The muse, the brain, and Behaviorists vs. Daemonicists: On inspiration and creative writing

Paris Gargoyle

“Paris Gargoyle” by Florian Siebeck [CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Two recent articles focusing on the question of the creative muse and its real or imaginary nature crossed my radar recently. Oddly, they appeared within two days of each other

The first appears at Pacific Standard and comes from the pen of independent journalist Brandon Sneed. Its title gets right to the point: “The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?” It was published on August 23, and its accompanying teaser states the writer’s conclusion in a nutshell: “Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.” The article itself shows Mr. Sneed summarizing the concept of the muse in its ancient and modern guises, with references to and quotations from Homer, Ray Bradbury, and Steven Pressfield, and then observing that there is a running disagreement among many modern-day writers, some of whom subscribe to something like a belief in a real muse and others of whom dismiss such an idea in favor of an approach based on hard work and professional discipline.

In the end, Mr. Sneed comes down on the side of the too-simplistic and too-hasty conclusion summarized at the outset. Don’t misunderstand me: the article itself is interesting and worth reading, and it attempts some minor nuance by giving a pro forma acknowledgement that the “real muse” idea can’t be absolutely ruled  out in principle. But Mr. Sneed comes down too easily, automatically, and unquestioningly on the side of a reductionist brain-based theory of creativity (and also consciousness itself) for my taste. This position always begs an infinite number of questions and drains away the power — not to mention the reality — of the mystery inherent in the fact of being alive and awake.

The second such article — meaning the second one that I encountered; it was actually published two days earlier, on August 21 — comes from literary author Laura Valeri, from her self-titled blog. The article’s title is “The Biology of Writing (Or Not Writing) Creatively,” and the subject is this very same disagreement between two different creative-theoretical camps. She terms them (quite effectively, in my view) “Behaviorists” and “Daemonicists,” and then uses this distinction as preface to a succinct and able exploration of the biology of creativity, with brief comments on the “flow” state, aphasia (the inability to write), epilepsy, depression, the structure of the brain, neuroscience, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s now-legendary TED Talk on the “classical” experience of creative inspiration by a muse or genius.

Here’s how Ms. Valeri characterizes the Behaviorist position:

There is the camp of writers that I like to call “The Behaviorists” who believe that writing and not writing is nothing mystical or complicated. You simply do it. Writers’ block is another way of saying, “I don’t feel like it,” which, if you want to call yourself a writer, you should be ashamed to say to yourself. Writing and not writing is a matter of establishing habits and keeping to those habits, regardless of the circumstances.

There is a wealth of literature on the behaviorists, books with titles like “Overcoming Writers’ Block” and “The Habit of Writing” and so forth. Most writers, I suspect, subscribe to this point of view. When asked about writers’ block most writers, with different degrees of compassion and understanding for the condition, will nonetheless surmise that the block is temporary and that all it takes is for an extra effort of will power to overcome the stasis, or a new take on the old subject: basically, the writer is in control and the writer decides when and how to get in and out of block, even though the writer may not be aware that he/she is controlling said behavior. The plethora of advice given by the behaviorists centers on the simple premise that behavior can be modified/altered through habit or routine.

Here’s how she characterizes the Daemonicists, in a passage that I’ll quote in full even though it’s long (for online reading, that is), because it’s packed with important nuances:

According to the Daemonicists, creative writing lies in that grey area between the subconscious mind as exemplified by meditation, dreaming and lucid dreaming, altered states, and collective consciousness if you’re a Jungian etc. and the conscious mind exemplified by observation, memory, synthesis, analysis, etc.

To oversimplify what is a fascinating subject, Daemonicists believe in a muse. The concept isn’t new and dates back to at least the hey day [sic] of Ancient Greece (let’s say 500 BC?) and probably was around before then. The difference between the contemporary daemonicists’ view of the muse and that of the ancient Greeks is that to the modern daemonicists trying to distinguish between perceiving the muse as an external, supernatural entity and trying to define it as a subconscious function of the mind is a useless exercise in semantics. There are ways in which the mind works that we do not control or understand. For example, dreaming is a common function of the mind, but no scientist to date has been able to conclusively explain and prove why we dream — though hypotheses abound.

Daemonicists do not care to explain where the creative force comes from: only that it is outside of their control to invoke it. To them, this explains why some writers (me!) hear voices in their heads, or feel that they’re writing faster than they can think, as if something else is possessing their bodies. The state of flow is often downplayed by non-writers or writers who have never experienced it in its full throttle. Skeptics of this state of flow refuse to believe that the intense trance-like condition described by those who have experienced it is meant to be taken literally. They believe that those of us who experience the trance of flow are just exaggerating the experience or else making up an elaborate metaphors for it — after all, we are writers. Dressing up with words is what we do. To skeptics, flow is simply another way to describe intense concentration in one’s work.

Much to my gratification, Ms. Valeri goes on to state the point that Mr. Sneed totally misses (or rather, the point he gets directly wrong) regarding the relationship between effort, work, discipline, and inspiration in the creative careers of us Daemonicists:

It’s important to underline that Daemonicists do believe in habit and routine: they will all agree that the easiest way to scare off a muse is by neglecting to “show up,” that is, lazying, or giving in to anxiety and procrastination.

Much to my surprise, she identifies my ebook on creativity as representing the current epitome of the Daemonicist position. In fact, she says my book is the reason for her choice of terminology:

I will call them the Daemonicists because of a very inspiring free book by writer Matt Cardin titled A Course in Daemonic Creativity which, in my opinion, sets the pace in defining this way of thinking about writing creatively.

When she adds that “The word ‘daemonicist’ is derived from the concept of a ‘daemon’ or muse (not to be confused with demons),” I admire her judgment. As Teeming Brain readers already know, the actual title of my book contains the word “demonic,” minus the crucial “a” that differentiates “daemon” from “demon.” This was a deliberate choice on my part, linked to the fact that the “demon muse” is an established term and idea, and that the book arose from my articles and essays at the late Website Demon Muse. But as I’ve stated a few times since then, I came to regret that choice because of its possibly confusing implications, and I appreciate Ms. Valeri’s correcting of it.

Those who are familiar with the content formerly located at Demon Muse know that I published several items there dealing with the question of the possible biological aspect of the muse/daemon/genius experience. This material is included in my still-simmering expansion of A Course in Daemonic Creativity into something longer and more robust. I have no idea how long the project will remain in development, so until it announces itself as done, you could do worse than to click over to Ms. Valeri’s site and read her thoughts and links on this very subject.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 2, 2013, in Psychology & Consciousness, Writing & Creativity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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