The useless fantasy that makes writing tougher than it needs to be

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Imagine you're playing a medieval fantasy game in which your role is not warrior but writer. Rather than trying to find a gem or break a spell, your quest is to create a report.

As you journey toward this goal, you fight a series of monsters with names like Ennui, Self-Torment, and Delay. Your secret weapon against these and other perils is your Muse, a powerful female figure whom you summon by collecting spells for your writer's spell book.

When your muse magically appears, she looks like a cross between a sexy sorceress and a good fairy. She's a beatific presence wrapped in a leather bustier. And with a Mona Lisa smile, she produces what you so ardently desire: the finished pages of your report. Then, as swiftly as she appeared, she vanishes—until you collect enough spells to call her forth again.

 For centuries, the fantastic scenario I've just described was considered the reality faced by writers in the real world. Poets routinely opened poems with lengthy invocations of the muse. In many cases, writers would address their pleas for inspiration to one of the nine Greek muses, the goddesses of literature and the arts. In other instances, they would imagine their own personal muse, an alluring figure with whom they could achieve a mystical union and thereby give birth to their creative work.

From ancient times well into the nineteenth century, writers counted on having to conjure up their muse before conjuring forth their writing. Long prefaces praised and cajoled the elusive femme fertile. And this ritual of invoking the muse served writers well because the act of imaginatively embodying inspiration provided a kind of creative warm-up. Nothing cures writer's block like penning a few stanzas about yearning for a visit from the woman of your dreams.

Unless, that is, you're not a straight male writer. Or you're a writer who doesn't have time for rhyming, or someone who is writing for an audience that doesn't time for an elaborate preface. In such cases, perpetuating the myth of the muse can do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, many workplace writers do just that. People who haven't read a piece of poetry since the forced sonnet marches of freshman English vigorously uphold the myth of the muse, using it as an excuse for issues with writing productivity. They may not refer to her by name, but when they blame writer's block on a lack of creativity or a lack of talent, then they're pinning their own failings on an absent muse. Such writers are trapped in an ongoing fantasy game, wishing their avatar would suddenly experience divine revelation and not realizing that the game gives them the power to make that happen.

Like many myths, the myth of the Muse contains a grain of poetic truth but, if taken at face value, it becomes misleading. The grain of truth is that writing has always been and continues to be an incredibly complex, enigmatic process. Today, researchers in multiple fields are examining the writing process through multiple lenses. Linguistics, writing theory, psychology, cognitive science, and computing science provide some of those lenses, and with each turn of the lens we discover how much we have yet to learn about how writing happens. We may be able to use Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to map the various kinds of keystrokes involved in composing electronic text, but we still can't precisely say exactly how it is that a writer finds the right set of words to capture an idea.

But what we do know is that creative minds are not passive minds. People who study creativity tell us that "my muse didn't show up" is no excuse for not producing writing. Whether your task is to write a novel or a set of technical specifications, you need creative energy to turn thoughts into words, and that energy doesn’t happen through some mystical experience. It happens because of what we do and because of the environment we fashion around ourselves.

Teresa Amabile and her team at Harvard Business School have been examining what she calls "the social psychology of creativity" for nearly three decades. While such research may sound similar to the medieval attempt to define the various angelic species, Amabile hasn't spent her career guessing at the approximate height and weight of the average muse. In contrast, her work has debunked the very notion of the muse and proven that inspiration happens not by accident but by design.

According to Amabile, creativity is sparked when four conditions are met:

  1. We show up with relevant skills.
  2. We follow processes conducive to innovation.
  3. We're highly motivated to succeed at our task.
  4. We're surrounded by a culture that fosters originality.

These measurable, replicable criteria—not a lightning bolt from Zeus or a flash visit from one of his nine daughters—lead to creative activity.

For those of us who struggle with writer's block, this is empowering news. No more waiting on the Muse or the Force or The-Talent-I-Wish-I Had. If we want to be more productive writers, we just need to start acting the way consistently creative people actfollowing productive processes and creating environments that nurture creativity, not praying for inspiration.

If writing works like a fantasy game, then it’s a game in which we serve as game master. We play by the rules and environment we set, and once we recognize that, we’re well on our way to usurping the muse and seizing her power for our own.     


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