The Power of the (Famous) Muses

Until I was asked to write a blog on famous muses, I really never gave the idea much thought. I’ve always used my surroundings or circumstances to rev up my creative juices. But it didn’t take me long to recall those who held my hand as I began my love affair with the written word, as well as the ones who paved the way for me on this journey of self-exploration. Or, my life as a writer.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, is the first author whose words challenged me to break free of the excuses and “take it bird by bird.” In her book, she speaks about her older brother who procrastinated on a book report about birds which was now due the following day. The task ahead of him appeared insurmountable when Lamott’s father “sat down beside him, put his arm around [her] brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Currently, I’m in a season where my writing revolves around blogs and articles. I haven’t sat down and written my novel just yet. So for me, I’m taking it blog by blog. And I’m also avidly following guidance from another one of my muses: Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he reminds writers to read a lot and write a lot. I tend to go in spurts — right now I’ve been reading a lot. My muse was recently rediscovered in between the pages of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Blake Crouch’s Snowbound. Consequently, I’m feeling one step closer to sitting down and tackling the writing a lot part of King’s advice.

Another writer, Lee Gutkind, ASU professor and managing editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, also incites me to explore life’s next adventure. In his essay, “The Five Rs of Creative Nonfiction,” he encourages writers to seize our sense of wonder by immersion, or the “real life” aspect of the writing experience. The four remaining Rs include reflection, research, read (this cannot be stressed enough!) and “writing.” Simple but sage counsel.

With his sardonic, humble wit, David Sedaris inspires me with his edgier pieces, touching on off-the-wall topics that both entertain and challenge. My daughter and I once waited six hours in line to meet the man in person and receive an autographed copy of his book Squirrel Meets Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. He did not disappoint; neither did the book.

But I’ve also discovered that even the underdogs may rise up among the famous. One such muse of mine is a close friend incarcerated for the next few years. He tutors other inmates in math, takes college courses while serving his sentence and studies the craft of memoir writing late into the evening hours. And then he pounds out his daily observations on a typewriter, the kind with ribbons, platen and correction tape. He motivates me as he devours book after book, doing what each of the successful writers who have gone before us have done and continue to do.

I read because I love it. I write because I cannot help it. So I grab onto the shirt tails of those who make it look easy and hope a little of their spunk (and a whole lot of talent) rubs off on me. They are the ones who have paved the way and carved a niche in the literary world. The guiding spirit(s) for my truth.

Do you have a famous — or not so famous — muse that inspires?

28 thoughts on “The Power of the (Famous) Muses

  • September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Great article, Chris! It is beautifully written, so I guess your muses are rubbing off on you just as you hoped! My favorite writer/muse is Janet Fitch. She has a blog where she uses one-word writing prompts. For example, the word “pan” or “pepper” would be used to write an entire story. I love her 10 rules for writers as well (

    On a side note, I am quite positive that the author of Bird by Bird is Anne Lamott. I first picked up that book in a library when I was a teenager – it was majorly helpful and hard to put down until I finished it.

  • September 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    First of all, I’m extremely jealous that you met David Sedaris! I love David and he’s also my muse. His writing is always self-deprecating and his work is usually autobiographical, which inspires me to be more truthful and try to craft the art of comedy.

    My two other muses are Diablo Cody and Julie Orringer. Diablo Cody has only written one book called Candy Girl and became famous for writing blogs based on popculture. I always feel like I’m reading her diary, because she just writes about popculture and her writing always seems nonchalant. She inspires me to write how I want and not care if anyone likes it.

    Julie Orringer’s “How to breath underwater” is a short story collection of girlhood and young womanhood. I’m not really a fan of novels and tend to just read young adult books and Julie does a great job at making her characters believable and her use of language is so precise and lyrically, that there’s so many things that I can learn from her to become a better young adult writer.

  • September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    This really made me pause and think of those writers that inspire me most. While I always feel a connection to the classic authors, I think of modern ones like McCarthy and Lahiri whose writing is so crisp and clear that the words often make me pause in admiration. And I will admit in secret jealousy.

  • September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    This is great, Chris! Muses (famous or not) are certainly powerful things. I think I would have to blame certain elementary school teachers for my love of writing, and thus might consider them to be muses. As far as famous muses go, I have to be a nerd and name Homer and Ovid. A lot of what they wrote is now considered cliched and hackneyed, but epic poetry of ancient civilizations positively impacted the innovation of literature.
    Rikki, I will have to check out Janet Finch’s blog, as it sounds like a fun one to follow!

