TEXT prose


Sue Woolfe

The Puzzle of the Muse


I must first describe the puzzle, for many matter-of-fact people will be unaware that there is one: when a writer, this writer and many like me – though not all – is deep in a creative work, the mind, no matter how well-disciplined it has been in the normal course of life, takes on a new and most unruly life. This seemed to me, when I first experienced it in my first novel, Painted Woman, somewhat shameful, because after all one stands before the world with a book which despite the mind’s unruliness comes together as an intellectual tour de force – or is it not despite, but because of?  And the experience seems somewhat indescribable, except in quasi religious terms. Of course I’d read about the muse, but that seems to me the province of important 17th century poets, never of my struggles. Writers resort to the word “channeling”, for example, or say to indulgently smiling audiences, “the book wrote itself through me”. I made the mistake of explaining that I seemed to have “stolen” my novel, which made people mutter. Fearing a call to the police, I thereupon kept silent.

Nevertheless, I came to depend on the mind’s strangeness through the writing of more novels, stage adaptations, and short stories, and it was at the back of my mind when I interviewed, with Kate Grenville, nine other novelists for Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written [1] – though at that stage I didn’t know how to put into words the questions that puzzled me. Since its publication in 1991, I’ve taught creative writing at a tertiary level and encouraged many generations of students, who not uncommonly went on to be published, to allow their minds to do the same.  I must confess my classes seemed to me at least, almost séances. But I’d been charged with showing people how to invoke the muse, and I took my duty seriously.         

Then came a fateful phone call, luckily in the middle of a difficult writing day in the middle of a novel that seemed mired. (I’ve described this problem and its resolution elsewhere [2].) The caller was a PhD student who wanted to interview me along with six other writers, to ask us about our processes because... and here my memory blurs, for he carefully described his hypothesis but used terms that at that stage, had no meaning for me.  But, glad of the distraction, I said yes.

The interview was nothing like I’d ever had. The questions were eerily reflective of the way I work, and what I teach.  His questions were also startlingly specific. For example, he knew that for writers, thoughts come singly and then in flurries, with the sensation of the mind tumbling: he knew that sometimes, deep in the work, whole pages seem dictated – and then, sadly, the dictation stops; that creative thought is often experienced as being located, not in the skull behind the eyebrows, but in particular parts of the body. “How do you know this about me?” I finally blurted.   

Dr Christopher Stevens’ reply was the bibliography to his thesis [3], and from this chance meeting I learned that cognitive psychology, followed by neuroscience some time later, has been considering the cognitive and neural mechanisms of creative thinking since the 1960s.  The relevance of this body of work to authors became the subject of my doctoral thesis, published as The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience. I’d crept up on the muse, but I hadn’t put into words the strange experience when she’s invoked.  

As I delved into what’s become a vast body of research, I became aware of more and more questions opening up.

Am I being subjective in trying to describe this state for writers? Yes. But I’ve observed a similar mental, subjective process across many students, which is not dissimilar to what has been noted elsewhere by much more objective researchers.
Have my students come cold to this list without my teaching? No. But fellow-authors have, and I’ve discussed this with many in late-evening confessions – for we writers are generally a superstitious lot, and fear putting inappropriate words on the muse, in case she never returns.

Am I talking about everyone engaged in any creative act, even any writer? No. Because creating something is a complex neural process, different people may have different approaches to it, they might emphasize different aspects of this experience or that, or they might be only conscious of specific aspects.

Am I talking about a method rather than a neural activity? It seems to me that someone using a method is still using a neural activity.

Is it hard-wired? I don’t know. But I’ve found that it is teachable because it’s a common neural activity, not an extraordinary one; creative people seem to me exceptional only because they know how to value it, and – often, though not always – know how to induce it.

Why isn’t there professional research done about authors? Disappointingly, neuroscience has studied the brain activities of artists and musicians but not authors – because of the complexities of  language we’re the most complex to study – we’re the cinderellas  of neuroscience. So I’m cherry-picking my way through research about artists and musicians that may turn out not to be valid for authors. I’m aware that other creative people in other areas such as science may well say, “Nothing of this happens to me when I create” – so some creativity, especially science,  may necessarily happen only in what I’ve come to know of as a highly focused state.

My greatest curiosity, for my students’ sake as well as mine, was to try to identify, the factors that become many writers’ daily experience as  we invoke the muse.

Stevens (p.5) stresses that creative thinking occurs in what’s called a creativity cycle, and invoking the muse is only one part of the cycle. Creative writing courses usually assume that by the time students enroll, they know how to invoke the muse. I’ve found the opposite:  that while the rare individual can invoke her (perhaps being hard-wired that way?) most have to learn it consciously – and that’s maybe why they enroll.

The usual mode of thought, which is very familiar in academia and in western thought, was first called tight construing by leading 20th-century researcher GA Kelly [4], and he defined it as being abstract, logical, goal-oriented and reality-oriented. The opposite mode, loose construing, he defined as being without goals, without a necessary orientation towards reality, without anxiety or anticipation, a mode of thought in which openness and uncertainty prevail, logical thought is slowed down, concepts of prediction and interpretation are relinquished. It consists of defocussing the attention, and, as Colin Martindale showed in his seminal tests, allowing the mind’s activity to sink below the level of his measurement equipment during which the brain goes to remote connections [5]. This notion has been backed up by so many researchers that it has now become a commonplace of cognitive science about creative thought – though I must stress that to complete the creativity cycle there are other factors as well [6].
This year I serendipitously met Professor Rhoshel Lenroot of NeuRA at the University of NSW. At the same time I was teaching creative writing to playwright Stephen Sewell’s class at NIDA. I told Lenroot that though I believed I was deepening the students’ creativity, I might unwittingly be teaching them just to relax and so allow their inherent creativity to emerge – so would that suggest that creativity is in all of us?  “But what do you mean – what are you looking at?” Professor Lenroot asked, because she’s a scientist. I knew I couldn’t get away with answering that their stories were better than when they’d begun classes with me, or that their grades had improved, or, worst, that, when they successfully invoked the muse in class, the air seemed to clench!

