How to Be a Muse

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Frida Kahlo quote
- Frida Kahlo

Le Génie

I still remember the day, back in High School French class, when I learned that the word “génie” could be translated as either genius or genie. Fascinating! One word used for both intellectual brilliance and for an entity that grants wishes, but is not necessarily helpful. In fact, le génie is often a bit of a trickster.

My insatiable inner word nerd dug deeper into the etymology of génie. Turns out, it comes from the Arabic, Jinni or Jinn, which refers to any being that is concealed from the senses. Jinn are not inherently benevolent or malevolent. Like humans, they are a mixed bag, capable of great good, or great evil. It’s all very subjective, and can easily shift along the lines of their agenda, mood, and relationship to the human in question

As an artist, this made perfect sense to me: that “genius” is not a human quality, but an unseen entity, a supernatural creature with the power to bestow remarkable gifts on those it favors, but which could just as easily torment and even drive a person mad, particularly if it does not feel properly appreciated and respected by that person.

Indeed, it made and still makes far more sense to me than to define people as geniuses, as if certain human beings are destined for brilliance, while the rest are condemned to mediocrity.

Personally, I know my most inspired creations have felt more like channeling than invention, as if the work were being transmitted and transmuted through me, using me as a living antenna for greatness.

In other words, I believe in genies: unseen entities who, for reasons of their own, distribute inspiring ideas to humans.

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that the celebrated author of Eat Pray Love,Elizabeth Gilbert, agrees with me. In fact, she’s written an entire book dedicated to the subject of inspiration called Big Magic. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in creative living, but especially aspiring authors.

Reading Big Magic has stirred up multiple memorable encounters from my own life, brushes with genies who offered all manner of inspiration (most pleasant, some not so much).

The majority of these unseen entities apparently preferred to remain anonymous, speaking to me through dreams, visions, curiosities and whims, leaving a trail of synchronistic breadcrumbs to follow, or simply coaxing me quietly onto what Gilbert refers to as “the moving sidewalk” of inspiration--that unparalleled experience of being “in flow” and creating with effortless ease.

Any creator can vouch: those mysterious forces of inspiration, whatever we wish to call them, are palpably real and (when they deign to show up) extremely effective--sometimes to a frightening degree.

For example, once when I was visiting a friend in The Netherlands, I got a wild hair to go for a walk by myself. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I explored her entire neighborhood until finally I came to a wooded area. I felt inexplicably pulled toward a clearing in the trees, and once there, felt the bizarre impulse to say some words that had mysteriously popped into my head which, as far as I knew, were just nonsense syllables and not a language at all. I felt a bit silly, chanting there in the clearing like a wannabe witch, but as there was no one else around, it all seemed a harmless bit of whimsy.

That is, until the sky went suddenly dark, then flashed with lightning directly overhead, followed immediately by a terrible crack of thunder. All the hair on my body stood on end, and I took off running, back toward the house as the rain poured down, hard and fast.

My friend, Astrid, was shocked to see me dripping wet when I returned. "But it's a sunny day!" she protested. "How did you get so wet?"

Sure enough, when we looked outside, the sun had returned, glistening off the wet sidewalks, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred at all.

I had no idea what to tell her, nor do I have any idea who or what it was that led me to the woods that day and fed me incantations that may or may not have conjured a random summer storm. All I can tell you is: whatever it was, it didn't leave a calling card.

Sometimes, though, when we call on a deity by name, we get an answer.

I had one such blessed encounter in graduate school, when I was struggling to write a paper on the Yoruba theatre of Nigeria. I’d read all the plays, done all the archival research on the performances, studied the history and philosophy behind them… but I still had no idea what to write about. And the paper was due the following morning at 9 AM.

Well, it just so happened that in another class altogether, we had been studying the Orisha, the Afro-Caribbean deities worshipped in religious practices like Santeria, Vodun (a.k.a. Voodoo), etc. One goddess in particular, Oshun, had captured my attention and imagination. And since the Orisha also came from the Yoruba culture, I decided to turn to her for help and guidance in my time of need.