    • September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      Unfortunately, she hasn’t updated her blog since 2011! Still, there is interesting content to read through. I hope she starts blogging again soon.

  • September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    When most people think of a muse, they think of a love interest. Admittedly, I usually do too. But this article made me think about who and what inspires me to write. As for famous muses, O. Henry is one of my favorites and I have always been inspired by him. On a more personal level, I have a friend studying English at another university who really challenges me and makes me want to be a better writer. Discussing books and writing with her makes me want to write and become better at it.

    This article also made me think of my musical muses. Every time I hear Jim Brickman play the piano, I want nothing more than to go play myself. Muses can be for anything. Thanks for this article and making me think about this!

  • September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    The person who inspired me to write is my cousin. I would always read the fictional stories he wrote about my brothers, cousins–including himself–and me. He’s not only a writer but also an artist. Now Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers. Her short story, “Recitatif”, changed my life! It was an amazing piece about race and what people assume from descriptions and stereotypes.

  • September 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Muses are always a great topic to run over in your head, but most often than not, musical muses come to my mind rather than writers. I love international music and many of my stories or characters ideentify with a different culture, so my iTunes is full of Japanese, Arabic, Nordic, Spanish, Brazilian, etc. albums. I always gain a measure of inspiration from just hearing a different language.

    • October 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      I agree with you that music can be an inspiration to write rather than just the writing of others. I have yet to find a muse in someone I know or find a certain author to give me creative inspiration, but certain types of music always does the trick.

    • October 2, 2012 at 11:45 pm

      It’s the same for me! I love listening to international music for inspiration, but I also look to international writers, and I try to imagine what the writing would sound like in the original language. If I can read it in the original, the better, but that doesn’t happen very often. I love Junot Diaz (who is American, but is still so Dominican), Ryu Murakami, and Roberto Bolaño, and I’m always looking for others!

  • September 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I tend to have certain books as muses rather than a single author or a person. I love The Great Gatsby, for example, and The English Patient (I am so excited for Ondaatje to come to Tempe!), One Hundred Years of Solitude, Middlesex. I think I love them because they all do something so different and yet the language is haunting and I fall so deeply into the books. I also find that my teachers often become my muses. I want so badly to impress them that I spend hours thinking of how to do my best writing and checking the nuts and bolts of pieces. I’m amazed at how different my stories look now from even two years ago.

  • September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Great article!

    I agree with April, that I too think of musical muses as well, and how they inspire other musicians and even ourselves.

    This is a bit random, but I love reading the “acknowledgements” pages in novels from beloved writers. I want to know who they’re reading and who’s influencing them, because chances are I’m bound to love their work as well!

    Also, supremely jealous that you met David Sedaris! He’s one of my favorites as well. I was going to go to Augusten Burroughs’ (another favorite of the creative nonfiction/humor genre) book signing at Changing Hands a few months ago but I couldn’t make it and I was devastated. The last time I was at an author signing was elementary school, which is depressing.

  • September 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    When I think about who my writing muse could be, I realized I don’t really have one (which explains my lack of creative writing). I could say that one of my high school English teachers inspired me because she introduced me to Anne Lamott, but I feel she spent more time cutting down writers she didn’t approve of than actually inspiring any of us.

    This was a really fantastic article! It makes me want to find those particular muses (whether famous bloggers or close friends) who actually push me to be a better writer. Now, I just want to focus on finding people I admire and reading the stories they want to tell.

  • September 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you for your blog post! I love reading about the process other writers take. I also agree with Stephen King about reading a lot and writing a lot–I feel like that’s how I am. Currently I’m in the reading part of the cycle and seeking my Muse through the style and voice of other writers. But if I were to pick someone, I would choose a former professor of mine who always encouraged me to keep trying in my endeavours–even though she’s a multi-cultural education professor. I know this seems rather odd to find my Muse in someone who doesn’t deal with the writing realm, but I think it goes with the “The Five Rs of Nonfiction”. What we talk about or explore are notions of real life people and how they deal with the world around them. Sometimes this lead to education short comings of marganilized students and other times we would discuss how stereotypes hinder growth. This would then lead to research and finally story ideas of how a character can overcome negative stigmas.

    Thank you again for sharing your perspective!

