Invoking the Muse

We writers are a quirky lot with our habits, superstitions, and idiosyncrasies—whatever we believe it takes to get the attention of the muse or elicit inspiration. I have a friend who has a particular hat… another friend who insists on a certain pen… one who places a goofy little figure beside her computer while she writes and puts it away again when she’s done. And oh there are so many others.

In A Writer’s Book of Days, I noted some of the ways famous writers found their inspiration. I thought I’d print that list here, as a way of reassuring any who might consider herself a little odd when she dons a flea-bitten sweater or dusts her philodendron. Mind you, these tidbits are all based on research I found here and there; I didn’t make any of it up. But that’s not to say this is all factually true. Some may be the literary equivalent of urban legends.

This then, is the list, excerpted from A Writer’s Book of Days.

The poet Friedrich von Schiller used to keep rotten apples under the lid of his desk, open it, inhale deeply, and compose.

Tea was the stimulant for Dr. Johnson and W. H. Auden. Johnson was reported to have frequently consumed twenty-five cups at one sitting. Honore de Balzac drank fifty cups of coffee in a day.

Colette first picked fleas from her cat, then wrote. It’s told she had a dozen of them (cats, not fleas).

photo: creative commons

photo: creative commons

While writing The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal began the day by reading two or three pages of the French civil code.

Willa Cather read the Bible.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge indulged in two grains of opium before working.

Alexandre Dumas, the elder, wrote his nonfiction on rose-colored paper, his fiction on blue, and his poetry on yellow. Langston Hughes also used a different kind of paper for each project.

Rudyard Kipling insisted on the blackest ink available and fantasized about keeping “an ink-boy to grind me Indian ink.” (Note: I’ve had this same fantasy.)

Voltaire used his lover’s naked back as a writing desk.


It’s said that Edgar Allen Poe wrote with his cat on his shoulder, Charles Baudelaire kept a bat in a cage on his writing desk, and Henrik Ibsen kept a pet scorpion on his.

T.S. Eliot preferred writing when he had a head cold.

Paul West listened nonstop to a sonatina by Ferruccio Busoni as he wrote The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, while Hart Crane wrote to Cuban rumbas, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, and torch songs.

Me: I’m a light-a-candle-read-a-poem-cup-of-coffee woman.

How do you let the Muse know you’re ready for a visit?

10 thoughts on “Invoking the Muse

  1. I write after work (I’m a copy editor) so if I had a busy day, I play 30 minutes of music and close my eyes while sitting on the couch. Something usually hits me before the 30 minutes and I just go with it. But there have been times when the Muse hits me on the way home on the subway. I always have pen and paper close by.

    • Thanks for your comment, Paula. How great that you can write after working all day as a copy editor and reading other people’s writing. That music you listen to must be magic! I know what you mean about always having that pen and paper close by. The Muse likes her spontaneity, doesn’t she?

  2. In the book Little Women, it talks about Jo having a certain pinafore and hat she wore when she was writing seriously; this is what your post reminded me of. As for myself, I feel at my best when I have an inky Staedler pen at hand and my checkered cap on my head, and some times, in certain moods, a grey dress that I can mess up with ink if I like.

    • Oh, thanks, Sarah, for reminding me about Jo in Little Women. It’s been so so long since I read that book, I didn’t remember that. I’d love to see you in your checkered cap. Maybe you’ll post a photo. Or maybe it’s just between you and your Muse.
      Thanks so much for dropping by with your thoughts.

  3. Thanks, Judy…

    I wonder if the Voltaire one is true…using his lover’s naked back as a writing desk…..I believe the one about Coleridge because I’ve heard that before….This is a fascinating list…..I have no particular habit which goes along with my writing and, since I haven’t written anything creative in years, maybe I should get a weird habit or two to motivate me! This list gives me some suggestions.


    • Hi Arlene,
      I like to think the one about Voltaire is true, but then I’m such a romantic. And I imagine her lounging in bed upon many pillows, not in any position that is painful or awkward. Me: what I’d really like is a room with an ink boy and a napping couch.
      When you get your “quirks” in order, let me know.
      Good luck! and thanks always, for commenting on the posts.

  4. I get my cup of tea and crawl back into bed with my journal and pen. Judy, Thanks for sharing this list again. It always makes me laugh!

    • The tea and bed and journal and pen may not sound too “quirky,” Jill, but consider it from the POV of someone who jumps up, showers, and gulps coffee while commuting 45 minutes to work in a cube all day. Your invocation to the Muse is delicious.

  5. At my table aka workbench I light a candle to sign the silence. Decaf.

    I don’t like to sit computer but when I have to I don’t consider it writing. When I end up writing instead of just editing I call it by accident like when the cabinet gets cleaned or something. There is an outside motivator that leads to something else see. Serendipity.

    • Hi Linda,
      Writing/editing… most of all I like the surprises, or, as you say, the “accidents.” And hooking that to “like when the cabinet gets cleaned…” gave me a big ol’ grin. Yer funny. Thanks.

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