her work falls flat. Gilbert says it’s a “good way of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process.”

And she’s right—this is a delightful way to explain the phenomenon of inspiration. But if writers only wrote every time they felt “inspired”, we wouldn’t have much reading material. To quote Leonard Bernstein: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.” Or as Peter De Vries puts it: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

So what’s a writer to do? Keep showing up. And if the muse remains hidden within your walls, here are some ideas to coax it out:

  • Engage in a bit of people watching/listening. Practicing the art of observation in a public place can awaken the senses. Witnessing body language and overhearing conversations might provide substance for your novel’s next scene.

  • Free write. Take ten minutes to write stream-of-consciousness style. Afterward, see if you wrote anything worth using. Legend has it that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks, typing nonstop onto a 120-foot scroll.

  • Make a change of scenery. If you’re feeling stuck in a writing rut at your usual desk, get out. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was famously inspired by her solo pilgrimage to Italy, India, and Indonesia. But it doesn’t have to be quite that drastic—something as simple as taking a stroll can help.

  • Read. In his book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon recommends emulating your favorite authors. Adopting someone else’s style can lead to surprising outcomes.

  • Stick with the tried and true. Many people use a faithful method or habit to find an inspiration that is uniquely their own. Showering has always been my muse. When I need to solve a writing conundrum, the hot water clears my head and allows me to focus. Supposedly Hemmingway always had to sharpen twenty pencils before he could write.

Of course, once you’ve found inspiration, the real work begins. Even the most famous creative icons have to finesse great ideas until they’re fully formed. In 1964, Paul McCartney woke up with a tune in his head and rushed to play it on the piano before forgetting it. The melody became The Beatles’ runaway hit, “Yesterday.” Initially, McCartney titled the song “Scrambled Eggs,” and wrote the second line as “Oh my baby how I love your legs.” He ultimately changed the lyrics, and “Yesterday” became the most recorded song in history.

So go on. Keep showing up. One of these days, McCartney’s muse may loan itself out to you.