By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 14, 2010
Where do ideas come from? (I don’t mean the shower–or while we’re driving on the Taconic Parkway.) What is the source of creativity? Where did the iPad come from, or the Eiffel Tower, or Nude Descending A Staircase?
Here’s Robert E. Howard, who created the Conan the Barbarian series:
While I don’t go as far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything), I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present—or even the future—work through the thoughts and actions of living men.
This occurred to me, especially, when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series. For months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything salable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen—or rather, off my typewriter—almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.
For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storytelling. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the fact remains. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters.
If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that I don’t share Mr. Howard’s reluctance on this subject; I won’t hesitate to explain the phenomenon “by esoteric or occult means.” I just won’t call them esoteric or occult. They are, in my experience, nothing more than how creativity works every day.
We as artists or entrepreneurs work with unseen forces. Ideas are our medium. I’ve often envied lumbermen or miners or farmers. Their products are so–tangible. Alas, we in the creative fields work inside our heads. Songs and stories and software. How do we get this stuff? Where do we go to dig it up? If we were looking for oil or diamonds or russet potatoes, we’d know what to do. But where does Twyla Tharp go for the idea for her next show?
The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory.) Their names were Thalia, Erato, Clio, Euterpe, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Melpomene and Urania. Each one was in charge of a different art or science. It was the Muses’ task to inspire artists.
The cliche of the Muse whispering in the poet’s ear may sound far-fetched. But isn’t that exactly the interchange that Robert E. Howard described above? And haven’t we all had that same experience in one form or another?
When the ancient Greeks ran up against a phenomenon they couldn’t understand, they personified it. They gave it a human face and name and they called it a god. Today we may offer a superior smile when we hear this stuff. But were the Greeks wrong? Homer invoked the Muse. So did Plato and Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Xenophon and Aristophanes. What have you and I written that rates being inside the same zip code?
The key to the ancients’ explanation of the source of creativity, in my view, is that they placed it on another plane. The realm of the gods. I believe it. Inspiration comes from someplace that you and I can’t buy a ticket to. Call it the Unmanifest, the future, Cosmic Consciousness, Never-Neverland, whatever.
But it’s only the explanation that sounds airy-fairy. The reality is quite down-to- earth. I wrote a post a while ago called What The Muse Wants. What I was trying to do was demystify the process. Not to rob it of wonder (it is a miracle after all, in that it defies all laws of material physics), but to suggest that the answer for us working stiffs may be as simple as aligning ourselves with the principles of the process, the way a sailboat skipper sets himself to work with the winds and tides and currents.
We can’t control the Muse. We can’t command her. But we can serve her, and we can invoke her. The qualities that I call “professionalism”–patience, hard work, perseverance, humility, drive, generosity, ambition, tough-mindedness and so forth–are simply those virtues that seek to please the Muse, to bring her out of her shell and get her to do a little whispering.
I’m trying to serve her. That’s my job. I’m attempting, like Robert E. Howard, to tap into a dimension beyond the material one we’re living in. Because that’s where Conan comes from–and he’s my kind of barbarian.
[Thanks to Scott Locklin for turning me on to the Robert E. Howard quote above.]