How to Be a Muse

Updated: Mar 14

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.