April 30, 2010

Revision, Part 1: Beyond the Muse

The writing community generally spends a lot of time talking and writing about inspiration. There are many how-to books and blogs that are mostly concerned with helping writers find something to write about. We have popularized a mascot for inspiration, the Muse. We talk about the rituals required to attract the Muse, the habits that frighten the angel off, and we generally accept that the uninspired writer is neutered, powerless, until the Muse returns.

Inspiration has become infused with religiosity: inspiration is to be revered but not questioned or altered. For the Muse of many, there is no audience, there is only the mysterious communion between the writer and the self. I take it for granted that a writer has something to say to people; we are students of the world and we share what we've taken in. I take it for granted, too, that a writer thinks in words, forms, models, images, and conceits. The writer can’t help it. I don't think that writers are helplessly waiting for the arrival of inspiration. I believe there is great power in revision, and that inspiration is, in part, the natural result of effort, reflection, and revision, not magic.

I think that we prefer to talk about inspiration and “The Muse” because it is often presented as an abstraction that cannot be critiqued. God knows, criticism is a tough pill to swallow, but reflecting on what we have written creates more ideas.

Writers, it seems, would be more helped by a protracted and nuanced conversation about revision. That’s where the craft is; that’s where poetry resides. Revision is not self-flagellation. Revision is a ferocious act of invention that any writer worth their salt will undertake. Revision is often uncomfortable work, work that requires honesty. But our labor has a clear result. It is through revision that we learn our aesthetic, identify our repeated moves, that we clarify our transmission, audit our intentions, and recognize an audience.

Over the next several posts, I’m going to explain how I revise, not because mine is the only golden path, but to inspire a broader conversation about craft. And, of course, I don’t mean to exclude inspiration from the conversation. Who ever said revision is without epiphany?


  1. How do you think the muse is viewed differently today than it was, say, 2000 years ago?

  2. It’s a good question, and I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts.

    The religious connection between artist and muse was probably more obvious 2000 years ago because the Muses were gods (or spirits closely related to the gods). The Muses in the good old days of Homer and Virgil were often called upon to relay some historical narrative, public, supernatural, or “interpretive;” the Muses had, perhaps, a more social and civic role, acting as a common source rather than a personal inspiration engine. Polytheistic societies, it seems, often used gods to portion out responsibilities, knowledge, history, law, etc; so their idea of the Muse probably had more to do with order than inspiration.