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Authorship and the Muse

I have been thinking a lot about authorship lately.  Perhaps this is because I am learning my first instrument and trying to write my first song.  Or because I failed miserably at a write-a-novel-in-a-month exercise last November.  Or because I am in the middle of a wrestling match with an article.

An interesting episode of the show Radiolab addressed in part the question of romantic authorship and the muse.  In “Me, Myself, and Muse,” Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich question whether there is something more than individualistic, independent authorship to the act of creation.  In the podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat Pray Love”) talks about an interview she did with Tom Waits for GQ, where he asserts that each song comes into being with its own unique identity, and that there is some sort of a muse involved, an “external collaborator,” one that he talks to, negotiates with.  Waits described one day driving down an LA freeway when a melody came into his head.  He was in traffic, had no pen or paper or recorder to capture the tiny and beautiful piece of music.  So, he decided to talk to that song, saying, “Excuse me.  Can you not see that I’m driving?  If you are serious about wanting to exist, then I spend eight hours a day in the studio.  You’re welcome to come and visit me when I am sitting at my piano.  Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”  Elizabeth Gilbert talks about relying on this external component of authorship and sweet-talking it when necessary, commenting, “I know the difference between something I thought of and something I was given.”

Songwriters often say similar things.  Townes Van Zandt said the song “Pancho and Lefty” came to him in a dream, fully formed, and he wondered for years what it was about.  It is widely known that Paul McCartney claims the song “Yesterday” also came to him in a dream.  Bob Dylan, in his interview with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes,” describes how he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes (at 1:12).  He describes the process as some kind of magic (and clarifies that it is not the Siegfried and Roy kind of magic), and that he has no idea how he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” except to say that “it came from — um — like, um — right out of that wellspring of creativity, I would think.”

5 thoughts on “Authorship and the Muse”

  1. This brings together two issues that I hadn’t realized were connected were before. We have this general image of conscious thought as being unitary, controlled by some sort of master controller that is pulling all the strings, or at least processing all of the information. But philosophers of mind and neuroscientists and others have been questioning this general view for a while now; there seems to be evidence that conscious thought is organized into various centers that are not under common control and not always operating in sync. On that view, Waits’s description of the battles he has with themes that pop into his head is eminently plausible.

    But it raises a question about creativity in copyright law. The line in Alfred Bell about the artist being stricken with a spasm and then adopting the resulting variations gets a lot of derision. But what if a significant amount of creativity was just as involuntary? That is, themes, or sentences, or plots arrive unbidden, and are “ratified” by other areas of the brain as worthy of inclusion in a work.

  2. There are similar examples in literature about literary works ie the author being an ‘instrument’ of a higher power or higher being and simply conveying on to paper thoughts that are often regarded as coming from somewhere external. So it doesn’t surprise me to see similar comments by musicians.
    BTW, congrats on trying NaNoWriMo. I didn’t have the guts this year. November is such a busy month!

  3. Bruce, interesting point. Perhaps the “bundle of sticks” metaphor can be applied to conscious thought, as well. (Bundle of neurons, if you will.) It also calls into question the notion of create-ivity itself — that is, if it comes from another (less self-conscious or self-aware?) center, does that make it involuntary?

    Jacqui, it was my first try. I’ll try again sometime, but I might construe the “Mo” part very broadly next time…

  4. I follow Bruce’s point to make a slightly different one. There is a clear sense in which creativity is not really a conscious activity at all–at least not in the way we typically think of conscious, willing acts. Take Townes Van Zandt’s account of his amazing song, Poncho and Lefty. He finds it hard to take credit for the song because it “came out of the blue.” It seems plausible to describe it that way, especially because dreaming seems to be the ultimate sub/unconscious.

    But suppose Townes had instead said: “Yes, I think that was my greatest song. I remember when I wrote it I was thinking of X, Y, and Z.”

    Or suppose Townes had said: “I set out to write a song about a scofflaw and some Federales, and how they never seemed to catch the damn guy.”

    In each of these three cases, the causal story may be the same. It could be that each description is simply a different moment in the causal story–the conscious mind just happened to “pop in” on the unconscious at different times.

    Perhaps in the first case, Townes was lucky enough to “see” his “naked” unconscious. But in the second and third cases, the unconscious is clothed by the seeming conscious–thought X or goal to write a particular song. But where, anyways, did *those* thoughts come from? Well, it’s not as if Townes sat around choosing particular things he wanted to write about, or, even if he did, that he choose without some influence of prior, (unconscious) thoughts. Even accepting some directive goal in the third case, it is not clear how the particulars of that goal materialized. If you pressed Townes about how or why he chose particular lyrics or melodies, it would be quite difficult to explain.

    Any way you slice it, words and thoughts simply “come to us”; frequently we do not know exactly the causal story of those thoughts. If we are thinking about X, for example, and that seems to cause us to think about Y, we might wonder why we thought about Y instead of Z, which could be a candidate belief that is just as plausible (as Y).

    If this is close to true, then the true gift of creativity may be in a specially tuned or highly trained consciousness–a consciousness that is acutely aware of the unconscious. And if that is true, then copyright should try to encourage people to develop strategies to pay attention to their unconscious. For the better people are at doing this, the more “creative” they will be.

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