Stop Waiting For a Muse

February 6, 2024

Hello Mount Marty Students,

Thank you for your letters. I appreciated the thoughtful attention you paid to the things I said. I can’t respond to all your comments, but I hope that by answering a few of your questions I can clarify the ideas I developed. One question in particular interested me for the way it went right to the center of creative effort. I’ll summarize it like this: Is it really possible for creativity to take place only in the work itself? How could Michelangelo not have any vision of his finished sculpture before he started sculpting? Korczack Ziolkowski, after all, had an idea of what the Crazy Horse Memorial would look like before he began blasting Crazy Horse Mountain.

It’s a really insightful question. I didn’t intend to give the impression that all of creativity takes place within the physical work of creating. In many famous artists’ studios we have found sketchbooks filled with drawings that are precursors to finished work, and the novel I just finished began before I started writing with an idea about a man catching a fish-child. Imagination and forethought are certainly important aspects of creativity, but if we think of them as all of creativity we inhibit ourselves.

Another student mentioned that she has never thought of herself as creative because she has never conceptualized—like the Michelangelo of our myths does—a full and finished creative product. That is exactly how the myth traps us. When we limit creativity to conceptualization (or imagination) only, it’s easy to convince ourselves we’re not creative. As a result we won’t even begin the work. This means that, if you’re like me, with creative impulses that function more powerfully through the physical act of working than they do through the mental act of imagination, you will shut yourself away from your most powerful creative abilities. You may never even know you have them. I wanted you to see that many people, myself included, begin not with some perfected “angel in the marble” but with sometimes dumb and unworkable ideas—such as the ludicrous notion of a farmer catching a human child when he goes fishing. I hope I demonstrated that my act of working on this idea—making it material, beginning to write it—allowed the connections and insights that turned it into something much greater and which I hadn’t foreseen.

If you understand that creativity doesn’t begin and end with imagination but is a constant and ongoing force throughout the work, you’ll be far more likely to engage with that work even when you’re uncertain of its value. This responds to another student’s question: How do you know if something is worth working on? I don’t—except by working on it. But one of the great values of creative work is the work itself. We live in a culture that is focused on product, on having and owning. Creative work allows us to flip that and understand that we can also value process and doing. Choosing how to use our time is one of the great powers we have as human beings. Even if I work for five years—as I’ve done—on a novel that “fails” as a product and never gets published, the time I spent writing it—which was time full of discovery and insight and learning, and improving as a writer—was still better and more richly used than it would have been if I had, say, spent all those hours watching TikTok videos.

Creativity ranges through all elements of our lives. We can cook creatively, play games creatively, build relationships co-creatively, do our jobs creatively, start businesses creatively, volunteer creatively. In any of these endeavors, if we think we’re uncreative, we won’t begin. And if we think we have to know the end result of our work beforehand, we also won’t begin. If instead we see ourselves as discovering and learning and creating as we go and see the work of these activities itself as worthwhile, we wrest control of our lives away from people who would use them, and we give ourselves the opportunity to make them richer and better, both to ourselves and others.

- Kent Meyers

Author Kent Meyers graced Mount Marty with his literature presentations in early October of 2023. He is an author of five novels and a winner of a variety of writing awards. In an interview with Kent Meyers, I was able to get into the reality of being a long-time author. For many people, the image of a writer is someone who writes consistently every day for years at a time. A writer is often assumed to have a constant stream of inspiration, ready to get back at the keyboard at a moment’s notice. However, this often is not the case. During my insightful interview with Kent Meyers, I came to the realization that being a writer isn’t exactly what one might expect. Kent Meyers’s experiences helped me understand why being an author isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The reality of being an author shows that most high-end expectations placed on writers simply aren't realistic. Like many other great writers, Kent Meyers didn’t become a published author until his later years. He taught at Black Hills State University for thirty-seven years and for eighteen years was a faculty member in Pacific Lutheran University's low-residency MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop. As Kent stated, “I started writing when I was in my mid-twenties and didn’t publish a book for over eighteen years. So it was a real big gap between beginning and actually having any kind of success.” This goes to show that being a writer doesn’t just happen overnight. Being a successful author is often glamorized by those wishing to join the career. However, it takes rigid determination to carry onward long term. Kent Meyers added, “I think that my younger self romanticized writing. I mean, that’s part of the business you romanticize. Writing is actually a pretty mundane quotidian activity where you sit in a chair. For me it’s anywhere from three to five hours a day. You put words on a page… It’s actually a life of pretty powerful discipline and forcing yourself to get up. Go sit down, work through frustration, and just get work done.” 

