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Me, Myself, and Muse

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Shadow hands Shadow hands (morberg/flickr)

Imagine you're a writer, but the words won't come. Could you bargain with creativity to get past your writer's block? Oliver Sacks found himself in that very situation back in 1968: he was struggling to finish his first book, and got stuck. He imposed a deadline on himself that, while it got him writing again, came with a terrible cost. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat Pray of the most popular books ever), wanted to find a way to, as she puts it, "live a creative life without cutting your ear off." She offers some advice for doing battle with your muse, and explains why she believes your muse wants you to fight back.


Comments [37]

Dave K from NYC


So glad Liz was open about the talking to yourself thing. I'm a software engineer who specializes in inventing new technologies and I write stories. I couldn't have invented any of the cool stuff I have without externalizing the conversation in my mind.

It works really well. I think it has something to do with the explicit stimulus of hearing. Somehow it makes the conversation more clear, like having a conversation with someone else while wearing earplugs and then popping them out. The difference is significant.

When inspiration strikes, it strikes hard and fast. It's like someone rushed up to the window of your soul, fogged it up with their breath, and then drew a picture. It's vivid and (literally) awesome. It always feels like it came from someone else telepathically.

When you get one of these messages, you thank the message and tell it how beautiful it is --because it always is amazingly beautiful and profound. Even when it's a tiny part of the entire work, it somehow at that moment is the key piece, the missing link.

It sucks wondering if people hear you sometimes and think you're loony, but on any city block there are five people on bluetooth headsets looking insane. Plus, someday we'll all work like this. It really is superior.


Feb. 09 2014 08:43 PM
Katlakesh from Santa Ana

Liz is wonderful, as was this podcast. thank you guys so much this will help me in my craft. I'm going to try having a dialogue with creativity now.

An awesome TED talk by Liz if you liked this:

Feb. 03 2014 02:11 PM

I sat in my car after pulling into a parking lot totally fascinated with this program. I think folks are taking it too literally. Did we not hear the part regarding working your tail off for 1%. Thanks Radio Lab, Elizabeth, Oliver, Tom and The Universe (including the Sour Grapes), what a great new perspective I have toward creativity, just when I needed it.

Jan. 31 2014 12:34 PM
Nanci Hersh from PA

it's interesting to read the comments... so many cynics out there, too bad. Any committed artist worth their salt knows that there are truly moments of grace out there that we are gifted with. Yes hard work, yes discipline and practice but there is something to be said of divine something, call it what you will. I enjoyed and was inspired by the broadcast. Thank you.

Jan. 27 2014 07:37 PM
Laura Bien from Ypsilanti, MI

Regarding the "Edison" quote: consensus is not necessarily fact--a science show of all shows should determine whether that quote was ever even uttered and by whom.

Similarly, popularity is not necessarily quality, as seen in the best-selling yet vapid scribblings of Ms. Gilbert. Her twee bargaining with her pesky little "muse" is not behavior I expect from an actual author.

Radiolab has a tough and smart audience--please weed out such dross as Ms. Gilbert's musings in future episodes. Your listeners know who are frauds and panderers and self-marketers, no matter what cutesy tales they spin.

Jan. 27 2014 01:43 PM
SiobanAine from Maui

I wrote this poem a few months ago and thought it was so related that I would share here it.

Musing on my Muse

My muse does not come at my bidding.
She is not interested in poetic phrases unless she crafts them and
I listen.

I can create quiet
gather pen and paper
yet she remains silent.

When she does share her musings there is
no pen
no paper
often I am mid task, mid sentence, irrevocably occupied
in discussion with colleagues
in conversation with a date
in an elevator
In traffic
on a bus or subway.

I can craft a poem but
my muse is uninterested in the craft
for craft is not an endeavor of the heart
Yet when I ponder a question only God could answer,
she shares her wisdom…

Once, when I fled all human contact
ensconced myself in a summer cabin
in a winter desperation,
she took pity on me and shared
healing words.
Other desperate times her voice was silent.

Lately her attentions are bestowed on me
and I miss her.
My Muse brings Life, Breath and Love
Answers questions, asked and unasked!

Perhaps she waits for me to listen with my inner ear
see with my Divine eye
connect to my heart and soul
For she is my Divine self
Is she not?

Jan. 26 2014 09:03 PM

I'm not a writer. I'm a sculptor and have had my struggles with the ease of creative flow and times when nothing is happening artisticaly.
I found that when the moon was waxing: going from the new moon to the full moon my creativity was on full force. When the moon was waning not much was happening. It was my AHA! moment and allowed me to step back and not kick myself when my artistic muse was stagnant and appreciate my own rhythm and not fight it.

Jan. 26 2014 12:35 PM
joe,. from Scotland.

