I am not the first, nor will I be the last to quake and quiver at the rather odd, inexplicable mixture of symptoms to which artists will point for their embryonic work—that most baffling conundrum otherwise known as “the creative process.” It is a rather stupefying concoction of mysteries perhaps best left to psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. When it arrives at one’s door, it does so unbidden and with an inconvenient sense of either timing or manners. The artist is then faced with a choice. Does she, head still swimming in sleep, arise to heed the clarion call? Does he respond to the wooing voice despite his recent catastrophe? Does she grab pen and paper, brush and easel, regardless of the morning interview for “a real job”? Does he, in smug over-confidence, shrug his shoulders confident of its imminent return?
Historically, the creative muse seems to be at its apex during times of acute crisis: first love, unrequited love, change, loss and grieving, joy and elation, madness or pain, anger or jealousy, danger and peril; even guilt and shame. This runs counter to the prevalent thinking that, to be a “successful” artist, is ten percent talent, ninety-percent effort.
Both are true. But, as any creative will tell you, something happens within, cheapened by description, when the electric oneness of creative spark gets wed to optimal moment. Then, almost as though by subconscious accident, is birthed our best work—the inspired piece worthy of our continued return and, dare I say, boast?
But, alas, the Muses can be savage mistresses indeed, even committing atrocities and drawing the ill-prepared to their deaths. At certain moments, their call is more like the Sirens whose danger was in their beauty. Equally the call to artistic endeavor with the voice of doom. It is said that poets have the highest percentage of suicide than any other pastime. It seems something akin to the madness of King George, the love-sick insanity of Van Gogh, the eccentricities of a Mozart or Oscar Wilde is at work in the psyche of genius: great art at the highest price.
Lucy Worsley, in a BBC special exploring the impact of illness on royal leadership, says the following about the madness of King George III, “A sentence containing 400 words and eight verbs was not unusual. George III, when ill, often repeated himself, and at the same time his vocabulary became much more complex, creative and colourful.” Is this to suggest that “madness” might be something to pursue rather than avoid? Let’s answer that indirectly, as any good poet.
If creatives we would be, then we must not fear the madness, cringing underneath the expanse of sky that only mocks our artlessness. Then, and only then, will we begin to understand their ancient gaze as benevolent, simply awaiting their inevitable credit in our best work. In those more lucid moments in which I sit in the lap of grace, I become aware that I am my own greatest battle front. The creative muse lies dormant long enough to discover whether I have the courage to out-stare the stars; to gaze at that which has gazed so long at me and, in that moment, realize that they’re not in judgement. They’re simply waiting.
Waiting for me to join them in their singing.