On Muses

I just read a post by sarajayechan on the JournalFen fandom_discuss community about the use and general fandom annoyance with the term muse. Her first paragraph sums it up pretty well:

So in the fanfiction world, “muses” are apparently frowned upon. Authors who have convos with the characters in their authornotes are scorned, people who imagine the characters talking to them or whatever are considered stupid and delusional, and I remember someone once saying “authors with REAL TALENT just make themselves write, only second-rate writers use ‘muses'” (something along those lines).

I admittedly use the term muse a lot in describing my creative process. I even coined the phrase (that I sometimes see on icons that I didn’t design) that “Muses are imaginary friends for grown-ups” after learning that, yes, people look at you sideways when you start talking about your imaginary friends. When you talk about your muses, though, that tends to clarify imaginary activity as having a creative and not social intent. Some people even look vaguely impressed! 😀

Once again, I find the sliver of fandom that I occupy, albeit peripherally, these days, to be at odds with “fandom at large.” But then, I don’t think that the part of Tolkien fandom where I play even uses the term muse in the sense that sarajayechan and commenters discuss in her post. Certainly, I’ve never heard of “soul-bonding” or communing with muses on astral planes. I’ve never even seen an author carry on a conversation with a character in her or his author’s notes.

Instead, I find that I and people with whom I associate tend to use the term muse in different ways.

  • It becomes a shorthand for discussing the creative process during which one connects deeply enough to a character to write that character convincingly. I find the idea that “authors with REAL TALENT just make themselves write” to be hogwash. I was nattering under friend-lock on my journal last week about character writers versus plot writers. This sounds like it comes from the plot writers to me. Just as it is easier or harder to connect with certain people, it is easier or harder to connect to certain characters, in my experience. For example, I relate to Fëanor, with his creative compulsions and sense of injustice in the world, more easily than I do to Fingolfin, who is accepting of the Valar and life in Valinor in a way that I can’t imagine myself being. I can write out the explanation that I just did when discussing how Fingolfin’s PoV chapters in AMC are weaker than Fëanor’s. Or I can just say that I have a Fëanor muse but haven’t found a Fingolfin muse yet. Viola. I think most people in the communities I frequent would understand that this refers to a difficulty connecting to Fingolfin’s character, not that I haven’t started setting an extra place for him at supper.
  • The term muse can be used playfully, sometimes to deflect criticism. “My Maglor muse wasn’t happy that you made him flee from battle!” sounds less confrontational than, “I think it’s OOC to have Maglor flee from battle,” which opens up the whole can of worms about canon and interpretation and all that that we’ve been over a thousand times before. I’ve certainly seen the term used in this way.
  • It can be used just plain ol’ playfully. I might say, for example, that one day, Pengolodh just let himself in the front door, plopped down next to me, and started dictating “Illuminations.” I don’t actually mean that I imagined the front door opening or even that I imagine an Elven loremaster in the chair next to me (which is perpetually piled too high with books to occupy anyway). It’s just a lighter way to express the sudden out-of-the-blue whallop of inspiration that can feel like getting hit by one of those Shire freight trains: One day, you’re not in the least bit interested in writing a particular character, and the next, you suddenly think s/he is the most interesting character in the world.

Some people have brought up in the comments on sarajayechan’s post that muses are a way for writers to deflect responsibility for their own creativity … or lack thereof. Inspiration and creativity can feel magical, like they come unprovoked out of the ether and recede again just as quickly. My own experiences suggest that my creativity, at least, has a strong neurochemical basis … but it still feels magical, and attributing inspiration or lack thereof to something outside oneself becomes a handy way to explain the inexplicable or (in my case) avoid hard truths like, “I’m not writing because I’m dysthymic or stressed out.” Instead, I’m not writing because Maedhros isn’t back from his Caribbean cruise yet.

So what are your experiences with muses? Do you use the term? What does it mean to you? Have you encountered fans or writers who believe that they actually connect with muses? Have you seen disparagement, in fandom or otherwise, of the term muse? Do you think it’s a cop-out, a shorthand, or something else entirely?