    • October 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

      Interesting article. I read King’s On Writing as well. It’s a great tool for writers and has served me often when I’ve lost my way,

  • October 1, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    My professors are constantly inspiring me with the literary work they suggest, assign, and create themselves. I love having them as my muses when it comes to writing as it makes me excited about going to class and reassures me that I’m getting the most out of attending a University. Beyond my professors, my muses have included Stuart Dybek, Denis Johnson, Hemingway, and Poe. I’ve found that imitating their styles as an exercise has had a positive influence in the shaping of my own style of writing.

    • October 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm

      It’s amazing the ways professors’ ideas can inform the way we think about writing and art. We’re not only working off emotional inspiration, but intellectual inspiration too!

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  • October 6, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Having never blogged before I became a trainee at Superstition Review I never knew how much help both reading a blog and posting your own blog could be. So now I am spending time on blogs and it is greatly helping my writing so can a blog be a muse?

  • October 19, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    This article made me think and want to revisit my muse’s. The one that first made me pick up a paper and pen. I feel like I personally started with poetry and hung there for awhile and realized that that could be developed into a story and the same things I like about poetry I can implement into a short story. Also I feel like when people think about muses its often in the sense of a famous writer that they feel like they have read there books, like them and now they are their muse. No one never thinks of the average everyday mud. Great work and great spin.

  • October 19, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Stephen King is also one of my muses, and his book “On Writing” has been a great tool in helping me develop my skills. My first muse is probably Daniel Handler in the guise of Lemony Snicket. When I first started writing down stories in the fifth or sixth grade, I shamelessly copied his style and voice.

  • March 15, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Stephen King is also one of my muses as well. I tend to draw inspiration not from the advice authors give on how to write, but in what their writing shows me. While I don’t write as much as I’d like, I definitely tend to read quite a bit. Exposing myself to a variety of authors has shown me the many different ways a story can achieve literary excellence. I write in hopes of mirroring the greats and someday having my work sit alongside theirs.

  • March 15, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    I would have to Say that Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, and a special person I call Atlantis are all very inspiring to me. When I first started reading Picture of Dorian Grey I fell in love with this concept of the book entirely and how clever it was to have written such a piece, to the point where I haven’t found another book like it. Thoreau however has these words that just amaze in in every way, I am jealous of the lifestyle he talked about the careless yet profound life he lived. My alive muse is very much my inspiration, but so is every love affair. It brings this new type of air in you which you breathe in all the time. It drives in all sorts of directions at first and then all at once it takes you down this road where everything just makes sense, I am drawing better because of this new found hope. Muse or not I find that we as people always encourage others and others encourage us and its a beautiful thing.

  • October 13, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    This article is a great reflection on what books and authors have inspired us to follow this path. I remember my struggle with choosing a major, a daunting task that seemed to be a final statement about my future. The realization that I should pursue writing in college came in a wave a memories of my childhood reading and writing. I have always loved reading but a significant draw to art was brought on in 1998, when I was seven years old, and the first book in the Harry Potter series was published. Age seven is my earliest memory of writing my own stories, mostly about bunnies or some other kind of animal that could communicate in English. So it is needless to say that J.K. Rowling inspired me to be a writer and showed me the magical abilities of storytelling. And now 14 years later, her new books are still influencing me as a writer.
    During my college courses I have been introduced to many great writers whose work constantly inspires and intrigues me. I love the reference in this article to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott because that was the first book I read that was all about the writing process. I still think of her quote about beginning a story by looking at it through a small window. Something like that. I always start my stories by focusing on small details about the characters and their surroundings, even if those details don’t make the final draft they are important for the author to discover, thanks Anne.

  • October 19, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Bird by Bird is an amazing book! The person who really inspired me to write was a professor at my community college in California. I didn’t think I’d be good at writing anything other than short, academic essays. She helped me learn to love both writing and reading poetry. She taught me how to tell a good story, and encouraged my crazy ideas. She also drilled into my mind how important reading is for writers. In my free time, I’m either reading or writing now!

  • October 9, 2017 at 7:28 am

    I have never read Bird by bird, but it sounds like such an amazing book. Any book that motivates you to be better and achieve higher goals is a book everyone should read. With a career like writing, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and persistence. We have the ability to be anything we want in this world, if you want to be a writer put in the work, write, and be confident. Thank you for reminding me of what it means to be a writer and what it takes, you are truly an inspiration.

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