Oshun, being the goddess of love, beauty, water, and intimacy, seemed to me to be the West African equivalent to Aphrodite, for whom I’ve always held a strong affinity. Recognizing passion as a prerequisite for devotion, I tend to offer my devotion at the altar of passion itself.

Speaking of altars, I knew that to get Oshun’s attention and win her favor, I would need to lay out a few of her favorite things. So I printed out a few images of her I particularly liked, and set them up beside my computer.

Next, I set out a dish of fresh, clean water, as well as a dish of honey, and a few oranges.

Her favorite color being gold, I took out every piece of jewelry I owned that could pass for gold, and laid them out as artfully as I could manage.

Then I adorned myself in a yellow dress (not my color, generally speaking, but I think I pulled it off), a cowry necklace, and sparkly gold eye makeup. In short, I did my best to look more regal and worthy of her attention than I felt.

Finally, I addressed her directly. I don’t recall the exact wording, but I think it went something like this:

“Oshun, I adore you with all my heart. Please accept these offerings as a signal of my devotion and appreciation for all that you do to bring love, beauty, and passion to the world. I offer myself to you also as an instrument of your divinity, and humbly request your cooperation in this endeavor. Thank you in advance.”

Then, I waited.

A few minutes later, I was typing. And typing. And typing.

I have no recollection of the actual composition of the paper, beyond the feeling of exhilaration as it poured through me like water over a waterfall: effortless, graceful, and free. All I can say is that by morning, I had composed one of the best papers of my grad school career: “Let Us Be United In Purpose: Variations on Gender Relations in the Yoruba Popular Theatre.” In fact, in all the time I was writing for an academic audience, that was the only paper ever to be published in an academic volume.

But Oshun and I both know that I was not the sole author. It was at best a collaboration, and in truth more of a transmutation--I simply took the raw ingredients she was pouring into me, and followed the recipe of my academic training to transform them into an article.

That night, Oshun agreed to be my genie/genius. She brought me an idea she knew I could run with. And run with it, I did.

In Big Magic, Gilbert takes this conceptualization of genius one step further, viewing the ideas themselves as sentient entities, roaming the world in search of human collaborators.

Perhaps genius/genies, then, are simply idea brokers (or managers, or matchmakers, or scouts), scouring the globe for potential partners for their best and most brilliant ideas?

Or, more to the point, genies could be conceived of as idea-inseminators. They seek out humans who strike them as particularly fertile and enthusiastic creators, and impregnate them with ideas (which they will then need to birth at their own energetic expense, of course).

But how to woo inspiration? How can we convince these mysterious, invisible idea implanters that we are fertile planting grounds? And more importantly, where do we find the support we need to carry those ideas to term and birth them into the world, under-prepared and overwhelmed as we often are for the greatness we are offered?

This, for me, is where muses come in.

Do I (a)muse you?

The Greeks understood muses as beautiful, benevolent, feminine beings who inspired creation by their very presence. If they tormented artists as well, it was only by their absence, or by serving as an impossible measuring stick against which humans ill-advisedly insisted on comparing their own creations (some things never change). The muses, who specialized in nine different areas of the arts and sciences, prepared humans to receive more and better ideas and to manifest those ideas into artistic creations by igniting in them a desire to create and to continually and humbly hone their craft.

Unlike genies who, once they’ve completed the task of distributing an idea to a potential collaborator, continue on their merry way, muses are known to elicit multiple works from the same creator. That is, so long as they remain devoted to the creative process and do not give in to the siren song of hubris, snubbing the sacred source of their inspiration by claiming full credit for their genius.

In the modern era, just as “genius” began to be applied to the artists themselves, “my muse” began to be applied to a beautiful human who inspired and sometimes tormented them with their capricious refusal to be controlled or possessed by any one human.