This is utterly imbecilic. Absolute pish.. 100% Complete trash,,which goes to show that there are idiots all over the world willing to believe the most ridiculous nonsense,rather than actually apply themselves.
Do you really expect sane people to believe that these ideas float about in the ether waiting to be told, cadjoled , manipulated, for your own purpose?
Then if you do, you're a daftie. Not only that, you are not in the least convincing,and it amazes me that other dafties can be convinced by a daftie like you. AND I AM THE BIGGEST F"CKING DAFTIE FOR EVEN LISTENING TO THIS IDIOTIC BULLSH!T.

Jun. 18 2013 08:34 PM
Amused In America from Somewhere In My Head

Interesting trick about externalizing your inspiration. And there should be a counseling center for muse abuse:

May. 03 2013 04:18 PM
Linda from Austin, Texas

Well, I LOVED this podcast. Especially hearing the part with Elizabeth Gilbert talking about Tom Waits. Inspiring!

Oct. 06 2012 01:55 PM

I only caught a bit of the Elizabeth Gilbert interview. Don't know if it was my clinical depression trying to sneak back in, but I felt a sense that she is a bit of a "lightweight" in the metaphysical realm, in her description of "the muse", etc., BUT now I will have to track down a podcast of that interview and see how a more complete experience will affect my observation.

Either way, I tend to discount what one has to say when they don't bother to be sure of the source of quotes that they use. Giving Henry Ford credit for what is most definitely a Thomas Alva Edison quote is sloppy, anyway you look at it. (99% / 1% perspiration/inspiration)

Am thrilled to find this source (Radiolab) and have signed up!

Oct. 01 2012 01:50 AM
MarianeZ from Portland, OR

I appreciate the segment, but pretty much everything Elizabeth Gilbert says, from the ancient greeks to anecdotes about musicians, comes straight from a book titled The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, and I'd appreciate if she'd credit the author.

Sep. 29 2012 03:40 PM
Lauren from Brooklyn

P.S. I personally like Don Draper's approach to the creative process (defending his team's work ethic to firm partner Lane Pryce): They don't work ... until they do.

Sep. 24 2011 02:51 PM
Lauren from Brooklyn

There is an Enlightenment version of personality -- prior to the inception of psychoanalysis -- that allows for the wrangling of self with self in Locke and Hume (especially the latter's famously provocative chapter "On Personality." If you don't like the theological mysticism of the genii or the radical individualsim of genius (congrats, Jad et al.!) or even neuroscience, you can allow for the instability of the instability of self in changing contexts. Here's to conversing with the self!

Returning to Comment #1: What a delightful misappropriation (I had it in my head it was Einstein, not Edison) of the perspiration/inspiration quote. They are on the same trajectory of the Protestant work ethic -- Edison and Ford -- no? (And therefore of course Einstein didn't say it.)

Sep. 24 2011 01:40 PM

I started writing very young, and always felt as if the story, and the people in the stories, were fully formed and existed on some plane outside of myself. So, of course, I loved this segment. From what I have read, a lot of writers feel that way - probably more of them than not. I am also fairly scientific, and am forever questioning mysticism, but part of me continues to wonder if there isn't something behind the curtain. Maybe it is just conformation bias, but I prefer to hold out hope that there may be a little magic in the world.

Sep. 03 2011 12:58 PM
Alexander Barnes from Greenbelt, MD

The reference to writing of the Frost "The Road Not Taken" is actually about "Stopping by Woods..."

Jul. 06 2011 12:27 PM

@HunterJE The show IS about science. Science is an exploration of truth. While I do believe that the forces discussed in this segment weren't real, science is about the exploration of truth, and therefore addressing the possibility that something is real, truthful and what not. However, having written stories for school projects, I can see how one could be convinced that this is real and how it could work, though i also think it's wrong. I think the notion should be treated like how Sherry explains in the "Talking to Machines" episode: "Knowing it was a machine, but using it as an occasion to breathe life into it in order to get their feelings out." However, in this situation you have "Knowing it's not real, but using it as an occasion to breathe truth into it in order to get the words out." That way, a writer can live between the two worlds and the two thoughts.

Jun. 26 2011 03:33 PM

@HunterJE: Kindly let the artsy folks have their moment.

To me, the subconscious mind is a deep pool full of every experience a person has ever had. Ideas from nowhere happen when something decent surfaces. Of course, it doesn't stay surfaced long. :( Oh, well.