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11 Responses to “On Muses”

  1. JunoMagic says:

    I can only repeat what I’ve said over there (and expand on it 😛 ).

    I’ve been active as reader, writer, beta-reader, mod, and community owner in LotR and HP fandom since 2004, and I have to say that I’ve never encountered anyone scorning Muses in either fandom.

    Instead, I think Muses and their cousins, the plot-bunnies, are praised and played with all over my flist and Buzz list.

    There are abstract Muses that are more like ideas that come to writers or not, and very concrete Muses that take all shapes and forms from cats to dinosaurs or admired actors. We write Buzz comments to and about our Muses, and there’s been more than one meme that was about writing a letter to your Muse in recent years.

    So all I can say is that I’ve never heard that Muses have a bad reputation in fandom, quite the opposite.

    … seriously, when I saw your link and read that I was all WHUT??

    I think Muses can be all kinds of things to different persons and even one and the same person.

    They can be just fun fandom terms. My flist and Buzz list talk about their Muses all the time!

    They can make sense within the framework of an indvidual artist’s or writer’s creative process. And what Muses mean in that personal context can vary as wildly as the creative process.

    They can even be claimed as personal Goddesses by a Pagan worshipper. And I must say I found it a trifle offensive how that aspect wasn’t mentioned at all.

  2. Dawn says:

    I don’t know if you’re offended by my lack of mention or of sarajayechan’s (or her commenters’?), but I think it’s safe to say–definitive in mine, since I can speak for myself–that none of us posted with the intent of providing a comprehensive view of how every single person in fandom uses “muses.” I would want to speak with Pagan fans who use muses in this way before making any unfounded statements about another person’s religious beliefs.

    I was also surprised by the post, enough of course to spark my own post. I can’t speak of the HP fandom, since I’m not a part of that fandom, but in reading on Metafandom, I constantly get the impression that the Tolkien fandom is very … different. Whereas other fandoms seem to have a lot more fluidity, with people writing in multiple fandoms or frequently trying new fandoms, Tolkienland is much more rigid and isolated. There are those, like me, who have been doing this for years and have zero interest in other fandoms, or those who have been doing this for years and occasionally play in other fandoms, primarily based on other books (HP being a perfect example) or other fantasy fandoms (Game of Thrones being one that has arrested several good friends lately). So I’m quite used to that WHUT? feeling when reading about Fandom at Large on multi-fandom sites like Metafandom. I sort of feel like my impression of fandom is like Lothlorien: It doesn’t change much across the years, so when I find myself in company with those who are used to rapid change, I feel a little … discombobulated. :)

    A good fandom friend and I used to chat on YIM as our characters … not RPing, per se, just chatting. Bobby will converse with my characters sometimes; he can tell my voice from all of theirs. Because I like to start with characters, interacting as a character helps me to understand that character as a person and also tune into the small details that help make a person feel real, particularly speech patterns. So I’m glad you brought up writing to muses, since that was an angle I didn’t think of when writing my post.

    These things are very personal to me, though. They aren’t things that I can imagine sharing with Fandom at Large, via author’s notes for example. (I’m half-regretting some of the admissions above, but what the hey.) So I can understand why some commenters on sarajayechan’s post were annoyed by this sort of thing. (Although, my standing policy that’s gotten me this far in fandom has always been that I can scroll past what I’m not interested in, and if it’s too annoyingly pervasive, the BACK button is only a mouse-click away. 😉 ) However, if people are comfortable with revealing what is, to me, the raw bones of the creative process, power to them! 😀

  3. Lois says:

    Well I’ve never written a conversation with any of my muses, but how I take my coffee changes depending on whose PoV I’m writing from – to the extent that I will take a sip of coffee first, and then decide whether or not to add sugar. And I am talking about coffee from the same coffee shop. Sure it’s weird, but it happens!

