How to Keep and Feed a Muse

By Ray Bradbury

First Published in 1961

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It isn’t easy. Nobody has ever done it consistently. Those who try hardest, scare it off into the woods. Those who turn their backs and saunter along, whistling softly between their teeth, hear it treading quietly behind them, lured by a carefully acquired disdain.

We are of course speaking of The Muse.

The term has fallen out of the language in our time. More often than not when we hear it now we smile and summon up images of some fragile Greek goddess, dressed in ferns, harp in hand, stroking the brow of your perspiring Scribe.

The Muse, then, is that most terrified of all the virgins. She starts if she hears a sound, pales if you ask her questions, spins and vanishes if you disturb her dress.

What ails her? you ask. Why does she flinch at the stare? Where does she come from and where go? How can we get her to visit for longer periods of time? What temperature pleasures her? Does she like loud voices, or soft? Where do you buy food for her, and of what quality and quantity, and what hours for dining?

We might start off by paraphrasing Oscar Wilde’s poem, substituting the word ‘Art’ for ‘Love’.

Art will fly if held too tightly.

Art will die if held too tightly,

Lightly, tightly how do I know

Whether I’m holding or letting Art go?

For ‘Art’ substitute, if you wish, ‘Creativity’ or ‘The Subconscious’ or ‘Heat’ or whatever your own word is for what happens when you spin like a firewheel and a story ‘happens.’ Another way of describing The Muse might be to reassess those little specks of light, those airy bubbles which float across everyone’s vision, minute flaws in the lens or the outer, transparent skin of the eye. Unnoticed for years, when you first focus your attention on them, they can become unbearable nuisances, ruptures in one’s attention at all hours of the day. They spoil what you are looking at, by getting in the way. People have gone to psychiatrists with the problem of ‘specks’. The inevitable advice; ignore them, and they’ll go away. The fact is, they don’t go away; they remain, but we focus out beyond them, on the world and the world’s ever-changing objects, as we should.

So, too, with our Muse. If we focus beyond her, she regains her poise, and stands out of the way.

It is my contention that in order to Keep a Muse, you must first offer food, How can you feed something that isn’t yet there is a little hard to explain. But we live surrounded by paradoxes. One more shouldn’t hurt us.

The fact is simple enough. Through a lifetime, by ingesting food and water, we build cells, we grow, we become larger and more substantial. That which was not, is. The process is undetectable. It can be viewed only at intervals along the way. We know it is happening, but we don’t know quite how or why.

Similarly, in a lifetime, we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events.

These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows. The is the storehouse, the file, to which we must return every waking hour to check reality against memory, and in sleep to check memory against memory, which means ghost against ghost, in order to exorcise them, if necessary.

What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse. They are two names for one thing. But no matter what we call it, here is the core of the individual we pretend to extol, to whom we build shrines and hold lip services in our democratic society. Here is the stuff of originality. For it is in the totality of experience reckoned with, filed, and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world. For no man sees the same events in the same order, in his life. One man sees death younger than another, one man knows love more quickly than another. Two men, as we know, seeing the same accident, file it with different cross-references, in another part of their own alien alphabet. There are not one-hundred elements, but two billion elements in the world. All would assay differently in the spectroscopes and scales.

We know how fresh and original is each man, even the slowest and dullest. If we come at him right, talk him along, and give him his head, and at last say, What do you want? (Or if the man is very old, What did you want?) every man will speak his dream. And when a man talks from his heart in his moment of truth, he speaks poetry.

I have had this happen not once but a thousand times in my life. My father and I were really not great friends, until very late. His language, his thought, from day to day, was no remarkable, but whenever I said, ‘Dad tell me about Tombstone when you were seventeen,’ or ‘the wheatfields, Minnesota, when you were twenty,’ Dad would begin to speak about running away from home when he was sixteen, heading west in the early part of this century, before the last boundaries were fixed — when there were no highways, only horse paths, and train tracks, and the Gold Rush was on in Nevada.

Not in the first minute, or the second, or the third minute, no, did the thing happen to Dad’s voice, did the right cadence come, or the right words. But after he talked five or six minutes and go his pipe going, quite suddenly the old passion was back, the old days, the old tunes, the weather, the look of the sun, the sound of the voices, the boxcars traveling late at night, the jails, the tracks narrowing to the golden dust behind, as the West opend up before — all, all of it, and the cadence there, the moment, the many moments of truth, and, therefore, poetry.

The Muse was suddenly there for Dad.

The Truth lay easy on his mind.

The Subconscious lay saying its say, untouched, and flowing off his tongie.

As we must learn to do in our writing.

As we can learn from every man or woman or child around us when, touched and moved, they tell of something they loved or hated this day, yesterday, or some other day long past. At a given moment, the fuse, after sputtering wetly, flares, and the fireworks begin.

Oh, it’s limping crude hard work for many, with language in their way. But I have heard farmers tell about their very first week crop on their first farm after moving from another state, and if it wasn’t Robert Frost talking, it was his cousin, five times removed. I have heard locomotive engineers talk about America in the tones of Thomas Wolfe who rode our country with his style as they ride it in their steel. I have heard mothers tell of the long night with their firstborn when they were afraid that they and the baby might die. And I have heard my grandmother speak of her first ball when she was seventeen. And they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets.

