My muse is not (or, possibly, is) a horse

I’ve written one thing in my life that people really want to read: a 2017 essay called Staying in the game. When I first posted it, the unprecedented traffic over a couple of days caused my web site host to suspend the service. A lot of people commented or emailed when it came out. Many people have read it since. Every few months it has a little outbreak of virality, usually via Twitter or Facebook. The most recent one was this week. Given that people seem to be interested in the essay, and more generally in understanding the creative processes of their fellow academics, I thought it might be fun to write some more about the history of this essay, how it came about.

Staying in the game existed for some time, in several versions. It tries to do several things. It contains a self-help or how-to guide for actual or aspiring academics, a kind of Seven habits of moderately effective (and slightly nerdy) people. There is something of the confessional in it (and that, I think, is what people, especially younger academic colleagues, like). I wanted to say that it is OK, normal, permitted, to struggle in your academic career, to not do as well as you hoped or think you ought to have done. We senior people have been there too. There are longeurs and surprises, so we should all be compassionate to ourselves and not make too much of a big deal out of it. And there is a third part, which is about my ambivalence, both personal and philosophical, towards the markers of value that we tend to draw on in academia–the prizes, the status markers, the impact factors, and so forth. If you want to give me these, that would be welcome (my address is freely available); but I worry about them.

Each of these three parts was originally conceived of as a separate project, possibly a whole separate book in some cases, but in any event a completely separate paper or chapter. But when I started to write an essay called My muse is not (or, possibly, is) a horse, the different threads kept tangling each other so much that in the end I thought, well damn it, I might as well just deal with them all here and now, and that is what Staying in the game ends up doing. I never wrote all the other bits. And the starting point – whether one’s muse should or not be likened to a horse, fell to the cutting room floor.

The how-to guide part was inspired by my observation, from reading various writers’ and mathematicians’ accounts of their process, of how much convergence there seemed to be: 2-3 hours concentrated time, usually in the morning, every day, with no multi-tasking, and a fair dose of quiet ritual surrounding it. I was going to systematically review these, and the various Writer’s Way type courses, pointing up the points of convergence, linking this to some light consensual evolutionary psychology about which ways of working are natural for human beings. This was possibly going to be a whole book project, but it ended up barely a few pages with some promissory examples. When I started the essay that was to become Staying in the game I kept forward-referring to this as-yet-nonexistent scholarly work, to such a degree that I realised it might not be necessary for me to ever actually do the scholarly work: I could just assert the things I wanted to say, not as forward references to a future piece of scholarship, but just, in the traditional Oxford manner, as assertions.

The actual thing I started to write was, as I have mentioned, an essay called My muse is not (or, possibly, is) a horse. The title comes from a wonderful letter written by Nick Cave to MTV in 1996, when he had been nominated for a best male artist award. (Disclaimer: this letter, which I found in a book, is wonderful. I know nothing else about Nick Cave, either his music or his political views.) Cave begins the letter with extremely gracious thanks to MTV for supporting and recognising him. I love this: his purpose in the letter is to spurn their accolade, but he begins humbly and with generous recognition of their benign intentions, not condescending or disdaining his nominators in any way, but genuinely thanking them. Then he goes on:

Having said that, I feel that it is necessary for me to request that my nomination…be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations…that may arise in future years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself do not…I have always been of the opinion that my music…exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with [a] gift, and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves-in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.

I have thought a lot about this, in the academic context. We professors are a strange combination of plumbers and poets. No-one would expect a poet to be able produce any particular poem, to order, to a timetable (except the poor poet laureate, how awful must that be?). For poets, we recognise the individuality and autonomy of the muse: they need to write about what they want to write about, whenever they want to write it. Plumbers though, you would rather like it if they came to your house at the time appointed and could fix your leak on demand, like a reliable automaton. And we professors are somewhere in between. Our work, both the topic and the style, is deeply personal, creative, unpredictable; the ideas we will have, the ways of expressing them we will dream up; the ways we go about them and the scope of the bits we chew on. And yet, as a community we think it is quite fine to assess ourselves on simple common yardsticks. We pretty much expect–and account for in spreadsheets– so much volume per person per unit time, and quality measurable on a linear scale. This is quite problematic. I agree that professors, in the public pay and providing a public good, ought to work hard and produce enough value to justify their subvention. And we need to figure out what research is better or worse. But we are not machines: we are people making meaning. What meaning we create is highly personal and hard to account for retrospectively, let alone prospectivelely. The value to society, although very important, is hard to assess. So when universities review our performance each year, often quite crudely and numerically, or we review ourselves, this is totally understandable and also quite reductive. I don’t have any good answers. I merely point out the tensions.

I can see why Nick Cave would want to opt out of the process of judgment. What he fears, actually, is not being judged a failure, but being judged a success: he knows that could change the authenticity of what he does. There’s a lot about that in Staying in the game, the compromise, as an academic, between what you have to do to earn your crust, what you get rewarded for, and what you do from personal identity and the search for meaning. Cave sums it up this way:

My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race, and if indeed she was, I still would not harness her to this tumbrel… muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

My first thought on reading was that Nick Cave is a person who knows a lot about muses. My second thought, though, was that quite possibly he is a person who does not know a lot about horses.

The point of saying his muse is not a horse is that a horse is an automaton, a machine that can be put to work in service of any goal, substituable, predictable, quantifiable (so many horse power). Whereas the muse…the muse is….well, each muse is unique; beautiful when flowing; temperamental; departs from type-specific expectations in unruly ways; needs to be wooed and soothed and petted and given the best possible living conditions; has individual needs and strengths; is stubborn, foul, resentful at times; and needs to be treated as having final value, not just as instrumental. Like a living thing really, rather than a machine. An animal. A big, powerful animal, one that can be domesticated but has a wild ancestor and is stubborn at times. Like a…well like a horse. Indeed, in the passage above metaphor, the muse is first not a horse, and then, in fact, a horse, a horse that should not be harnessed to the wrong thing (a tumbrel, of all things, why does no-one ever mention tumbrels except in the context of the French revolutionary terror?), for fear she may bolt.

This post has no conclusion. I said all I needed to say in Staying in the game and deleted the rest, but it has been nice to resurrect some of the history here. Five years on, I still like Staying in the game, though I do worry that it is a bit too normatively preachy: fat shaming for people who like to check their email in the morning. It was meant to liberate people from anxiety about work, but more than once I have had people say to me ‘Oh, Daniel, I can’t possibly talk to you, I haven’t done my proper work yet today!’ I’m sorry about that. We are all doing the best we can. I am certainly no better than you.

Nick Cave ends his letter on a perfect note:

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy….I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.