To work your muses, the first thing you have to do is separate your true muses from your false muses. Your true muses are those that turn you on, interest you, excite you and motivate you to explore further. Both true and false muses are generated in early childhood, and sorting them out can save a lot of trouble in later art and life. Fact is, we’re often pretty true to ourselves until our teenage years. That’s when derailment happens–jobs, obligations, family and social pressures, love interests.
Artists often find themselves trying to sort things out in middle life. These folks need to go back to their earliest dreams. By recalling the places and occurrences of childhood, they can bring up and clarify both positive and negative muses. You need to go with the positive ones–the ones that give good feelings. Here are a few of my own so you get the idea: collecting stuff, drawing stuff, observing wildlife, countryside rambling. My list would also include cars, boats, planes, libraries, museums and art galleries. I’ll not bother you with the negative ones.
Identifying your early positive muses gives keys to life’s direction–at least to paths worth checking out. As a kid I was struck by the design of things. On my ramblings by bike and on foot I noticed design in trees, rocks, clouds, water, darned near everything. My earliest drawings were fancied designs based on Nature. They were doodles like automatic writing on the margins of school books. For a while I turned to automobile design–but the spectre of “design teams” and the auto bureaucracy sent me packing. This was a breakthrough. My muse needed me to be my own team–to design alone.
Artists who dig up true muses need to connect them to exploratory work. Without this step, muses stay dreams forever. The works themselves need only be seen as assays. They become a continuing evaluation of the nature of the given muse. Some are infinite in complexity and may require many lifetimes. Here lies the miracle of making art. Connected to the part of you that is true is the key to an eternity of somewhat pleasant frustration, occasional quality and joyous satisfaction. Not a bad job when you think of it.
PS: “So cheat your landlord if you must, but do not try to short-change the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality.” (William S. Burroughs)
Esoterica: Subscribers have written about their love of flowers: “What can be done with them that’s not been done before? –close-ups, tangled gardens, abstractions, giants, miniatures, flowers in pots?” The answer lies in the childlike exploration of specificity. The great painters of marigolds have not yet been born. Think of a series of everything you can find out about marigolds. Let your muse find her way among marigolds just as you stood among them in your toddling-child innocence. In the words of Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
, “The most potent muse of all is our own inner child.”
This letter was originally published as “Working your muses” on September 2, 2008.
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