Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft inspires me for many reasons. It’s insightful and honest and beautifully written. As the title suggests, the book is part autobiography, part instruction for writers (and aspiring writers), from one of the most well-known and successful contemporary novelists.
I was particularly relishing the chapter of the book where the author shares some of his hard-earned wisdom about writing good fiction, when I was sidetracked by a comment about Muses of all things (for the record, I tend to capitalize the word Muses, while King does not).
King begins his Muse digression by pointing out the following in a footnote :
“Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine’s a guy; I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.”
Wait, Stephen King admits to having a Muse? And not only that, but this Muse - er, muse - of his is a guy? Hold on, brain processing data…
You see, I’ve written a fair amount about the Muses in my time. It’s kind of inevitable when you have a web site devoted to discussing mythology and art. And in all these years of reading and writing about myth, I don’t recall too many authors revealing the specific details of how their inspiration manifests in such vividly concrete terms.
I also suspect I’m kind of a traditionalist when it comes to considering the Muses. I tend to think of how the Muses were invoked in classical stories, such as the opening lines of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, or Hesiod’s poems, or even the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Or how they were depicted in these famous works of literature as goddesses who inspired mortals.
Here, for example, are the beginning lines of Hesiod’s Theogony :
“I begin my song with the Helikonian Muses;
they have made Helikon, the great god-haunted mountain, their domain;
their soft feet move in the dance that rings
the violet-dark spring and the altar of mighty Zeus.”
(Hesiod, Theogony, lines 1-4, translation by Apostolos N. Athanassakis)
In addition to this, my perception of the Muses has also been influenced heavily by art. Some favorite examples, which all incidentally date to the Nineteenth century, are Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau, Euterpe or The Muse of Music by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Art and Literature by William Adolphe Bouguereau. In these images, the Muses are again portrayed as goddesses, female personifications of the idea of inspiration.
So needless to say, when I read King’s comment, I had a fairly strong reaction. Especially when I realized it was so at odds with my fundamental concept of the way the Muses have been traditionally regarded and depicted by artists.
After I regained my composure, I continued reading the passage in the book. Here again is Stephen King :
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative-fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is far? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he is on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Believe me, I know.”
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pages 144-5)
Even before I read this passage, I imagined that King’s muse would be a hard-working, pragmatic, no nonsense kind of guy who gets things done - I’d say like Stephen King himself, but that’s stating the obvious. And it turns out that it’s still up to the writer to do the heavy lifting. The muse is there purely to provide the inspiration, while the writer takes care of all the rest. I like this idea, very much.
Obviously I appreciate learning about this contemporary version of a muse (or Muse), and am thankful to Stephen King for sharing him with his readers in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Now please excuse me while I run down to the basement to see if there is a cigar-chomping, monosyllabic guy who holds a bag of magic hanging out down there. I have this book idea I’d like to discuss with him…