The essential “trick” to creating my best art is to cultivate that inner state in which I release conscious control and open to influence. I enter the wildness and wilderness, the unknown in which I let the wind of inspiration blow through me, the strange happen, the wondrous to seep through the cracks. It’s all about availability and surprise.
Conscious intention helps very little. The best work comes through the back door, when I am not watching anxiously for its arrival and not judging the clothes that it comes in.
Disordering the Senses
In a letter to his publisher-friend, the sixteen-year-old poet Rimbaud wrote:
“The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.”
Rimbaud sought to derange his senses through a deliberate strategy, including “drink, drugs, even poison; he would endure unspeakable tortures, commit acts of violence, become a criminal, risk losing his poetic insights, even risk death,” writes Jeffrey Meyers in The Kenyon Review.
Artists often fall into this trap of resorting to extreme measures to cultivate the state of creative receptivity. But this is not what I am talking about, nor do I believe such techniques are necessary or helpful in the cultivation of a productive creative life.
It’s note-worthy that Rimbaud stopped writing completely at the age of 20 and died at 37. Many other artists employing similar strategies, usually less deliberately, wind up dead of suicide or overdose.
Quieting the Mind
Rather, the best work happens through openness, invitation, experimentation, play and listening. It comes most often through a willingness to make mistakes, try anything, have no notion where I am headed. I have to give up measuring my progress when I create. I have to give up my goals, ambition, consciousness of self.
The composer and inventor John Cage said in an interview with Buddhist teacher Wes Nisker: “In the mid-40s I worked with a musician from India who came to study in the West, and she was alarmed about the influence that Western music was having on Indian traditions. She told me that the traditional reason for making a piece of music in India was ‘to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.’ Meanwhile my friend Louis Harrison was reading a 16th-century English text and found the exact same reason given for writing a piece of music. Then I began to wonder: what is a quiet mind and what are divine influences?”
Cage goes on to answer his own question: “In 1945 the great Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki came to Columbia to teach, and I went for two years to his classes. From Suzuki’s teaching I began to understand that a sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams.”
Inviting the Strange
But I find that, even as I quiet my ego in my art-making, I have to allow myself to be as quirky as I am, to have my persistent obsessions, fascinations and questions, to harp on the same strings over and over. I have to invest trust in my muse, my unique creative spark, even though she doesn’t show up many days or seems to arrive in rags, half-asleep, and gives me nothing but trash.
Still I show up and make myself available, read something inspiring, play with ideas and creative challenges to get myself going, put the pen in my hand and let it move, not knowing where it will go.
I keep showing up. That is what counts, above all else. Then, eventually, the muse shows up too—unpredictably, yes—but more often and with more wonderful surprises.
Creating the Opening
But I can’t just sit down in front of a blank page. I have to create the opening, the conditions for creativity—through solitude, ritual, inspiration, rustling the muse’s feathers with sensory input or ideas, games, challenges. I have to bring surprises, little treats and gifts I think might please my muse. And to keep things fresh, as with any lover.
Because your muse is like a lover, or should be. Your relationship with your creative spark, in order to thrive, needs to be one of love, romance, play, invitation, enjoyment, and also devotion, staying the course, working through the tough spots.
So, I have to quiet myself enough inside, shut out the noise of the world, the day’s demands for an hour or more. I have to grant my muse my full attention for that time.
Do you expect your lover to divulge their deepest secrets while you check your phone or put in a load of laundry? And yet you treat your muse this way, trying to create while letting yourself get distracted.
Do you hope your sweetheart will bring you their best gifts when you devote no time to knowing what they love and need, nor to providing what turns them on? Do you expect them to be ready for love at a moment’s notice with no foreplay on your part?
Your muse is no different. She longs for your attention and to be delighted, courted, pleased. For you to be truly available to her. And also interested and non-judgmental.
Then, she can be vulnerable, take risks, reveal herself to you in all her unique glory and awkwardness. If you then doubt and question and pick at that uniqueness, how eager will she be to see you again?
Courting Your Muse
My muse likes surprise, beauty, variety, and complexity. She likes to be provoked to think and feel simultaneously. Big questions that are difficult to answer get her excited, and being invited to do something fresh and strange, with no pressure. She appreciates having a big pasture to run in and plenty of time. And, like just about anyone, she responds well to kindness, encouragement, strokes from me, and yet also to be stretched to give her best.
When I create these conditions, she shines. Not all the time, by any means—I go through droughts both long and short—but enough for me to keep generating work I can be proud of.
What does your muse need? What does she love?
If you don’t know, experiment, try many things. Even if you think you do know, try some new avenues and experiences, especially if you are feeling dry.
If you are usually too busy, distracted, tired, or afraid to create, if you don’t set up the conditions for creativity to thrive, or you judge the muse every time she shows up, what do you expect her to do? What would you do if your lover treated you this way?
Instead of feeling guilty about how neglectful or abusive you have been toward your muse, how about making some small, do-able steps to give her what she needs now? Feeling guilty only keeps you in a cycle of avoidance and resistance. Instead, what are one or two things you can give your muse to please or entice her this week?
Experiment. See what conditions bring out the best in her. Start courting your muse now.
And be patient. As with any new or healing relationship, it takes time to build trust. It may take time for your muse to come out of her shell. Be willing to make “bad” art just to be making art at all. By showing up regularly with what she loves, she will begin to show up in her remarkable, one-of-a-kind gifts.