  4. Independence1776 says:

    I’m going to be somewhat on the opposition here.

    I *don’t* like the term “muse” when it’s in regard to _my_ characters. They’re people in their own right, so that’s why I call them characters. Muse is too esoteric, too flighty, and too far from how I see them. They talk to me, but I have never and never will use the term for them. (Also, I’ve never been afraid to say my characters talk to me. People either get it or they don’t, but all of my friends are creative types, so they understand, and theirs are the opinions I care about.)

    I do feel that many people who use muse (not people on my flist, but newer and/or younger writers), use it as a way to avoid responsibility and discipline in writing. After all, if your muse isn’t talking to you, you can’t work. It’s a way to avoid learning how to write through the downtimes, the times you write nothing but crap, the times when you can’t write but need to meet a deadline– whether schoolwork, actual work, a ficathon, etcetera.

    And in a way, it’s sort-of like saying, “I’m not really creative. See– something else is telling me to do this.” It’s not taking pride in your own imagination. This is a reflection on a larger part of society, that artists, writers, etc. are looked down upon or told that unless they’re making money off it, there’s no point in doing it. Muses are something that can go away when creativity is no longer “correct.”

    I don’t care that people use the term muse, but I don’t really understand why they do. Out of your three bullet points, the last one is the only one that made sense to me (and even then, I wouldn’t use “muse” to describe what happened). So, in the end, it comes down to personal preferance, interpretation, and understanding of the word. A lot of people use it; I’m not one of them.

  5. pandemonium says:

    This must be one of the more ludicrous “controversies” in fandom to which I have eyt been exposed. I won’t belabor it here because I have already offered my, uh, rather strong opinion on the matter on the journal fen site.

    I mean, how difficult is it to pick up a dictionary and read “source of inspiration” as one of the definitions of the noun “muse”? Not all of us use the word in the sense of an imaginary friend.

    I notice I fucked up an HTML tag in that rant, too. I hate it when that happens.

  6. Dreamflower says:

    *blinks* It seems very odd to me that any creative community would find the term “muse” offensive or annoying. I certainly agree with all the definitions you’ve given, and can tell from context, usually, which version people mean. In my neck of the woods, it’s usually meant humorously.

    That said, it’s not a word I myself often use, and when I do it’s usually along the lines of meaning something synonymous to a plot-bunny: those ideas that hit us, usually when we are attempting to concentrate on other previous ideas.

    As for dismissing the idea of inspiration or “muses” and saying that just sitting down and writing is all that is necessary, I beg to differ. We all need SOME sort of inspiration from SOMETHING, and “muse” is a nice shorthand way of saying that. There is the old saying that success is “10% inspiration and 90% persperation”, but the thing is, without that 10%, the 90% won’t mean anything.

    Even a child told to sit down and write sentences using his/her spelling words is going to need an idea, an inspiration, for each of those sentences..

  7. Himring says:

    Lipstick talked to the Quendi on her LiveJournal. Some of it was just chitchat, but one of the more elaborate pieces got her a Galvorn Award, I think.
    I did something like this in the story notes to West Wind Quartet. I didn’t call it “muses”, I called it: soundbites from “The Making of”. Whether it’s annoyed anyone, I wouldn’t know.

  8. Spiced Wine says:

    I use the word ‘Muses’ or speak of characters in the third person as thinking, feeling people, but so do many published authors.
    If you read interviews where they speak of one of their characters, they will frequently answer questions about them in such terms as: ‘He/She thinks/feels/wonders/is a person battling with their own uncertainty…’ etc. If one spends a long time writing from a certain characters point-of-view, it’s perfectly natural to refer to them as one would a real person. It has to do with the amount of time spent developing that person to, well, indeed be a *real* person within the story. If the character is well-developed, then they do take on their own reality, and if they do not, then the writer has failed at giving them life, and the reader will not be interested in them.

    When I begin to write a character, especially OC’s (and often before I type one word) I know what they’re like, I know them intimately, but because their life is not mine, and they’re involved in their own stories, I don’t think of them as me, (because they are not.) They’re individuals that arise from my imagination, and calling them Muses is simply a way of saying that one enters *their* head-space to write them. The mind is an astonishing thing after all, and stating that it is unprofessional or ‘second-rate’ to use the term is clearly ridiculous, and honestly, time that could have been better spent with their own Muses.

  9. Blodeuedd says:

    This is a bit of a shot in the dark here, but do you remember reading and reviewing an ambitious Fëanor fanfiction called ‘Fire’ ages and ages ago? I’m Blodeuedd, the author… I’m going into my senior year of college now and was rereading some of my old fanfiction for old times’ sake when I came across some shout-outs I’d given you and some other reviewers. Even after all these years, it really touched me, so I just wanted to reach out across the Internet and say “thanks” – this blog seemed like the most current and up-to-date way of expressing it. I know you used to be extremely busy on the Internets moderating Silmarillion fanfiction archives, contests, workshops, etc… Is there any chance you still are? I’m extremely nostalgic for the wild and wonderful world of Tolkien (particularly our beloved Silmarillion characters!) and would love to find out what’s hip and happening on the scene with some of the older, more experienced writers these days. Figured you were the best person to approach. Drop me a line! B

  10. Sara says:

    Oh wow, I didn’t know I’d inspired this! 😀 *is flattered*

    Anyway! My experience with muses is…basically, it’s all just in good fun for me. I don’t REALLY believe the characters talk to me and tell me what to write, that’s all my choice. But say I’m writing a prideful character with a hidden soft side actually SHOWING that soft side, I might think “man, [character] is pissed at me” in a joking fashion. Or if I can’t seem to get a fic to work I might joke that the character isn’t behaving despite the fact that I, the writer, am just not feeling the character at the moment.

    Basically I’m sorta in both camps, in the “the writer makes the choices” and “yay muses”. For me it’s just…fun. I like fun. I write because I enjoy it. Logical rational Vulcan crap about TRUE WRITERS WITH REAL TALENT may be all well and good for other people, but I don’t need it.

  11. MithLuin says:

    I don’t tend to use the word ‘muse’. I think I associate it with ancient Greek poets, and have seen my fanfiction writing more as playing games rather than anything that, well, SERIOUS.

    But I’ll talk the same way about writing as other fanfic authors, I guess….’I woke up from a dream and I HAD to write this story’ or ‘Fëanor is causing problems, sorry for the delay’ or ‘Sirius said he would never say that, so I had to edit.’

    I have seen lots of authors on ff.net have little miniconversations with the characters in the chapter notes for the stories. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes it’s silly, and yeah, sometimes (as a reader) you just skip over it and get on with the story. Just because the author puts something up for her own amusement doesn’t mean it’s actually part of the story. And, as always, readers are free to skim over or skip things that don’t interest them. I’ve never heard anyone complain, but of course I could see how some of those little conversations could be viewed as silly or childish. I often assume that writers who do that sort of thing are younger than I am…I suppose because it reminds me a bit of passing notes in high school and the like.

    I do know one author/artist who takes the muse thing very seriously. Frodo has been ‘following her around’ since the movies came out, and while I don’t mean to imply that she’s been hallucinating Elijah Wood or any other form of mental illness, I do think she means something by it that is a level beyond ‘playing’ with imaginary friends. But, I can’t speak for her, of course, and I do not share her experience, so all I can say is that what she writes strikes me as a whole nother ball of wax from the generic ‘inspiration’ that many people talk about when they mention muses.

    But the whole conversation reminds me of this letter that Tolkien wrote late in his life:

    A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well-known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.

    I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: “Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?”

    Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: “No, I don’t suppose so any longer.” I have never since been able to suppose so.

    Tolkien didn’t use the word ‘muse’, but certainly ‘not writing it all yourself is an admission of something like that. That should put to rest the idea that only young or inexperienced writers say such things.

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