Don’t Wait for the Muse

Back in the day, when I was doing a lot of paper and digital collage work, people would often ask questions like “What inspired this?” or “How do you know where to start?” I never had a good answer for these kinds of questions, because the truth was that I didn’t start anywhere in particular. I started with a scrap of something, and let it guide me to the next piece. Very little method to the madness.

Though I was often happy with the results, sometimes I felt like I was doing some kind of “fake” art. Real artists are inspired from the start, not noodlers, I thought. I appreciate this quote from film critic Roger Ebert: “The muse never shows up at the beginning.” You have to start doing something and trust the muse will follow, not the other way ’round.” On the other hand, total freedom isn’t necessarily a good thing for the artist either. Federico Fellini:

“I don’t believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there’s one thing that’s dangerous for an artist, it’s precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.”

There’s got to be a germ of something at the beginning, and artists use various techniques to find that seed, to make the muse come to them. For me, that technique often amounted to finding a particular scrap of paper that told the beginning of a visual story, or two pieces of paper that fit together in some unexpected and synergetic way. Sometimes the hardest part was trying to get that initial spark to take light. Once it happened, often the whole collage would fall into place, almost build itself.

Man, I miss that feeling.

Music: Richard and Linda Thompson :: Dimming of the Day / Dargai

4 Replies to “Don’t Wait for the Muse”

  1. As an aspiring artist, I don’t quite agree that an artist shouldn’t be free. There ae so many artists who are brilliant because of their freedom to choose, not everyone will fall in the category of doing nothing, because we are all motivated or inspired by different things. I feel if you are really invested into your work, most of the time thats all you end up doing is working, because it fills that void in your life. I’ve been debating about this to other artists friends that I have met through a site I just started working with called Cyworld. Cyworld is a great place to meet new people with shared interests, to be creative and show off all of your talents. You should check out our website, CYWORLD is a Creative World.

  2. Scot, I think I agree completely with your account of creativity and inspiration. When I’m writing creatively (or, more rarely, drawing) I find I just have to start with *something*. More often than not, inspiration never comes, but if it does, it’s more likely to happen in the middle of a project than at the start.

    As for creativity and freedom: The romantic view of art is that the more freedom you have, the more creative you can be. In actual life, however, the two have an inverse relationship: The less freedom you have, the more creative you are forced to be. This is why many artists, including the greatest, set very stringent limits for themselves. Jackson Pollock for instance wasn’t just spraying paint all over the place, he set himself the problem of how to make great paintings using nothing but drips. That’s actually an *extremely* restrictive limitation, which forced a great deal of creativity.

  3. Was listening to a podcast of a talk recently by “that dude” at 37signals (forgot his name) and he was talking at length about the critical importance of constraints in everything you do – the importance of having less money, less time, fewer resources than you think you need. Lots of constraints keep idea rosters from swelling out of control, keeps your code lean, keeps feature creep under control, keeps employees on their toes and resourceful, keeps the sloth out of the organization and out of the codebase. I really dug what he was saying.

    I think this applies to art as well, but in a parallel vein, perhaps foundations/seeds are to art what constraints are to companies/code. Maybe not. I’m just rambling, but it seems like there’s a parallel there somewhere.

  4. I’ve often been held back by that feeling of “I don’t know where I’m going with this”, but increasingly I’ve heard more and more artists, writers, photographers, film-makers say that he only way to do it is to make a start and then let the work guide you.

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