If you’re going to write an epic poem, you have to begin with an invocation to the Muse.
Homer, the first known Muse petitioner, was great at this. Calling on these goddesses of creative inspiration to assist him in writing his best material, he ended up with The Iliad and The Odyssey.
But it works with lesser endeavors, too.
When I was raising three small children, the only writing I could manage was the occasional journal entry. Often I would begin by mentioning how long it had been since I’d last put pen to paper, and expressing the hope that the creative spark hadn’t abandoned me. I started referring to it as “invoking the Muse.” By starting each day’s writing with a humble acknowledgement of my human frailty I was inviting unseen collaborators to join me.
Even today, when I take a few moments to center myself and call in the forces of inspiration, everything flows. I find I can dive deeper, speaking plainly of those truths often hidden from everyday access. I resist the temptation of low-hanging vocabulary words in favor of more precise word choices, sometimes employing style manuals and my heavy, ancient Roget’s in service to the demands of the Muse. But I do it willingly. I don’t call her in and then waste her time. I’m grateful for those days that she joins me. And if she doesn’t, I faithfully slog through it anyway.
In her funny, inspired book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert seems to be talking about some version of the Muse when she writes, “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. . . And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”
Gilbert describes being pestered for weeks, even years, by an idea that wants to work with us, disturbing our dreams, organizing coincidences and sending chills up our spine (a universal signal of inspiration) until it finally has our full attention and cooperation.
I long for such pestering, but my Muses are subtle and infrequent. So I rely on invocations to draw them to me. Sometimes it’s a prayer. Sometimes I use invocations I detect
in the words of poet Mary Oliver. But my favorite invocation to the Muse is this dazzling poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.*
Try it. Adopt a position of prayer and use your best words to humbly invite the Muse into your creative striving. See what flows from you.
*Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, 2005, Riverhead Books (Penguin Group).