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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.”