Just as Elizabeth Gilbert has reclaimed and reimagined the word “genius” to bring it back in line with its original meaning, I would like to do the same with “muse.”

Rather than a passive subject who inspires incidentally, I see the role of muse as an active creative collaborator.

A muse is like a relationship coach for creators and their ideas, opening up new channels of communication, refocusing creators on what they truly desire to create, and offering them the tools to bring all that juicy creative potential to fruition.

If genies impregnate humans with ideas, muses are idea midwives, here to help creators prepare for the rigors of birth and cheer them on through the less glamorous aspects of creation.

Genies and muses are the forces of the divine masculine and the divine feminine, working in concert to bring ideas to life. If or how we raise those ideas up to their full potential is entirely up to us.

And while the forces of inspiration are, by definition, unseen, I believe we humans can and do play the role of muse for one another.

Coaches, for example, who coax their clients into shaking off limitations and opening up to the experience of inspiration, are serving as muses.

Leaders and mentors who motivate others to grow, improve, and live up to their performative potential are playing the role of the muse.

Support professionals who dedicate themselves to helping others honor the commitments they’ve made to ideas by seeing their projects through to completion, are acting as muses.

Content creators whose work is intended to motivate even more creation within their audience--call them “influencers” if you like, but I believe those who deliberately spread inspiration on the internet are taking up the mantle of the muse.

In fact, anyone who serves as an example of creative living by putting their creative work out into the world, despite all the myriad obstacles in their path, can be a muse for their audiences.

Moreover, anyone in your life who takes the time to encourage you to create, offers hope and support when your confidence wanes, and believes fervently in your ability to see a creative contract through, is acting as your muse.

The genie is only there to get the ball rolling. It has one job, and that is to find someone (or multiple someones) who can and will make an idea manifest. The remainder of the process is up to you and your muses.

I love being a muse. It’s the most fulfilling work I have ever experienced and can imagine. And though I recognize that I have a gift for it, I also know that anyone who wishes to can serve as a muse.

To be a muse:

1. Honor the sacred mysteries of creation

  • Believe with all your heart and soul in the magic of inspiration.

  • Respect the mysterious process of le génie and welcome & revere inspiration in all forms.

  • Honor the bravery it takes to keep creating, despite all the very convincing reasons we are given to stop.

  • Honor the audacity of the ideas themselves, constantly putting themselves out there despite so much rejection, abandonment, and disappointment.

  • Serve as an example of courageous creative living.

2. Create a fertile environment for inspiration

  • Help creators remove any and all obstacles to creation, particularly the internal ones (shame, limiting mindsets, paralyzing fear, etc.).

  • Guide creators in the cultivation of a fertile environment for idea incubation via holistic wellness, stability, gratitude, playfulness, organization, aesthetics, etc. Lead by example, remembering always that what’s good for you is good for the work, and vice versa.

  • Encourage creators to create work daily, even when they are not actively collaborating with an idea, even if they know it's going straight to the bottom of a drawer, not only as a means to prime the pump for those collaborations and hone their skills, but as a devotional practice designed to catch the attention of, and win favor with, le génie.

3. Act as an intermediary between creators and ideas

  • Encourage anyone who has entered into a creative contract with an idea to put in the daily work to manifest it, lest it should leave them for a more devoted partner.

  • Help creators work through blocks, communication breakdowns, and other crises via active listening, gentle questioning, and reflecting back what you hear and see from your outside perspective. Only offer specific suggestions or advice if asked directly. Most creators will find their own answer after talking through, clearly defining, and getting a fresh perspective on, the problem.

  • Respect the idiosyncrasies of each individual’s creative process while offering up your wisdom and best practices to see an idea through to fruition.

  • Encourage anyone who has lost the fire for an idea, but who is still trying to force it, to deliberately pass it on to a better fit or simply release it back into the wild and move on.

4. Serve and support all creators (yourself included)

  • Provide unconditional support and tireless cheerleading to fellow creators.

