Inviting the Muse: Five Habits that Welcome Inspiration

Hans_Memling_ st John Altarpiece
Hans Memling (1479) St John Altarpiece

Writers, or artists of any kind, know that inspiration is like the Spirit. It blows where it wishes, and no one knows where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). Inspiration’s wind can’t be tamed. The Muse remains mysterious and free of our control. It often strikes suddenly and without warning, like lightening within its own thunder. But we can learn to place ourselves in its pathway, and so welcome the flash of insight when it comes. I’ve observed that many of the great writers invite inspiration by practicing the following five habits:

1. They pray. Immortal writers from Homer to Milton begin their works by asking for divine aid. Even secular writers admit their need for that mysterious bit beyond their own pen’s power. All the best artists know that inspiration shines in the soul’s window from without. The wisest know that it comes down from heaven. And so they ask for their daily bread, even their momentary manna. Authors from Augustine to C. S. Lewis note how a tricky turn of phrase, or shadowy idea, finds the path of expression after short prayers for “More light! More light!”

2. They create sacred space. Like the first man and woman, we writers need our own little paradise to work our craft (Gen 2:15). The Inklings, that famed literary group, thrived on collaboration. But at the end of the day, each of those legends went back to his own desk. The best authors sanctify space for writing and furnish it with their own favorable aesthetic to invite inspiration. The tools of our craft, the special pens, notebooks, along with paintings, photos, and of course books, all create an atmosphere for inspiration. Alan Jacobs, in his The Pleasures of Reading describes Niccolo Machiavelli’s enthusiasm for his own study. At evening he would remove his work cloths and don “regal and courtly garments” to “enter the ancient courts of ancient men.” Machiavelli looked forward to the inspiration found with the spirits of great thinkers, those he housed in his library.

3. They keep sacred time. Like monks at their prayers, good writers are always at their craft. Writers write after all, even when not inspired. In fact, the best artists know that a daily sacrifice is the surest way to encounter the Muse. Richard Hugo tells of a spectator who said, “That’s pretty lucky,” after seeing Jack Nicklaus chip a shot in from a sand trap. Nicholas quipped in return, “Right. But I’ve noticed the more I practice, the luckier I get.” The same is true for writers. That’s why keeping a journal is an integral part of many of the great artists lives. Faced with the prospect of losing her own journal, Poet Luci Shaw said, “I would feel that I had lost a part of myself. My self.” Keeping a Journal is our daily generative ritual in words, images, and ideas, an offering to the Muse in the pursuit of inspiration.

4. They take revitalizing excursions. Artists know that routine excursions stir inspiration. Writers from Winston Churchill to John Stott touted the benefits of short naps. Brief unconsciousness allows the wheel of our art to turn freely, coalescing ideas and drawing out fresh inspiration. Spurgeon, on the other hand, told his students that nothing would blow the cobwebs out of their brains more than a stiff walk out of doors. For others like poet Mary Oliver, slow ambling walks in nature stir the creative voice. But whatever your preferred excursion, remember the note book! Excursions invite inspiration that must be captured. So experienced writers keep a notebook on the nightstand, or carry a trusty pocket pad. Of course, you could just use your Gnostic notepad. But for many, digital media just doesn’t achieve the same sort of concrete incarnation those moments of inspiration deserve.

5. They revisit sources of inspiration. Authors return to certain books, those that inspired them to be a writer. The same is true for any artist. Milton valued Dante, Dante took Virgil as his master, and Vigil no doubt drew inspiration from Homer. Beauty begets beauty! And so it goes down through literary history. We all need our favorite writers, books, and poems, with those purple passages underlined. In a letter to his friend Author Greeves, C.S. Lewis suggested we return to every good book every ten years. By “good books,” Lewis meant those that had enriched and inspired him as a person and a writer. Yet few of us match the breadth of Lewis’s reading, and so our number of “good books” may allow a more frequent encounter.


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