A STORYTELLER’S GUIDE TO ACCESSING THE MUSE
As a professional storyteller, in the past I’ve told stories that last four hours. Often, after long story performances, people ask me, “How did you memorize all that?” My answer is always the same: “I don’t memorize anything. I work with my Muse.”
All right, you might ask, what is the Muse?
Our familiar words “music”, “museum” and “amusement” derive from it. It goes back to an Ancient Greek word that described the Nine Muses, the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology.
“Inspiration” means “to breathe in.” And that’s exactly what the Ancient Greeks thought happened when an artist, let’s say a storyteller like Homer long ago, started to perform one of his long tales. Homer would call upon the Muse named Calliope. Her name means “beautiful voice”, and she was the Muse of Eloquence. According to the belief, she would appear invisibly behind the storyteller and breathe ideas into his head as he spoke.
But before starting off, he would ask for her help. He would “invoke the Muse.”
The first line of Homer’s The Iliad reads:
“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men…”
Homer is about to “sing” a very long story about how Achilles, the greatest warrior at Troy, became furious with the Lord High Marshall, Agamemnon, for daring to take Achilles’ girl. Homer is also about to pluck a lyre while he’s singing his story. He’s what the Greeks called A Singer of Tales. He and others like him were the cinema of the day around 700 BC. There wasn’t much else in the Bronze Age.
But notice that Homer isn’t saying, “I am now beginning my poem.” Actually, he’s surrendering responsibility for his act to “the immortal one”–to Calliope, instead becoming her vessel. As he begins the daunting task of performing a poem over 15,000 lines long, he’s asking for the Muse’s inspiration.
According to the myths, Calliope was the daughter of Mnemosyne, the Titan of Memory, and Zeus, the King of the Gods. Quite the pedigree in those times.
Homer invokes her again when he begins The Odyssey:
“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.”
Centuries later, when John Milton, the English poet born in London in 1608, wrote Paradise Lost, he invoked the Muse, too. However, since the Greek gods were long gone and he was a Christian, he invoked the Holy Spirit, not a goddess, for help:
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
He was trying to outdo the “Aonian mount,” otherwise known as the mountain home of the Greek Muses, of which he was quite jealous, it appears. “Hey, you oldsters ain’t got nuthin’ on this blind Brit.”
Humor aside, what does all this have to do with you accessing your Muse? Here, in modern times? To learn to tell stories in your own words, direct from your imagination? I think we can add imagination to the long list of what the Muse is. Buried inside the word “imagination” is the word “image.” Since imagining is the summoning of mental images, let’s say that your Muse begins to work when you consciously create mental images.
I’ll explore with you my method for developing clear, living mental imagery in later blogs.
Countless times I’ve stood backstage in the semi-darkness with my 12-string guitar, walking around behind the drawn curtain, tuning and playing musical motifs I’ll use in the story. Beyond the curtain, the low roar of the audience tells me it’s almost time to step out there, sit in my chair with my microphones ready, and begin. Since I stole this trick from Homer and Milton and many others, I invoke my Muse. “Oh Muse,” I’ll say aloud, “please come to me tonight. I’m just a tiny human being and all these nice people are waiting. Please help me.”
Now you don’t have to believe in the Muse to be inspired by it. In modern language, some might call it the unconscious mind, or human creativity, or the soul, or the Holy Spirit, or simply imagination. Whatever you’d like to call it, I perform this simple ritual anyway to make myself feel better.
And usually, it works. The imagery pours into my mind and I step into a movie I can see, hear, smell and touch. After that, the words begin to flow.
More to follow.
May the Muse be with you.