I began to try to think more scientifically. With Lenroot’s encouragement, I’ve identified two key factors that I believe show students’ deepening creativity: an increase in thought complexity and a developing of empathy. These two factors are objectively measurable. With agreement from the relevant Ethics Committee, we plan a pilot study next year in her EEG laboratory, comparing two cohorts of volunteer students, one studying creative writing with me, and the other studying meditation with another instructor, and we’ll test the students before and after.

Of course I was keen to solve as many pieces of the puzzle as possible with the test. “Could we measure the way the air seems to clench when students begin to be more creative – for example, could we test whether they are excreting some chemical associated with a release in energy?” I asked. Lenroot sighed, the sigh of a scientist who commonly encounters people who over-estimate science’s capacities. “Your intuition is the best measure of that,” she said. 

So this essay is very much a report of a work in progress.

The following is a preliminary list where I’ve identified and described 30 factors of deepening creativity, which, heavily dependent on the body of work of cognitive science and my own practice, I’ve formulated with my students, who I’ve usually mentored a semester at a time: this is what I’d call an “after” list; with our test next year, I hope to formulate a list revealing students’ assumptions about going about writing creatively before they learn how to invoke the muse.

  • I know now the difference between loose construing and tight construing.
  • I have swifter access to loose construing than at the start.I find it easier to accept a loss of control in my thinking.
  • In the loose construing mode, I have a loss of a sense of time, place, sense of purpose, sense of self, sense of self-criticism.
  • In the loose-construing mode, I have a sense of safety, so that I am able to forget my normal inhibitions and explore a character’s extreme states.
  • In the loose construing mode, I am able to discover nuances and perspectives of characters.
  • In the loose construing mode, I am able to mentally play, to ask “What if…?”
  • In the loose construing mode, I have increased my ability to cut and paste my own memories and give them, or parts of them, to characters.
  • In the loose-construing mode, I feel not so much that I am inventing characters, but sensing /enveloping and understanding them.
  • In the loose construing mode, I do not contrive metaphors, but unexpected metaphors emerge/erupt.
  • In the loose construing mode, after some time I find a voice emerges, it seems of its own accord.
  • In the loose construing mode, I am willing to postpone editing.
  • In the loose-construing mode, I am content to abandon striving towards insight of what the work is about.
  • In the loose construing mode, sometimes thoughts come singly, sometimes in flurries.
  • In the loose construing mode, sometimes I feel my thoughts are not my own.
  • In the loose construing mode, sometimes I experience a sense of bliss.
  • Overall in my writing, I am not sure if I invent or create.
  • I now find it easier than at the start to move between modes of thought.
  • Overall, in my writing I am less insistent than at the start on analyzing my metaphors.
  • I am more emotionally vulnerable than at the start after I return from loose-construing.
  • Overall, I am finding ways to deal with this increased anxiety.
  • Overall, the process seems emotion-laden, and these emotions seem to stimulate insights and realizations about the work.
  • Overall, I now have enhanced visual and aural perceptions when going about the outside world.
  • Overall, I now have an increased sense of the physical nature of thought.
  • Overall, I am more open to increased creative stimulation from unexpected sources.
  • Overall, I have increased awareness of other writers’ techniques when reading.
  • Overall, I am less focused than before in the outcome of my work, and more in the process.
  • Overall, perhaps because of this pre-occupation with process,  I am more confident about my writing than before.
  • Overall, I experience writers’ block less than before.
  • Overall, I am more confident than before that in time I’ll find a pathway through thoughts.

One of my Masters students, Lachlan Prior, wrote to me recently about invoking the muse:

Losing myself so utterly is the greatest joy of writing. It’s an ecstatic state beside which the mundane everyday seems illusory and paper-thin, a lesser choice amongst all possible worlds [7].

I’ve always cringed slightly at the use of words like ‘ecstatic’ in reference to the creative state. Authors talk of ‘channeling’ the book from the ether, of hearing voices, of waking in the night with the story laid out in their mind in a halo of light. I’ve always thought that the average person must reckon it nothing more than the mystical mumbo-jumbo of self-important artistes – but I have to confess that I’ve experienced all of those things myself. Writers use phrases like ‘ecstatic state’ and ‘channeling the story’ because that’s what happens. They actually are the most apt phrases to describe the phenomenon.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that these phrases so closely resemble accounts of religious epiphany. But I like to think that the Mexican farmer falling back in amazement at the voices speaking to him from the field is hearing not the voice of some obscure Catholic martyr, but the characters of the next great Latin American novel, rising out of the cornfields to greet him.



[1] K Grenville & S Woolfe, Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, Allen & Unwin, 1991. return to text


Sue Woolfe’s novels are Leaning Towards Infinity (1996) and Painted Woman (1988) – both about to be re- and e-published on the soon-to-be-announced website for established authors,  wutheringink – as well as The Secret Cure (UWA Press 2004) and most recently, The Oldest Song in the World (Harper Collins 2012). She has also published short stories and articles. Her interest in the creating mind is reflected in her non-fiction: with Kate Grenville she wrote Making Stories, How Ten Australian Novels Were Written (Allen & Unwin 1991, soon also to be re- and e-published on wutheringink) and in 2007 she wrote The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience (UWA Press). Her personal website is www.suewoolfe.com



Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence