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?