Becoming a writer isn’t something that happens quickly, or something you can do once and then move on from. It’s a task that must be worked into one's lifestyle. When asked about advice he would pass on to young writers, he remarked, “The obvious advice is to realize that it’s a long haul. I would tell people if they want to have a career in writing it’s probably going to take more than one book. It’s probably going to take more than one year. It’s a long term process. Even then that doesn’t mean you’re going to make it. I don’t know why I kept at it for 18 years.”

Clearly, being an author isn’t as simple as it appears on paper. The dedication it takes is immense, especially when you consider that inspiration isn’t always a given. In work environments, writers can often be viewed similarly to machines. It’s easy to imagine a person sitting at a keyboard or typewriter, pumping out page after page fluently and with ease. The reality couldn’t be more different, however. Inspiration isn't a given for any writer. While some are blessed with constant inspiration to give toward their craft, it’s more often an ongoing struggle.

Kent shared about a time in his life where he grappled with such an issue. He recounted, “I went through about a five-year hiatus where I couldn’t write. I just couldn’t find anything to write about . . . five years ago I thought I was at the end of my career, thinking, well yeah, I probably just don’t have it anymore. But I was just on a hiatus. Crazy thing, this is something
that most people don’t talk about. Most of us think of writers and artists as being consistently writing, that you make it and then you’re a writer. You don’t. You don’t make it as an artist or a writer in a way that you’re continually making it. It’s not a consistent, unified thing. It’s changing and moving even as you’re living through it.”

Kent is someone who went through a lot of ups and downs as a writer. Still, he kept at it, even after he thought it was over. It just goes to show that becoming a writer isn’t something done on a whim. It often takes years of dedication and work toward the craft. Kent Meyers is an excellent example of someone who once struggled with inspiration for a long time. Yet he ultimately pushed through it and got back to his writing. This struggle with the uneven flow of inspiration is the reality of being a writer. You just don’t know when your brain is going to work, or how it’s going to happen. And as it turns out, stories can sprout from unexpected places. 

When asked about how he pushed through his writer’s block, he had this to say, “I began a story that really seemed like a dumb idea to me. And I wrote it partially to get rid of it. I wanted to quit thinking about it, I didn’t think it had any chance. Yet it turned into this inspiration from the first page; it turned into something else. And then it became a novel… it kind of rejuvenated my notion of what’s possible.”

Kent Meyers’s personal journey as an author is one that can remind other writers to stay faithful to their ability. Yes, it takes time and dedication. Yes, it takes determination to stay on top of it. But writers aren’t machines, writers are people. It’s okay to be uninspired, and it’s okay to take a needed break. Because, in the end, you never know what story may spring out of you at the most unexpected of moments.

Stop waiting for a muse. Look for the naiads and dryads instead because creativity is not in the ether; it's in the material.

Kent Meyers succeeds in making creativity mundane in the best sense of the word. By grounding creativity in the material being worked on, Meyers encourages the asking of questions: "Why have I put that in [the work]?' and 'Why does what I have put in there work?" Those questions cannot be asked while one is waiting for an epiphany from Olympian heights.

Meyers further grounds creativity in the real world by reminding listeners that one must be absorbed in one's field in order to be creative. More importantly, he simplifies the term "idea" into "connecting two things that are previously unconnected" (As a quick aside, the folks who review whiskies on YouTube must have more ideas than anyone else, because their tasting notes are full of "previously unconnected things”.)

Those who want creativity to maintain its sense of mystery should not despair. Meyers leaves the material world of the work, prior knowledge, and connecting what already exists when he concludes, "The work will tell you what to do."

The water and woodland nymphs whose home is in the material seem to be better conversationalists than the muses.

I fully thought we were going to get a lecture on how to write a book, or how to collect your thoughts and ideas from Kent. I really liked how he was talking about his boat, and how his ideas came to be with the vision he had before he started. I didn’t agree with the quote from Michelangelo. I didn’t like how they were saying how an idea is already in “the stone” before carving it. I don’t believe in that; I think the artist might have an idea of what’s inside the stone, but it’s not already in there before they start.

Kent Meyers is an interesting person. I like his laugh; it makes me laugh. His boat took a lot of work, and each time he made a new one, his boats got better. I like how he said that writing is just a report of thinking, and then it gets graded. He said that well. He started as chem major, which is super interesting because then he went into writing. His poetry got him started. When he would start writing about his poems, he began to truly understand what they were about. 

My favorite thing he said was “creativity is visible”. I think there is creativity in everything, and it can be different for everyone. I also liked how he explained how imagination and creativity are different. He talked a lot about how he always starts his project, with no destination or idea in mind. He begins his work without knowing what he’s doing.