Dear Literary Lady,
I just realized how I can contribute to literature without ever picking up a pen myself—I can just become a writer’s muse. Yep, life goals! Any tips on achieving muse-iness ?
– S.I, Los Angeles, CA.
It’s true that we owe so much great literature not just to the artists, but to the people who served as their inspiration. Without muses, a lot of the books we know and love wouldn’t exist, or, if they did, they’d be very, very, different.
If the annals of history have taught us anything, it’s that one does not simply become a muse. You have to do a little work to earn it, before someone will do the heavy-lifting of memorializing your dazzling self for all posterity.
Unfortunately there’s not too much research on the magical makings of muses, but as far as I can tell, the paths to becoming a literary muse are:
1. Make someone fall in love with you.
James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Keats, and Jane Austen—the list of Cupid-inspired writers goes on. Our libraries are brimming with the books of literary greats whose words sprang from the well of love. Find someone to feel amorous toward you and you just might spark an entire literary movement.
2. Reject their love.
Got the falling in love part down but don’t have the best-selling novel yet? Try making that love unrequited. Apparently, that’s what got W.B. Yeats, Ayn Rand, and Louisa May Alcott to put their pens to paper. Yeats proposed to the Maud Gonne four times and was rejected four times, and Rand had a crush on a neighbor boy who wasn’t very nice to her. Alcott tops it all with a double dose of unrequited love, holding a candle for both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
3. Write a lot of letters.
Sure, these days, all romantic overtures are conducted over smartphones, but you’re never going to inspire a literary masterpiece with a passionate text. You need to write good ol’ fashioned letters via snail mail. James Joyce and his wife, Nora Barnacle, wrote countless passionate and erotic letters to each other.
4. Flout convention in some way.
You could also achieve muse-worthy status by openly challenging social moires. Zelda Fitzgerald was a wild card at a time when Southern belles were expected to be dainty and docile. Charles Lewes, the live-in partner of George Eliot, had an open marriage with his wife in the 19th century. Neal Cassady, who served not just as Jack Kerouac’s muse but also Allen Ginsberg’s, had a seminal role in the countercultural Beat movement.
5. Live your own inspired life.
Some muses swan around in a bathrobe all day, while others seemed to have inspired great literature because they were inspired to take action themselves. Yeats’ muse, Maud Gonne, was an Irish revolutionary and suffragist who spent 20 days in jail for her activism. And don’t think that becoming a muse means you don’t have to write—some historians speculate that one of Shakespeare’s muses was Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in England.
All told, muse-iness seems like quite an emotional chore and a shot in the dark. You have to find a genius, make them fall in love with you, and have some sort of turbulent romance that coaxes out literary gold. It’s looking like option #5 is really the easiest and most fun—do your own thing.
Love and paperbacks,