The Elusive Muse: Reclaiming creativity and focus

Photo by Marcelo Quinan, Unsplash

For three months, I’ve resisted writing. I sat at my desk or the kitchen table — my favorite place to write — to compose an essay, but distraction beckoned me at every turn. The muse, that slippery, elusive impulse to create words from experiences and observations, had gone missing. Each week I’d tell myself that I’d write over the weekend, and Sunday night would come with nothing to show.

Wonderful ideas came at moments in my psychotherapy work, or on a hike, or in conversations with friends. I had flashes of insight, but writing them down was the tricky part. I used apps like Evernote and Pocket to collect interesting, pertinent articles to reference. I’d write a few lines and a title, but not finish the post. In fact, my Mac desktop became so cluttered with ideas and open pages that I was overwhelmed with all the fragments of potential posts staring back at me, giving me a glimpse into the world of attention deficit disorder (ADD). The mindscape becomes so cluttered with snippets of thoughts and ideas that nothing sticks for long, and nothing gets finished.

When Ancient Greeks needed inspiration, they’d call upon the muses. The one I’ve been needing is Calliope, the goddess of epic poetry and eloquence. Socrates said that when a muse takes hold of us, we’re compelled to create.

It would be great if invoking the muse were all there was to it. But the muse alone is not enough. Focus and perseverance provide the steam, the energy that gets things going. As Victor Hugo said, “Persistence is necessary to accomplish most anything of value.”

Claude Monet (1840–1926) offers a good example of persistence. He painted his garden at Giverny, France, with its beautiful water lilies, some 250 times over the last 30 years of his life. Some water-lily paintings were enormous murals, some were smaller canvases. “Know that I am absorbed by work,” he wrote in a 1908 letter, when he was 68. “These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession. It is beyond my power as an old man, and yet I want to arrive at rendering what I feel. I have destroyed some. . . . Some I recommence . . . and I hope that after so many efforts, something will come out” (quoted in Monet, Narcissus, and Self-Reflection: The Modernist Myth of the Self by Steven Z. Levine, p. 206).

Despite being displeased with his work, feeling that it failed to capture his intentions, and despite the cataracts that plagued him until a 1923 operation, Monet persisted. And he succeeded in creating some of the world’s most famous and best-loved art: his water-lily paintings hang in museums all over the world.

Monet found his work absorbing to the point of obsession even when he had to destroy canvases. Many people, though, find it hard to persist in tasks that are unrewarding.

In my three months of a writing slump, I did not persist. I gave up when the writing didn’t come easily. Sitting at the computer to write, I gave in to mind-numbing web browsing.

I had distractions besides the internet. Of course, I work nearly full-time as a psychologist, and have home and family obligations. The holidays took over a big portion of my attention, updating my software entailed much time-consuming tinkering, and my 24-year-old daughter was told me she was leaving to work on an mhealth project in Darfur, Sudan, to help the 90,000 displaced people living in refugee camps. I learned a lot in the last month about that region’s history and its genocides. Letting young adults make their own choices is the right thing to do…but still, I kept searching for recent news from Sudan, and that was a big distraction from my own writing.

At one point, my friend Sarah told me, “Susan, I think you need to get back to your blogging — besides, we all miss your posts.” In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (WaterBrook Press, 2001), Madeleine L’Engle quotes an unknown writer on the subject of discipline: “If I leave my work for a day, it leaves me for three,” going on to cite Arthur Rubinstein: ”If I don’t practice the piano for one day I know it. If I don’t practice it for two days my family knows it. If I don’t practice it for three days, my public knows it” (p. 196). By that formula, I will need a lot of catching up to do. But fortunately, I love to write, and I sense that the muse is not lost. She may have been taking a break, but she is near.

I have learned a few things over these last few months about how to make space for the muse to re-enter. Some ways to refocus:

  1. Tidy your computer’s home screen. Close all windows except the document you are working on; turn notifications off. Open a browser window only if it relates to your project. You can also try an app that blocks distractions.
  2. If you have a noisy environment, try headphones and/or closing the door to minimize distractions.
  3. Keep a regular schedule. As William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” Return to that schedule after vacations, holidays, or sickness.
  4. If you’re having trouble finding sustained time to write, try working in “chunks.” Break up your writing task into manageable pieces that you can accomplish in half an hour or 45 minutes. Then, knowing you have (say) half an hour before starting dinner, you can work on a half-hour chunk.
  5. Be mindful of self-care — get good sleep, eat well, exercise, and make time to relax.
  6. Don’t call your mother unless you’ve finished your writing task for the day.
  7. Cultivate will power and self-control.
  8. Write even when you don’t feel inspired.

One of the reasons that mindfulness has gained such traction is that most of us know we are only half awake. We use only a small part of our mental and physical resources. As William James wrote, being cut off from our creative resources leads to feeling as if a “sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch or clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding.” On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men (The Perfect Library, 1833).

James observed, that in a single successful effort of will, such as saying ”no” to mindless temptation, we gain vitality and reanimate our energy for days and weeks, giving us a new range of power. Giving in to habitual avoidance behaviors, only provides temporary escape, and ultimately leads to fatigue and inertia. It is not what we do that causes fatigue, but what we don’t do.
Susan J. O’Grady, Ph.D.

Dr. Susan O'Grady, Clinical Psychologist, Marriage and Couples Counselor. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Instructor.

Dr. Susan O'Grady, Clinical Psychologist, Marriage and Couples Counselor. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Instructor.