  • Be a receptive and enthusiastic audience for those creations that resonate with you, and help creators to find a more receptive audience for those that don’t.

  • Gratefully and graciously accept the same support and encouragement in return.

Perhaps most importantly, recognize that your job as a muse is not that of a critic.

You are not here to judge anyone's creations, your own very much included.

You can, of course, offer feedback along the way, but only if it’s genuinely constructive. Tell your fellow creators what resonates and stays with you. Tell them what ignites your curiosity. Ask them questions about their creations.

Never, ever, ever, ever, EVER tell a creator their baby is ugly, or advise them to stop creating what they feel called to create.

Allow me to demonstrate the importance of this point with a personal example.

My daughter, Aria, loves to sing. Which you would think would delight me, given that I am myself an accomplished singer, and even went so far as to name my child Aria, as in, a solo in an opera.

But the truth is, it drives me nuts.

The reason is twofold. First, because every time I start singing, she inevitably joins in, and immediately drowns me out. But if I try to do the same in reverse, i.e. join in on a song she’s singing, she yells “MOM! This is MY song!”

Second, because while she has a remarkable talent for memorizing lyrics and even coming up with lyrics of her own, she did not inherit my ear for melody and harmony. Translation: the girl can’t carry a tune in a bucket. And though she’s gotten closer and closer to being on-key with time and practice, even her most accurate efforts remain so far what we in the music biz refer to as “a bit pitchy.”

Look, I don’t mean to toot my own horn (pun intended), nor do I mean to throw my brilliant and beautiful daughter under the bus. She is one of the most remarkable beings I’ve ever known, and far outshines me in terms of natural talent on nearly every front. This just happens to be the one exception. And frankly, as a person with near-perfect pitch, listening to her off-key renditions of the songs I know and love is beyond nails on a chalkboard. It’s more like living with an extremely enthusiastic and entirely untrained bagpiper.

This has put me in a very awkward position vis-a-vis her musical ambitions. The most awkward of all being the time she guilt-tripped the director of her after school musical theatre program into allowing her to sing “Never Enough” as an addendum to their production of The Greatest Showman.

For those who are unfamiliar, Never Enough is a hauntingly beautiful and extremely challenging showpiece, designed to highlight the immense vocal talent of the opera singer, Jenny Lind, a.k.a. The Swedish Nightingale. It’s an ambitious piece for any 7 year old to take on, let alone my darling baby bagpiper.

I won’t get into the complicated set of events that led up to this state of affairs, except to explain that she would be singing the song alone on the stage, after the rest of the show had concluded, forcing all the supportive parents and siblings in the audience to listen politely before the curtain call could commence.

Knowing what was at stake, I suggested we practice together every day until the performance. But her attention span for breathing exercises and scales was rather narrow, so the improvement was minor, and the moment she got up on stage, all my training went right out the window. She took one look at that crowd, and it was right back to shallow breathing and tuneless shouting, a situation I know all too well from some of my own high-stakes auditions gone terribly wrong.

The performance--I won’t sugar coat it--was excruciating. A lot of the kids in the audience, not yet trained in the fine art of polite pretense, literally covered their ears.

But Aria didn’t seem to notice or care about the audience’s reaction. She was having the time of her life up there, squawking out that song like a peacock who’d figured out how to fly.

Afterward, I hugged her and told her how proud I was of her enthusiasm and commitment to such an ambitious undertaking.

If she recognized the back-handed undertone of this compliment at the time, she didn’t let on. But a few months later, she asked me the dreaded question:

“Mom, do you think I did a good job singing Never Enough?”

I knew I was caught. I would never lie to her, and I didn’t want her to end up on some reality TV singing competition someday, learning for the first time from a snarky British judge that she sounded more like a cat in heat than a nightingale. But I knew the truth would crush her spirit and discourage her from following her heart, which was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.

