The muse is often referred to as a child, and not in a good way. The part of our mind we like to think of as our “real” self is not comfortable with the messiness of the unconscious.
The nonlinear, associative, and playful nature of the unconscious is a gold mine for creatives, though. It deserves the same respect as the goal driven competitive side of us–but rarely does that happen.
In fact, true playfulness is a slippery concept for most adults. Play get tarred with the brush of procrastination; it’s labeled as a stalling activity by that stern inner voice reminding us of all the important tasks to be done and important people to be pleased. We dole out play to ourselves with Scrooge-like suspicion or steal it with a guilty heart. A chocolate or a game of angry birds–but only when the word count is met, the house sparkles, and everyone elses’ needs are sated.
Play is at the bottom of everyone’s list.
And we wonder why our writing becomes stale and forced.
We need both side of our mind to be successful, yet the world rewards tangible, countable achievements. We must create habits that nurture the muse, that make fluid the connection to our unconscious selves, and this requires deliberate practice.
A while ago when I was feeling bruised by publishing, I stumbled on the work of Julia Cameron, and the warm encouragement of her voice has stayed with me ever since. It is in that spirit that I offer the following suggestions for the care and feeding of your muse:
1. Warming up. Julia calls these morning pages, but I like to think of this as clearing out the gunk. Warming up is a deceptively simple journaling technique that is done in long hand and without censoring. Just write and let whatever’s on the top of your mind come out on the page. Keep going for at least three pages, and you’re done. These entries tend to be filled with worries, obsessions and plenty of self-criticism. Perfect. Just let the words flow and then put it aside. Writing long hand connects you more intimately with your emotions, so don’t do this on a laptop, even though that’s tempting because you can put a password on it. Put your journal somewhere secure, and do the writing long hand every day. Your muse will be heard more easily when the gunk is cleared out.
2. Playdates. The key here is to find activities and destinations that pique the interest of your muse. These need not be formal destinations like museums, theatres, or even movies–although they could be. I love free stuff. I enjoy spending time walking near water. Just touching objects that are colorful or have unusual textures, such as beads, yarn, or even paint color cards from Home Depot is simple, yet absorbing fun. Libraries dedicated to single subjects like gardening or history reconnect me with the childhood joy of being swept away to another time or place. Just make sure your muse gets the floor. No multi-tasking or errand-running allowed on playdate’s time. Take one hour or more per week purely to explore, experience and enjoy. You need to do this alone, too. Lunch with a friend is great, but doesn’t count. This is you nurturing yourself. Ditch the guilt. Once you get the hang of this, you’re gonna love it. And the benefits are an increased sense of freshness, even delight, when you hit the keyboard again.
3. Training Wheels. Mindfulness is another tough concept for many people to wrap their head around. Perhaps that’s because mindfulness is the opposite of “efforting” or forcing something to happen, which is the learning method we’ve all had beaten into our brains. But learning to be still with ourselves pays big dividends–greasing the skids of creativity and making us feel better physically. Our world overflows with information that demands our attention. Keeping up creates stress and a false sense of urgency. Being able to disconnect from that flow is a powerful tool. The slower alpha and theta brain waves of deep creativity are similar to those experienced in meditation. (Start here if you wish to know more of the science.) Take this one in small bites of perhaps five minutes and work up to longer sessions. Sit comfortably and concentrate on your breathing. Focus on how the air you breathe into your nostrils is cool, but warm when you exhale. Treat your thoughts like passing clouds. You see them float by, but you aren’t attached to them. You let them go. You remain fully present in this moment. Mindfulness is fantastic training for the keyboard. It makes accessing that state authors refer to as being in the flow or the zone quicker and easier. It makes it a habit.
If you have time for only one thing this week, I recommend the playdate. What things does your muse love? You never know until you let her out to play.