If it seems I’ve come the long way around, perhaps I have. But I wanted to show what we all have in us, that it has always been there, and so few of us bother to notice. When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange — we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.

The Muse, to belabor the point then, is there, a fantastic storehouse, our complete being. All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth. And yet we know it is not as easy as that. We know how fragile is the pattern woven by our fathers or uncles or friends, who can have their moment destroyed by a wrong word, a slammed door, or a passing fire-wagon. So, too, embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out.

Let’s say that each of us had himself on life, first, and later, on books and magazines. The difference is that one set of events happened to us, and the other was forced feeding.

If we are going to diet our Subconscious, how prepare the menu?

Well, we might start our list like this:

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands our senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor and simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommending them for browsing.

My story, ‘The Shoreline at Sunset’, is a direct result of reading Robert Hillyer’s lovely poem about finding a mermaid near Plymouth Rock. My story, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, is based on a poem of that title by Sara Teasdale, and the body of the story encompasses the theme of her poem. From Byron’s ‘And the Moon Be Still as Bright’, came a chapter for my novel The Martian Chronicles, which speaks for a dead race of Martians who will no longer prowl empty seas late at night. In these case, and dozens of others, I have had a metaphor jump at me, give me a spin, and run me off to do a story.

What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to, move even with, and pass T.S. Eliot on your way to other pastures. You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.

What else fits in our diet?

Books of essays. Here again, pick and choose, amble along the centuries. You’ll have much to pick over from the days before the essay became less popular. You can never tell when you might want to know the finer points of being a pedestrian, keeping bees, carving headstones, or rolling hoops. Here is where you play dilettante, and where it pays to do so. You are, in effect, dropping stones down a well. Every time you here an echo from your Subconscious, you know yourself a little better. A small echo may start a big idea. A big echo may result in a story.

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world. Why not learn about the senses of smell and hearing? Your characters must sometimes use their noses and ears or they may miss half the smells and sounds of the city, and all of the sounds of the wilderness still loose in the trees and on the lawns of the city.

Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If your reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight in won. The most improbable tales can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands at the middle of events. He cannot refuse then to participate. The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses. Unless, of course, you do something really unforgivable to wrench the reader out of context, such as having the American Revolution won with machine guns, or introducing dinosaurs and cave men into the same scene (they lived millions of years apart). Even with the last, a well-described, technically perfect Time Machine can suspend disbelief again.

Poetry, essays. What about short stories, novels? Of course. Read those authors who write the way you hope to write, those who think they way you would like to think. But also read those who do not think as you think or write as you want to write, and so be stimulated in directions you might not take for many years. Here again, don’t let the snobbery of others prevent you from reading Kipling, say, while no one else is reading him.

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures. Sometimes it is a little hard to tell the trash from the treasure, so we hold back, afraid to declare ourselves. But since we are out to give ourselves texture, to collect truths on many levels, and in many ways, to test ourselves against life, and the truths of others, offered us in comic strips, TV shows, books, magazines, newspapers, plays, and films, we should not fear to be seen in strange companies. I have always felt on good terms with Al Capp’s ‘L’il Abner’. I think there is much to be learned about child psychology from ‘Peanuts’. A whole world of romantic adventure has existed, beautifully drawn by Hal Foster in his ‘Prince Valiant’. As a boy I collected and was perhaps influenced in my later books by the wonderful middle-class American daily strip ‘Out Our Way’ by J.C. Williams. I am as much Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times in 1935 as I am Aldous Huxley’s reader-friend in 1961. I am not one thing. I am many things that America has been in my time. I had enough sense to keep moving, learning, growing. And I have never reviled or turned my back on the things I grew out of. I learned from Tom Swift, and I learned from George Orwell. I delighted in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan (and still respect that old delight and will not be brainwashed from it) as today I delight in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I have known Bertrand Russell and I have known Tom Mix, and my Muse has grown out of the mulch of good, bad, and indifferent. I am such a creature as can remember with love not only Michelangelo’s Vatican ceilings but the long-gone sounds of the radio show, ‘Vic and Sade’.

Whay is the pattern that holds all this together? If I have fed my Muse on equal parts trash and treasure, how have I come out at the farther end of life with what some people take to be acceptable stories?

I believe one thing holds it all together. Everything I’ve ever done was done with excitement, because I wanted to do it, because I loved doing it. The greatest man in the world for me, one day, was Lon Chaney, was Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, was Laurence Olivier in Richard III. The men change, but one thing remains always the same: the fever, the ardor, the delight. Because I wanted to do, I did. Where I wanted to feed, I fed. I remember wandering, stunned, off a stage in my home town, holding a live rabbit given to me by Blackstone the Magician in the greatest performance ever! I remember wandering , stunned, in the papier-mâché streets of the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933; in the halls of the Venetians doges in Italy in 1954. The quality of each event was immensely different, but my ability to drink it in, the same.

