Which Comes First, the Muscle or the Muse?

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

UNC Asheville intern Lillian Augspurger

UNC Asheville intern Lillian Augspurger talks with Elizabeth Lutyens at a Great Smokies Review Malaprop’s event.

I am a shameless collector of quotations by writers about writing. They range from the dead-serious (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”—Kafka) to the tetchily comic (“I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation…in some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”
—Flannery O’Connor)

The famous-writer quotation I quote most often, however, to students and to myself, comes from a psychologist. Although he is also author of a novel (Walden Two), B.F. Skinner is best known for his work with behaviorism. Thus, it’s a science-based quotation that propels me into my seven-foot by seven-foot Skinner Box each day:

“The physical act of writing is the cause, not the effect, of new and original thought.”

Skinner posits that the writer’s best friend is a pencil, a pen, or a keyboard. Writers co-dependent with their muses might not want to believe that success lies in the doing and not the thinking. In her Reflection essay, Lillian Augspurger considers the matter:

“Ah, the ever-dreaded muse. That inexplicable flash of inspiration that decides to strike at the least convenient times. Ideas occur while scrubbing sauté pans and vanish as soon as I walk in my apartment. Halfway through a lecture on Romanticism I decide to switch the opera in my novel from Lucia di Lammermoor to Faust…. Whenever my friends and I talk about our writing, the conversation usually starts, “Well, I haven’t actually written anything in about two months, but I have lots of ideas.”

Stan Dankoski’s Writer at Work essay also discusses the dichotomy of thinking versus doing. He’s interested in a method that “focuses on generation, just getting the words out,” which will take the writer a long way, Stan says, toward “channeling the muse.”

Can we agree that the channeling, a “physical act,” is the driver of the muse, aka “new and original thought”? If so, we writers should take heart. We who have felt as forsaken by our muses as inspired by them can assure ourselves that it’s not the muse who’s in control.

If nothing settles on your shoulder or whispers in your ear, that’s all to the good. Climb into your Box and write.

Elizabeth Lutyens

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to www.elizabethlutyens.com