Muses at Water

I’m an artist. Specifically, I’m a writer, but I love all of the arts.

I don’t usually use the, “A” word to describe myself, even though it’s technically accurate. An “artist” is just someone who devotes a lot of time and effort to something creative, and pursues their chosen art seriously. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea, and yet I always have a misshapen sense of shame when I use the word, as though I am confessing to a crime that I did not commit.

I have no idea who started it, or how the virus spread, but somewhere along the line, the word, “artist,” took on an alternate cultural meaning that is roughly equivalent to, “special snowflake.” This alternative implication is so well-known that the erratic behavior of the, “temperamental art-eest” is a part of the popular consciousness. Generally, this running joke consists of the “art-eest’s” assumption that it’s ok to do clownish things and treat people like trash because, “creating,” makes them oh-so-much better than mere mortals.

For my part, I do not believe that creating things makes me some kind of demigod among men, and neither do any of the other artists that I know. Even so, I have this vague sense that that the word has a bit of a social stain on it: not an all-encompassing guilt, but just enough of a tint to make me wonder if the people around us mentally slap a, “douchebag,” sign on our backs whenever we use it.

The fastest way to tell a douchebag of the, “I-Call-Myself ‘Art-eest’ –Because-I- Think-It-Makes-Me-Better Than-You,” variety from someone who just happens to spend their time and effort on something creative, is how often, and in what context, the specimen in question talks about their, “Muse.” In my experience, people that loudly bemoan the fact that their unfaithful Muse has left them (and thus, that they are powerless to create until such time as she may return) are generally of the Douchebag variety. In fact, I would take that one step further and claim that people who un-ironically mention The Muse too often probably aren’t genuine artists at all. Please, put those tomatoes down and let me explain. Once I’ve said my piece, you may pelt away if you like.

People who ramble on and on about the all-encompassing power of The Muse to control creative output seem to be under the impression that the act of making art is tantamount to magic. They apparently believe that you just sit back, let, “The Muse,” guide you, and suddenly there’s a book or an album or a film where there was once only white space. I think I speak for a lot of creative people when I say that there is very little that I wouldn’t give to just sit down and create in the way that proponents of The Muse think that we do. My soul and the most vital of vital organs would be about it. Anything else I’d be willing to negotiate, up to and including my first born.

As baffling as this Magic assumption is to me, I can kind of understand where it comes from. From the outside, creating things must look a bit like an occult trick: Stephen King sits at his computer, and suddenly he has a new book out; Taylor Swift mentions on a talk show that she’s working on a new album, and a week later, there it is on the shelves at the local Target. Creating things looks like magic to people who have never experienced the process from the inside, because they only see the end of the road. They do not sit next to that artist during all of those months and years of research, idea development, drafting, revising and revising again (in the case of writers). They do not see all of the  cuts and changes and fine tuning that occur between early concept and final product. At most, the Douchebag Art-eest sees the beginning of the process (artist X mentions that they have an idea) and the end (the finished product), completely missing the period of development, change, and good old fashioned work that happens in between. As a result, he or she thinks, “wow, all it takes is a little Muse Dust and an announcement of a new project, and these Artists get all of that attention and respect? I can do what they do.”

The Art-eest’s misconception of what it takes to create something makes sense precisely because he or she has never experienced an actual creative process in the way that a serious artist does. I’ll use writing as an example, not because it’s better than other arts, but because it’s the one I happen to have hands-on experience with: generally speaking, serious writers do copious research into the professional conventions of their industry. Then, when they have an idea that they like enough to put the effort into it, they plan it, draft it, revise it, and then revise it again, and again, and again, until they finally have the piece the way that they want it.

When I say, “they revise it,” I don’t mean that they change a word here and a phrase there until it sounds right. I mean that they make major, piece-demolishing choices: add and delete entire plot threads, re-write chapters, alter or swap out major plot points. The revision process on a novel is normally so extensive that, according to both my experience and my research into the experiences of other writers, it’s not uncommon for Draft Two of a project to be almost a completely different book from Draft One.

Making those kinds of significant, global changes to the entire manuscript a minimum of two separate times is considered a fairly standard part of the process for writing one novel. Popular young adult fiction author John Green has stated that, due to the global nature of revision, he routinely writes, “three books in order to write one.” That’s why the road from having the idea to getting a book on the shelves can take years, even for established authors with publishers and fan bases. From what I have seen, all creativity, from music to acting to filmmaking to sculpture, requires similarly copious amounts of time, effort, and trial-and-error in order to master it. A serious artist is aware of the less glamorous side of his or her chosen art, because A. he or she has researched their industry and B. he or she has actually created and revised things a few times before.

The Douchebag Art-eest, on the other hand, is unlikely to be aware of the less glamorous realities of the creative process, because she does not actually engage in that process in a real way. She just calls herself a creator (musician, writer, actress, etc.) because she thinks it makes her cool. Going back to the writing example for a moment: if one’s only experience with writing something involves dashing out a school paper on the night before it’s due and running a quick spell check, then it wouldn’t be surprising if that student (and psudo-fiction writer) assumes that writing a publishable book involves similarly minimal effort. If that kind of slap-dash approach is the only “creative process” that a Douchebag Art-eest has ever experienced, why wouldn’t they assume that people in the arts are magicians pouring forth brilliance from a mysterious, ethereal haze?