This does not mean to say that one’s reaction to everything at a given time should be similar. First off, it cannot be. At ten, Jules Verne is accepted, Huxley rejected. At eighteen Thomas Wolfe accepted, and Buck Rogers left behind. At thirty, Melville discovered, and Thomas Wolfe lost.

The constant remains: the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on. I sent away for a statue of an African gorilla made of the cheapest ceramics when I was ten, said statue a reward for enclosing the wrapper from a package of Fould’s Macaroni. The gorilla, arriving by mail, got a reception as large as that given the Boy David at his first unveiling.

The Feeding of the Muse then, which we have spent most of our time on here, seems to me to be the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against one’s present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naïve ones to more informed ones, from nonintellectual to intellectual ones. Nothing is ever lost. If you have moved over vast territories and dared to love silly things, you will have learned even from the most primitive items collected and put aside in your life. From an ever-roaming curiosity in all the arts, from bad radio to good theater, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka’s Castle, there is a basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths found, kept, savored, and used on some later day. To be a child of one’s time s to do all these things.

Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.

Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you which makes you an individuals, and therefore indispensable to others.

To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child. If not, it is a little late to start. Better late than never, of course. Do you feel up to it?

It means you must still take long walks at night around your city or town, or walks in the country by day. And log walks, at any time, through bookstores and libraries.

And while feeding, How to Keep Your Muse is our final problem.

The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammer and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse.

By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.

You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper.

And you have learned the answer to the question asked earlier: Does creativity like loud or soft voices?

The loud, the passionate voice seems to please most. The voice upraised in conflict, the comparison of opposites. Sit at your typewriter, pick characters of various sorts, let them fly together in a great clang. In no time at all, your secret self is roused. We all like decision, declaration; anyone loudly for, anyone loudly against.

This is not to say the quiet story is excluded. One can be as excited and passionate about a quiet story as any. There is excitement in the calm still beauty of a Venus de Milo. The spectator, here, becomes as important as the thing viewed.

Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime. The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story. What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed? Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator. @ the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from a wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold.

Look at yourself then. Consider everything you have fed yourself over the years. Was it a banquet or a starvation diet?

Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t got friends. Go find some.

And finally, have you trained well enough so you can say what you want to say without getting hamstrung? Have you written enough so you are relaxed and can allow the truth to get out without being ruined by self-conscious posturings or charged by a desire to become rich?

To feed well is to grow. To work well and constantly is to keep what you have learned and know in prime condition. Experience. Labor. These are the twin sides of the coin which when spun is neither experience nor labor, but the moment of revelation. The coin, by optical illusion, becomes a round, bright, whirling globe of life. It is the moment when the porch swing creaks gentle and a voice speaks. All hold their breath. The voice rises and falls. Dad tells of other years. A ghost rises off his lips. The Subconscious stirs and rubs it eyes. The Muse ventures in the ferns below the porch, where the summer boys, strewn on the lawn, listen. The words become poetry that no one minds, because no one has thought to call it that. Time is there. Love is there. Story is there. A well-fed man keeps and calmly gives forth his infinitesimal portion of eternity. It sounds big in the summer night. And it is, as it always was down the ages, when there was a man with something to tell, and ones, quiet and wise, to listen.

A Closing Note

The first movie star I remember is Lon Chaney.

The first drawing I made was a skeleton.

The first awe I remember having was of the stars on a summer night in Illinois.

The first stories I read were science-fiction stories in Amazing.

The first time I ever went away from home was to go to New York and see the World of the Future enclosed in the Perisphere and shadowed by the Trylon.

My first decision about a career was at elevent, to be a magician and travel the world with illusions.

My second decision was at twelve when I got a toy typewriter for Christmas.

And I decided to become a writer. And between the decision and the reality lay eight years of junior high school, high school, and selling newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles, while I wrote three million words.

My first acceptance came from Rob Wagner’s Script Magazine when I was twenty,

My second sale was to Thrilling Wonder Stories.

My third was to Weird Tales.

Since then I have sold 250 stories to almost every magazine in the U.S., plus writing the screenplay of Moby Dick for John Huston.

I have written about Lon Chaney-and-the-skeleton-people for Weird Tales.

I have written about Illinois and its wilderness in my Dandelion Wine novel.

I have written about those stars over Illinois, to which a new generation is going.

I have made worlds of the future on paper, much like the world I saw in New York at the Fair as a boy.

And I have decided, very late in the day, that I never gave up my first dream.

I am, like it or not, some sort of magician after all, half-brother to Houdini, rabbit-son of Blackstone, born in the cinema light of an old theater, I would like to think (my middle name is Douglas; Fairbanks was at his height when I arrived in 1920), and matured at a perfect time — when man makes his last and greatest step out away from the sea that birthed him, the cave that sheltered him, the land that held him, and the air that summoned him so that he could never rest.

In sum, I am a piebald offspring of our mass-moved, mass-entertained, alone-in-a-New-Year’s-crowd-age.

It is a great age to live in and, if need be, die in and for.

Any magician worth his salt would tell you the same.

1961

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