Breaking down the Muse


Dear Artist,

Upon analyzing more than six decades of creativity-related papers, English scholars have isolated some recurring themes. Kent University computational scientist Anna Jordanous and Sussex University linguist Bill Keller suggest that fourteen interdependent components can be identified as the building blocks of creativity. As artists, we know them collectively as “the Muse” and, at the risk of spoiling our mystery, here they are:


“Sappho kissing her lyre”
Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891)

1. Active involvement and persistence (Can you problem solve? How’s your grit?)

2. Dealing with uncertainty (Can you stomach the unpleasant middle parts of the process of innovation?)

3. Domain competence (Are you better than most or striving towards mastery in your craft? Every ballerina learns to point her toes first.)

4. General intellect (Are you bright? Can you build knowledge?)

5. Generating results (Are you able to see things through? Can you overcome obstacles?)

6. Independence and freedom (How free do you feel at your workstation? Who and what are you working for? Do you feel fulfilled? Are you having fun?)

7. Innovation and emotional involvement (What do your ideas mean? How invested are you?)

8. Originality (How do you get ideas? Is there a way to extract better ones? Are you adding something? Can you surprise yourself?)

9. Progression and development (How do you explore options? Can you nurture a concept? What about failure? Looking back over your output, have you made any distance?)


“Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helion (Parnassus)” 1680
by Claude Lorrain (1604-1682)

10. Social interaction and communication (The circle of creativity includes feedback, and certain art forms thrive on collaboration. Do you feel a sense of community? Is there a mentor or student who advances your creative practice?)

11. Spontaneity and subconscious process (Can you let go?)

12. Thinking and evaluation (Can you critique your own work and edit objectively? How do you make decisions? Do you know what you’re doing?)

13. Value (Is your contribution meaningful? Are you advancing your art form? Is your role special?)

14. Variety, divergence and experimentation (Can you play?)


“Poem of the Soul 13 – Sunbeams”
or “Dancing Circle of the Muses”
by Louis Janmot (1814–1892)



PS: “I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.” (Ray Bradbury)

Esoterica: Worth noting is that nowhere on Jordanous and Keller’s list are the conditions of depression, heartbreak, narcissism, wealth, poverty, over-the-top self-belief or underlying doubt. In fact, in a separate study at Rice University, psychologists noticed that the most creative people were those who easily roll through both negative and positive moods over the life of a project. It turns out that creativity suffers if you’re too sad or too happy all the time. Ups and downs are good, and unhelpful myths about what it takes to make art distract from the fun of zeroing in on easel time’s most basic movements — what I call, “organic plodding with joy.” Also worth remembering is that any one of these creativity components can be developed and strengthened — you need only the desire to nourish them. “So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality.” (William S. Burroughs)

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“The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” (Roger Ebert)



  1. New territory for me. My first introduction to the “Muse”. I like your summation of what it means to zero in on easel time and the order one needs to be part of the creative process.

  2. “I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.” Or not. The muse can be a bitch. None of these strategies can make make her sing if she if doesn’t feel like it. That’s the Pit. But even that feeling of abandonment can be inspiring, and makes it even more thrilling when she returns.

  3. I’m sure, after my decades of painting, that the Roger Ebert quote at the bottom sums it up really well. For me it’s…start painting and what you need comes with work, not before.

    • Nancy Ericksen on

      I totally agree with the Ebert quote. After any kind of random beginning, I stand back and respond to what’is on the paper (or canvas or whatever….). I am a great believer in the infamous “happy accident”. The Muse doesn’t show up until I am responding to something, whether that is something I see in nature, something I hear in music or something I’ve done with paint. I thank Barbara Nechis (Watercolor from the Heart) for that approach. Not for everyone, to be sure, but it works well for me.

  4. Read The War of Art and Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. I haven’t read Turning Pro as yet. And Eight Steps to mindful Meditation helps coral those sabotaging thoughts. Put them into the compost heap. And the thoughts or the negative people you want to dust off occasionally, put them into your cloud museum!

  5. One thing that disturbs me is I cannot be original. I still copy other artists work……..when will that change or will it? I feel satisfied that my writing is quite original but not my painting. I still love them both.

    • Muriel, You obviously have done some traveling. Use the photos you have of things you thought worth recording. As a watercolor teacher of decades I’d advise a subject of something close at hand. Leave the sweeping panoramas and famous vistas for later. Copying your own photos is perfectly legitimate. Don’t try for all details. Leave unnecessary stuff out. After a painting is started, put the photo away and finish with just you memory. Go for it and happy painting !

    • I read that if an artist ever does anything original…she/he wouldn’t recognize it. Just like the countless non artists who think if you do something like a famous artist, you’re great, but something original, that don’t know if its art. You and they lack a way to compare and validate it.

  6. Well written and interesting writing about the muse, Sara! I also like what Judith shared about meditation as I recently started a restorative yoga practise and realize the clarity that it brings to my creative self. I, too, need to place negative unwanted reactions in the “cloud museum.”. Love this ! The muse seemed to appear in your comment, Judith! Thanks

  7. If all else fails, a glass of (whatever) and good music may lift away the wall which inhibits the flow. I also recently changed from my studio to my dining room. House a mess but work in progress. IT’S MY HOUSE!

  8. Just wanted to recommend a book. I am reading the most extraordinary, remarkable, inspiring book about Creativity EVER,(and I’ve read many) and wish to tell everyone about it. As someone who has struggled with, suffered over, contemplated and even formally studied creativity [in graduate school] — thus far, almost halfway through reading this book, I am gratefully (and with astonishment) aware that so many of my questions and conundrums are being answered – resolved, even. By a most extraordinary writer. [Later: The last half of the book was also very good].
    It is BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, published in 2015.

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