Jun. 25 2011 09:57 PM
Deb from Rhode Island

I liked this segment on creativity. I am a theatre designer and when I was a kid, my father made up stories about my younger brother . . . he had 2 fellows that lived in his head-Aldo and Louie. Aldo was a smoker and Italian and a bit of a messy housekeeper and Louie, the room mate was French, rather quiet but very different than Aldo. Now this arrangement was in some ways a bargain with my younger brother, an encouragement to take a bath. But it launched many stories about Aldo and Louie. For me, they became part of my creative conversation. I deal with the visual aspect of a theatre piece--and since Aldo and Louie don't speak English and I don't speak either French or Italian or very little--I am forever trying to figure out what they think this play is all about visually. So I understand perfectly what Elizabeth Gilbert is talking about--and by the way, I listened to her reading her book on my way to work for many days--and enjoyed it immensely.

May. 13 2011 09:37 AM
Amber Steele Dance Master from San Francisco

More Tom Waits, please!!!!!

And, I disagree with @HunterJE 's comment about mysticism. Gilbert may believe in muses and fairies, but I think this episode is about psychology and behavior modification techniques. Who cares whether you use metaphors or believe in fairies; the effect upon your chemical/emotional responses is the result of the process of the ritual, independent of whether or not the transubstantiation actually occurred.

Apr. 21 2011 01:14 AM
Zack Bernardin from OC, CA

Woah woah woah, what was that music at the end? Right when he says "I can get with the muses." That sounded really cool. I want that.

Apr. 08 2011 04:31 PM
Jude from Florida

This was great, inspiring, and brought me a lot of clarity, I see her perspective and its resonates well with me, for I had a similar experience to hers that left me elated until I fell off and into depression, but I had heard a TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on something similar called flow, and his explanation of it was great, it was like the ideas from DIY Universe, This one, and What does Technology Want gave birth to his TEDtalks

Apr. 05 2011 08:59 PM

Never ceases to amaze me how many people think that the rest of us care about their opinions. Great show Jad and Robert, keep giving us the tools to form our own opinions :)

Mar. 29 2011 12:43 AM
Alexis Barattin from Toronto, Ontario

I thought this episode was great and I really enjoyed Gilbert's discussion on the muse. Strange how people take Jad Robert's views so personally. Part of their job as radio announcers is to play differing opinions off each others. That's one of the reasons why Radiolab is so exceptional. Jad and Robert's characters are like foils to each other, sometimes Jad plays the one in awe and sometimes Robert does.
Another great episode!

Mar. 28 2011 03:57 PM
Eric from Michigan

I take exception to the negative comments on this episode. I was fascinated and inspired by this episode (especially Elizabeth Gilbert) as I am with almost every episode of this show.

Mar. 24 2011 04:57 PM

I haven't been a part of the whole "Eat, Pray, Love" phenom, though I did hear it mentioned a few times at the yoga studio. However, I am more inclined to read it after hearing Elizabeth Gilbert talk about inspiration in a very literate way.

Mar. 15 2011 02:04 PM

please, no more Elizabeth Gilbert

Mar. 12 2011 10:15 PM
Grey from New York

I understand that Robert Krulwich is a necessary stand-in for all those who pout when evidence undermines their sense of self-importance. He is tolerable because I can usually count on Jad Abumrad to articulate how one might live without illusions without becoming disillusioned. Jad's humility and healthy sense of wonder (or "awe") make him the voice of maturity. But between the segment with Elizabeth Gilbert (whose success is of the Joel Osteen and Rick Warren variety, in that she has zero literary talent but plenty of pandering talent) and the "Universe Knows My Name" short, it feels like Radiolab is faltering. However, this is weighted against 8+ seasons of awesome (yes, Krulwich... "Awesome") engaging, thrilling and informative science content.

Mar. 12 2011 10:10 PM
pedro from LA

the song was "picture in a frame" from mule variations.

Mar. 12 2011 11:55 AM
Ben Towle

Anyone know which Tom Waits song that was from the "stuck in traffic" anecdote?

Mar. 12 2011 11:34 AM

That book was eat, pray, crap.

Mar. 11 2011 06:35 PM


This one?

Mar. 10 2011 11:33 PM

Really loved the part with Elizabeth Gilbert talking about Tom Waits.

Mar. 09 2011 11:00 PM
HunterJE from the bottom of my heart

Wow, really thought this was a show about science, not wishy-washy mysticism.

Mar. 09 2011 07:27 PM

What was the piano song that played while Oliver Sacks was talking about the task of writing his book becoming something joyful?

Mar. 09 2011 12:43 PM

Good catch, Sharath. Looks like we made an error there. Although that quote has been attributed to a whole host of luminaries over the years, consensus points to Edison as the original source of the sweat.

Mar. 09 2011 12:01 PM
Sharath Cherian from Laguna Beach

Elizabeth Gilbert says that the quote that genius is 1% inspiration 99% perspiration" comes for Henry Ford however I'm almost 99% (pun intended) sure that it came from Thomas Edison.

Mar. 08 2011 11:37 PM

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