Now, I am not staying that there aren’t aspects of the creative process that artists themselves do not completely control.  Whenever you do anything involving powerful emotions and a part of the mind that you do not live in full-time, things are bound to come up that surprise you. Making choices that are right for the project will usually involve allowing changes to the plan, letting things deviate from your original outline, and incorporating new ideas that occur to you mid-stream. That’s part of the joy of the process. Even so, I think that this small piece of the experience—this element of the unexpected, the unplanned, and the uncontrolled– has been ballooned and romanticized in the popular consciousness so much that some folks assume that this small part of the journey is, in fact, the entire map. Let one of those mislead people notice that a form of art might get them attention, or allow them to claim superiority over others, and you have the perfect storm for a Douchebag Art-eest in the making.

The Douchebag Art-eest picks up on something real when he or she notices an element of unplanned inspiration in someone else’s creative process, but I would argue that those unexpected moments have more to do with the subconscious mind than any magical, mysterious quality of the, “Ethereal Creator of Art”. On a personal note, I have had more than one experience of sitting down to write something and, in the course of developing the plot or fleshing out a character, discovered something on the page that I had not set out to put there. I have a theory that this happens because creativity is rooted in the same part of the brain that dreams issue from, i.e., the sub-conscious mind. This would explain why people so often get ideas when they are sleeping. I once heard an author say that she dreams about her characters when she’s working on a book.

Creativity forces you into the imagination, which is a part of the brain that most of us do not live in every day. That proximity to the sub-conscious might be what causes, “unexplained,” elements to just, “appear,” in a given work. A concept, theme, or image may push its way up from a submerged corner of the brain where the artist does not bother to look most of the time, and then show up on the page, screen or canvas more or less by accident. These elements surprise us, not because they issued forth from some mysterious, Olympian orb, but because they worked their way up from a part of us that we had never really noticed before. We finally notice these ignored parts of ourselves reflected back to us in the things that we create, and that thought or insecurity or assumption that’s been in us for a long time looks like something new. That’s one reason why creating things requires some measure of courage: it has a way of revealing parts of the creator that were never meant to be made public. If you want to know what an artist’s core hang-ups, issues and obsessions are, just take good look at the patterns in his or her body of work.

The assumption in the Art-eest attitude that creating things somehow makes one an Immortal among men fails to consider a pretty basic facet of humanity in general: everyone has a little bit of imagination. It’s a human trait. In fact, that little bit of imagination in all of us is what makes the arts possible. If artists were the only ones who had it, there would be no audience for art except its creators. Everyone responds to art in some form: there are very few people in the world who hate all stories or movies or music or painting, even among those whose passions lie in the sciences. There is something about art, in all of its forms, that speaks to the human soul on a very wide scale. The Art-eest fails to realize that, while he may well have some form of creative imagination, this does not, in and of itself, make him unique or rarefied among human beings.

I will concede that creative people generally have more active imaginations than most. I’ll even agree that most creative folks have a better sense of what it takes to move an idea from vision to reality than others do, but, contrary to the Muse worshippers’ belief, this is has nothing to do with a mysterious magic allotted only to the creative. It stems from a simple passion for one’s chosen art that makes one want to learn how to do it themselves. Where most folks are content to enjoy a given art form, someone with, “the bug,” for that art also wants to understand it: they want to take the elements apart and see how they work. They want to take the examples of others and use them to develop a unique approach. The main difference between a budding director and a regular film goer is that desire to “get his hands dirty,” and experience the creative process for himself. Both participants enjoy what they see, but the first guy is more likely to spend his time researching camera angles and filter techniques and lighting, picking up whatever scraps of knowledge that he can possibly get about what goes into making a film. The future director is fascinated by the pieces, because he wants to find new ways to put them together for himself. He knows what it takes to make a film because A. he’s looked into it, deeply, and somewhat obsessively, and B. because he’s probably tried it a few times, himself, likely with varying degrees of success. His understanding of the process comes from experience fueled by passion, not a disembodied voice downloading privileged knowledge from On High into his Artist’s brain.

Now, where does that passion come from? Where do the sparks of ideas that one works so hard to develop really begin? The only answer I have for that is that we are born with them—i.e., that the extra-active imagination and a bent toward a certain type of art, or all of the arts, are a part of one’s make-up from the beginning. But even that doesn’t make creative people a breed apart. Everyone is born with certain bents, interests and abilities. Some kids ask for easels and paints for their birthdays; others ask for microscopes and lab kits. I’d have to say that both of those kids got their passion from the same place. Since I believe in a Creator, I would say that they each got their particular bent as a gift from Him, but whether or not you believe that part, artists are still not rarefied demigods with a special connection to the ethereal. We’re people with passion, and we pursue the thing that has romanced our souls in the same way that anyone else with a passion does, whether it happens to be painting or organic chemistry or teaching children or building a business.

With that in mind, I’m going to double down on that tomato-projectile-inducing statement that I made earlier: anyone who claims to be an artist and goes on about, “The Muse,” all the time, or speaks of themselves as though they are something rarefied and special simply because they create, isn’t a real artist. If they really understood the process from the inside, they would not talk that way. I’m sorry to be harsh, but it’s true. If you think that creating is magic, it’s because you’ve never experienced the copious amounts of plan old hard work required to turn the spark of a daydream into some form of reality. If you think that creating somehow sets you apart from the rest of humanity, then you’re probably just using the title, “artist” (or “actor” or “writer” or “painter”) as a way to make yourself sound special, disregarding the effort and passion of real artists, and generally making anyone who applies that term to themselves look like a self-inflated douchebag. And, as a regular person who just happens to put a lot of effort, time and passion into an art form that I love, that really ticks me off.

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