Enemies of the Muse

At a Platform Festival panel on intellectual property, I heard Rick Prelinger – filmmaker, founder of the Prelinger Archive and archive.org – warn animators against “internalizing the permission culture.” I’d never heard it phrased that way, but I can dig it. This morning I’ve been ruminating on this and other “enemies of creativity.” They are:

Nothing rains on a creative parade like having to ask someone else’s permission to express an idea. “Can I use this image? Can I use this song? Am I …stealing? Will this art make me a criminal?” We’re all immersed in media, swimming in culture consisting of existing works, yet art referring to that media is often illegal. When we internalize the principles of modern Intellectual Property Law (designed by Disney and other huge corporations, and useful only to them) we censor our ideas before they even make it outside our heads, let alone public release. Thus the creative impulse itself is stunted. Just say no, kids – don’t kill your own art. Wait for a huge corporation to do it instead.

Many a creative idea is killed because its guardian deems it “unoriginal.” Why do people think the only ideas worth expressing are ones no one has ever had before? There are no original ideas. Should we kill off any unoriginal emotions? “I can’t feel sad, that’s been done.” Why fall in love – it’s been done! Everything’s been done. If originality is a requirement for you to create, you might as well kill yourself now. Oh wait – suicide’s been done.

The best writing I’ve seen on this subject is in Keith Johnstone’s fantastic book Impro. I’d transcribe some here, but my copy’s on loan to a friend who mysteriously disappeared (your cell phone says it’s no longer in service, Michael – what the hell?). Just read Impro, you won’t regret it.

Nothing wards off the muse like keeping precise track of every goddamn expense and activity. Keep track of those receipts! Save those documents! Devote precious storage space to boxes of dull papers in your tiny apartment that can barely hold stuff you actually need in daily life, because someday you might be audited and you’ll have to account for everything you ever spent or did! For accountants this may seem easy or even fun, but for me, when the inner accountant turns on, the muse flees. Maybe it’s just me.

What’s wrong with making it perfect? Nothing, except working something to death effectively prevents you from moving on. The hard part of creation, the scary part, is the early moment when you have nothing but a metaphorical blank canvas and the receptivity to some spark of inspiration. The first idea hits, you begin sketching or writing or whatever, and as the idea takes shape you can relax. That vulnerable state of being receptive to inspiration is replaced by the comfortable execution of well-practiced skill. You know what you’re doing now. So you do it and do it and do it…the longer you exercise your craft, the longer you can put off entering that vulnerable state again. I’m sure you can find some flaw in the current work that demands days, weeks or months of labor-intensive correction. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll never finish it. Then you’ll never have to feel vulnerable again!

Because there’s something terrifying about creating. The ego loosens its grip, and however briefly there’s a loss of control. You have to give yourself over to an idea, and what’s an idea? Where did it come from? If your ego didn’t make it, who or what did? Later, you can tell yourself you were in control the whole time, the idea is “yours,” but then how come you can’t conjure another at will? If you’re so in control, why did you have writer’s block that time? Why can’t you turn the flow on and off at will, like a bathroom faucet?
And some of those ideas…they’re disturbing. What do they say about you? That idea just now – that was a stupid idea. An unoriginal idea. Kill it now, before someone else discovers how stupid and unoriginal you are.

Because the last thing you need is criticism. If someone else criticizes you, you risk public humiliation or even a drop in social standing. Better to circumvent this with self-criticism. Put down your own ideas in the formative stages, long before anyone else can see them. (end sarcasm)

I’ve gotten into fierce arguments about this. Recently someone suggested the key to my artistic success is my rigorous criticism. Yes, there is a time and a place for criticism – when the work is done, or very near done. Look at it critically, learn from it, and incorporate that learning next time. But don’t criticize as you go along. This is akin to pruning a sapling. Pruning is healthy for trees – grown trees, mature trees. Saplings, sprouts, barely-germinated seeds: these will die if you prune them.

So now, my friends, let us pray:

Our Idea
Which art in the Ether
That cannot be named;

Thy Vision come
Thy Will be done
On Earth, as it is in Abstraction.

Give us this day our daily Spark
And forgive us our criticisms
As we forgive those who critique against us;

And lead us not into stagnation
But deliver us from Ego;

For Thine is the Vision
And the Power
And the Glory forever.



Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

4 thoughts on “Enemies of the Muse”

  1. Hi Nina! I’ve discovered your work week ago and since then i’ve seen almost all the things you have in the web (i’m really fan of sitayama!!!) i’m beginning now with flash, and i notice how difficult is to do what you are doing, not only the tehnical work, also the idea is really good!!

    (the website is of my blog, but i’m not doing a very continius work on it…flash has absorbe all my time…:-))

    you are right! we kill our muse. Let her living!!! (I feel completely identified with the words you have writen…)

  2. Hey Nina,
    Love that you’re posting in your blog more often! I’m a big fan of your writing and your art.
    Very much looking forward to the Sita feature. I had to be careful when I was watching the Chapters you have posted, because my husband was reading the Ramayana and he would have been mad if he walked in and had the ending RUINED for him. Hahaha.
    Just wanted to say I’m a big fan. Thanks for everything!

  3. Here’s my tuppence worth : a while back I made a short using images culled from various sources – my reservations were overcome by the appeal of the idea, well, the idea of plundering existing non-copyright, public domain imagery in the spirit of collage and “objet trouve” – after all, as far as I know, no one pursued Terry Gilliam for copyright infringment when he made those Monty Python cartoons ages ago…

    It’s possible to argue that what you create from these images itself constitutes a new artwork, which also falls within the very same rights of the artist issues which form the basis of copyright law….after a certain point trying to settle usage fees for each and every image used becomes pointless and expensive.

  4. It is scary, and it’s often hard to tell when you’re inventing something or remembering it! You draw a cartoon and look at it. The next day you look at it again. It now seems familiar, somehow. Are you just remembering having looked at it before?

    I was once accused of plagiarism, and it was very scary. It was clearly a false accusation, but the accuser was the CEO of a TV network! Not from one of his shows, but a novel he had written. I had no idea that he had ever written any novel, let alone the one he accused me of “borrowing”. He made a fuss, but, happily, it eventually died down. I denied, truly, that I’d ever seen his novel, but how do you prove a negative?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *