Thoroughly Modern Muse by Richard Feldman

Thoroughly Modern Muse, or the Care and Feeding of Your Domestic Writer

For many years, there was a cartoon attached to the front of our refrigerator under one of the dozens of resident magnets that showed a small, winged male figure addressing a rather startled looking person sitting at a desk. The caption was something along the line of, “I’m sorry, I’m not the Muse of poetry, I’m the Muse of do it yourself plumbing.”

This piece is addressed primarily to other partners and spouses of creative types. Whether or not your partner’s creativity was a major factor during your courtship and infatuation stages, in the long run it will play a part in your relationship, usually adding both rewards and challenges. What part can we or do we want to play in our partners’ creative lives?

The concept of the Muse is part of our cultural heritage from the ancient Greek view of the world. The complete cadre of Muses is generally considered to comprise nine female immortals, each in charge of providing inspiration in a different area of creativity, such as dance, history, or lyric poetry (do it yourself plumbing being notably absent). Somewhere along the line, Muse lost its initial capital letter and took on broader meanings, “a source of inspiration; especially : a guiding genius,” according to Merriam-Webster, or, more specifically, the source of an artist’s inspiration. (I am disappointed that there seems to be no more specific name than “artist” for the person in the relationship with and benefiting from the patronage of the muse. “Musee” seems possible, but lacks a certain oomph. Any other suggestions?)

Perhaps the best known recent commentator on how the concept of the muse fits into contemporary life is Francine Prose (great name!), author of The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. Early in the book, she comments, “Certainly, feminism has made us rethink musedom as a career choice…Shouldn’t the muse be retired for good, abolished along with all the other retro, primitive, unevolved sexist myths?” This question eventually leads to the related questions, “Do women artists have muses, and are there male muses?” To this I answer, “Why not?”

Although muses have traditionally been linked most closely to the creative process itself, one can also aid the artistic endeavor more indirectly. What you should include in your service as muse depends largely on the needs of your artist. Among the activities that I’ve been told that I can take credit for in my service as would-be muse are helping brainstorm personal essay topics for my writer to bounce off of her editors; searching the Web periodically for developments in her areas of creative interest; organizing vacations to inspirational spots; and providing hot meals and a generally stable home environment.

Of course, you must balance your commitment to musedom with taking care of your personal needs. Certainly couples where both partners are trying to follow a creative path present special challenges. Francine Prose contemplates giving “men and women equal opportunity to be either artist or muse or both,” but finds “equitably dividing the labor of creation and inspiration” to be problematic. Despite the challenges, musedom is a calling from which you may look forward to potential reward not only from a prominent place in the acknowledgements of your partner’s new book, but from the sight or sound of every poem, painting, song, building, or dance that he or she produces.

1 thought on “Thoroughly Modern Muse by Richard Feldman

  1. When I worked at SFPL I would try to send library users to ‘the other desk’, and they’d look wildly around and not see it. “Where?” I was so SO tempted to direct them to the imaginary how-to plumbing desk (a conflation of the writer and the muse from that cartoon) which hovered in the atrium about 5 feet outboard of the balcony railing.

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