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Tori Amos on serving the muses: “You have to get yourself out of the way”

With my long-running investigations into the experience of inspired creativity in the mode of the muse, the daimon/daemon, and the genius, I was interested to see this theme getting a big shout-out in the mainstream press in connection with the publication of Tori Amos’s new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.

Here’s Brian Gresko in Literary Hub:

Throughout Resistance runs the idea that the artist exists to serve; not just her audience, but the creative force that speaks through her, The Muses. “There are some people who think that they write their songs, and you know what, maybe they do,” Amos says. “But I don’t. I co-create.”

The Muses gift her with bits and pieces of a song—“usually only eight bars at a time”—and she works with that to develop the whole. Her writing process, as she describes it in the book, involves travel and research, word maps and free association, and most of all, listening, paying close heed to people oppressed, and critical attention to those in power. This too grew out of her time in the piano bar, when she witnessed senators sharing drinks and handshakes with lobbyists, Big Oil, and corporations.

“The Muses are quite something,” she tells me. “They’ve been with me since I was a tiny little girl, and they are real. Even my husband, who is a cynic, and an agonistic [sic; I think the writer means agnostic]—he doesn’t believe in things unless they make sense—has seen it happen. I’ll be ready to record a song that’s written and all of a sudden something I’ve never heard before comes out. For example, “Marianne,” on the album Boys for Pele, was written as you hear it on the record. And I feel I’ve never really learned how to play it properly, because when a song just downloads like that, I’m left thinking, ‘What in the world was that?’”

Under The Muses’s influence, Amos develops a Song Being, a musical form with its own soul and essence. The relationship she forges with that Being is personal and intense. Handing them off to the label, at the end of the recording process, is tough for her, and she marks it with a glass of champagne or, “when I really need it,” tequila, and a few hours alone in the studio.

“It’s not a private conversation once they leave the control room.” The Muses, she says, have made clear to her: she doesn’t own the songs or control what they mean. “What somebody thinks of a song is just as valid as what I think of it. You have to accept that, I think, as an artist.”

More: “Tori Amos Is Always Listening to the Muses

And here’s Amanda Petrusich interviewing Amos in The New Yorker:

The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation—on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.

It’s about taking in, and it’s about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don’t always come on your schedule.

Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?

They began to operate in a similar way. My work—on songs, as well as the book—is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I’d be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don’t know where they’re taking me. . . .

When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don’t.

When you say the word “serve,” I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It’s obviously different, what you’re describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.

Yes, but maybe it’s more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you’re serving Mother Earth, there’s interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. . . .

You do have to be ready when they show up, and that’s not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it—the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I’ve had to just stop conversations, because I’m not going to get it if I don’t quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that’s kind of how it is, but people that don’t know you can think it’s kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don’t write it down, then I just can’t remember it, not in the form that it’s being given.

More: “Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help

For those who find such thoughts and insights to be interesting — or maybe even, like me, fiercely gripping — be advised that they pair ever so nicely with Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the genius, Steven Pressfield’s insights into the muses (and their battle with Resistance) in The War of Art, Victoria Nelson’s sage advice on learning to work harmoniously with your unconscious writer’s mind in On Writer’s Block, Dorothea Brande’s sage advice on the very same thing in Becoming a Writer, Ray Bradbury’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen in the Art of Writing, and my own A Course in Demonic Creativity (which is the only one of these titles that you’re likely to find for free outside of a lending library).

Photo by Indolent Dandy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Terri Windling (and Lewis Hyde and Stephen King) on the care and feeding of daemons and muses

Some neat thoughts on inspired creativity drawn from Lewis Hyde and Stephen King, and presented by Terri Windling, whose editorial and authorial contributions to modern fantasy and speculative fiction have been so very valuable:

As Hyde explained in his book, The Gift (1983):

“The task of setting free one’s gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person’s tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. . . . According to Apuleius,” he continues, “if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. . . .

Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in “The Writing Life” (2006):

“There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer’s imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It’s drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one’s study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn’t call it; that doesn’t work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.”

On the care and feeding of daemons and muses,” October 13, 2015

N.B. I refer to the same sources in A Course in Demonic Creativity, and even include a portion of Hyde’s quoted words above as one of the book’s opening epigraphs.

“The muses will carry us along”: John Williams on composing music and the creative process

Williams at the Avery Fisher Hall in 2007

In a 2011 interview for The New York Times‘ ArtsBeat site, John Williams, the man who has provided the glorious musical soundtrack for an enormous portion of the world’s collective cinematic experience for the past four decades, talked about his creative process and the way he deals with incipient block by trusting his impulses and diving into the act of work  itself. And he says it in words that directly invokes the idea of higher guidance from the muses. He also mentions the necessity of the artist’s “getting out the way.”

INTERVIEWER: Do you ever get blocked?

WILLIAMS: I never experienced anything like a block. For me if I’m ever blocked or I feel like I don’t quite know where to go at the next turn, the best thing for me is to keep writing, to write something. It could be absolute nonsense, but it will project me into the next phase of thinking. And I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry us along.

The wonderful thing about music is it never seems to be exhausted. Every little idea germinates another one. Things are constantly transforming themselves in musical terms. So that the few notes we have, 7, 8 or 12 notes, can be morphed into endless variations, and it’s never quite over, so I think the idea of a block is something we need to work through.

— James C. McKinley, Jr., “John Williams Lets His Muses Carry Him Along,” ArtsBeat, The New York Times, August 19, 2011

For more on the same theme, see my A Course in Demonic Creativity. Also note that the book contains another direct parallel with a point that Williams illustrates from his own experience. In Chapter Five, titled “The Practice of Inner Collaboration,” I talk about the necessity of divining your muse or daemon’s working preferences in very specific terms if you want to achieve a state of creative flow and inspiration, right down to the tiniest, nitpicking details of working methods and materials. Each of our creative selves or sensibilities seems to be imbued with an innate desire to work in certain ways, at a certain pace, with certain materials, and in a certain environment, as with the example of Rudyard Kipling and his famous statement about his creative daemon’s demand that he should write with “the blackest ink.” Williams, for his part, describes his necessary attachment to working with the “antique tools” of pen and paper in a world where the act of music composition has mostly moved on to digital tools:

INTERVIEWER:And you work with pen and paper?

WILLIAMS: Antique tools. Not even a pen these days. Pencil and paper. In the film work I look at the film a lot. There is a cutting room, a viewing room so to speak, within the building I work in, and I can look at a scene I am working on for two or three days and see it as often as I need to see it. I can write a few bars, then go look at it. People who have computers and work at synthesizers have that in front of them all the time. I don’t have a synthesizer or computer. I haven’t been educated in that technology. When I was studying and learning music, these things didn’t exist and I’ve actually been too busy in the intervening years to retool and learn it all. And I find that at least for me pencil and paper introduces a process of working that’s as much part of it, it becomes part of the conceptual routine or process of working. It’s tangible. It feels good to hold a pen or pencil in your hand and dirty up paper. I suppose it must seem to young composers a completely antediluvian or old-fashioned way of doing it.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But Williams is, as he is perfectly aware, wise for adhering to this practice, because he would be stepping right out of his own flow if he tried to “modernize” his methods. Kipling’s famous words about the proper way to behave whenever the creative flow is occurring can aptly be invoked here (as well as in any other situation involving creative work): “When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”

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Image via TashTish at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.