“Why are you asking me this?” I asked, mostly stalling but also hoping she might recognize that seeking external validation for one’s art is never a very good idea.

“Because we’re doing Greatest Showman again at summer camp, and I want to audition for Jenny Lind.”

“Well my love,” I told her, bracing myself for impact, “I think if you want to do that, you should start practicing every day, because it’s a really difficult song, and it’ll take a lot of work to really do it justice”

“So… you don’t think I did it justice last time?” she translated.

I sighed. Clearly, she was not going to let me out of this one gracefully.

Looking back, I should have held my ground, refusing to take the bait and keeping her focused on the upcoming opportunity for improvement and redemption. But being human and fallible, I made the terrible mistake of giving her what she was asking for: my opinion.

“No, baby. I don’t. It was really shouty and off-key. But I know you can do better if you--”

But it was too late. She was already sobbing. And no amount of backpedaling or explanation could take away the sting of my judgment.

She didn’t audition for Jenny Lind at summer camp. She went out for Anne Wheeler, the aerialist, instead. And though she claimed it was because she liked the costume better, I could tell there was more to it. I had introduced shame into her artistry, and I could never take it back.

Worse still, at a school performance a little while later, I noticed she was lip synching rather than actually singing. When I asked her why, she shrugged, looked at her feet, and said she didn’t want to “overpower” the other kids.


There is hope, however. At age 9, she still loves to sing around the house, and every time she does, I tell her how happy it makes me to hear her using her voice and honing her craft. Meanwhile, we’ve been writing a musical together, and when I asked who she wanted to play, she confidently claimed the lead role (the one who sings the most solos), for herself. And, in rehearsals at least, both her pitch and her artistry have steadily improved since we began.

When I shared this story with a dear friend of mine, she confided in me that she’d had similar concerns about her son, Spencer, when he was younger.

“He absolutely loved singing, but he couldn’t find the melody with a GPS tracker.”

I was frankly shocked to hear this news because Spencer, who is now in his 20’s, has an absolutely gorgeous singing voice.

I asked her when things shifted, and she said she couldn’t be sure. All she knows is that one day she went to a choral performance at his high school, and was floored when he stepped forward for a solo and absolutely nailed it.

I heard a similar story from a successful singer-songwriter I recently met on a Lunchclub call. She confided that, although she had always loved singing and making up songs, she was an absolutely atrocious singer for most of her life. In fact, when she was in elementary school, her choir teacher asked her to please stop singing, as she was throwing off the other children. It was only after decades of dogged perseverance that she was able to sing well enough to showcase her songwriting abilities, and eventually get a recording contract with a major label.

Conversely, the girl I saw as my biggest vocal competition all through middle and high school, the one I was absolutely convinced would be a famous singer someday, ultimately became a psychologist and now only sings in the shower.

Our opinions are just that: opinions. They are not facts, and none of us is as good a judge of worthiness or potential as we think we are.

Please, don’t make the same mistake I did with Aria when playing the role of muse. Not with your own children, not with a fellow creator, not with anyone.

And especially not with yourself.

We are so often our own worst critics, and the voices yelling loudest for us to shut up, sit down, go home, and stop creating, are the ones inside our head. We slip so effortlessly into the story that we're not good enough, that our efforts are pointless and pathetic.

But that's just a story. And not a very interesting or original story at that.

In fact, the opposite narrative--that we may, in fact, be gloriously worthy creatures, creating exactly as we were designed to--is equally likely to be true, and far more fun to frolic in.

As muses, we must believe, and help others believe, that no creative effort is wasted. That the act of creation is a sacred act, and is worthwhile, regardless of the outcome.

We must squawk our obnoxious, half-baked, and unworthy offerings loudly and proudly, recognizing that the pure, playful joy of creation is itself the devotional offering. That is our task as creators.

And your mission as a muse, should you choose to accept it, is to be the first to stand up and applaud anyone with the courage to answer the call of le génie.

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