What to do when the muse is missing

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Artists have the strangest ways to get inspired: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry sometimes filled his notebook when he was on a plane, Pablo Picasso locked himself in his studio, F. Scott Fitzgerald relied on gin to spark his inspiration, Truman Capote was only able to think when he was lying down. I wanted to know: What really stimulates creativity? And what to do when the muse leaves you and the flash of genius just won‘t come? That‘s why I met Joseph Hanimann, author, journalist and Saint-Exupéry expert.


Joseph Hanimann is not only an author and journalist – and therefore somebody who knows about the creative writing process firsthand – he has also done extensive research about other writers and how their works came into being. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whom he has portrayed in a biography, was not the kind of disciplined author who wrote several pages every day, I learn. “He always put his heart and soul into it. If he didn‘t have anything to write, he didn‘t write”, Hanimann says. The Frenchman, born in 1900, based his writing on his own real-life experience. And that, throughout his life, revolved around flying. From the age of 23 until his early death at the age of 44, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry worked as a pilot. “I am convinced: the writer Saint-Exupéry would not exist without the pilot. And the pilot without the writer would be a boring figure”, Hanimann tells me. “His fantasy was exuberant – and he needed technology, the precise, the tangible as an antipole.”

Was it flying, and the travels and experience it brought about, which made Saint-Exupéry write his now world-famous novels? “The material of his stories is his experience, which he reworked. Sometimes he used writing as an outlet, but more often he elevated his experience into a higher dimension and gave it more significance”, Hanimann elaborates. Certainly there are parallels between Saint-Exupéry’s life and the stories he tells. “He worked on his first manuscript in the desert, with the desert sand blowing around him”, Hanimann says. Similar to how “The Little Prince” begins, Saint-Exupéry himself was forced to land in the desert in 1935 and was only rescued after a five-day-march through the endless sand. The desert, it seems, was a primary source of inspiration for him. Is it possible to bind creativity to a place? “Creativity is always bound to places”, Hanimann says. “You cannot be creative in a vacuum.”

But experience can’t be everything – how important is discipline in the creative process, I want to know. “In “The Little Prince” Saint-Exupéry talks about discipline a lot – “taming” is a term often used”, Hanimann replies. “The chaos of the world has to be put in order. And that was often difficult for him.” Did Saint-Exupéry ever experience writer‘s block? In a way, says Hanimann. “He often had problems turning his stories into novels. He knew what we wanted to say but he couldn’t quite get it to take form. It was writer‘s block or some kind of bottleneck.” What method did he use to solve the problem? “He did not have a method. If there was one writer who did not have a creative method, it was Saint-Exupéry. He was totally chaotic. If he was stuck, he would work on it, by hook or by crook, until he finally had it. It was pure improvisation, sometimes bungling, but of course also fun.”

What role does the so-called muse play? “The muse is a paradoxical figure. You want to conjure it up, but it must not distract you or interfere with your work. Essentially, you want it to be there and not be there”, Hanimann says. For Saint-Exupéry, the muse came in the shape of women, he goes on to say. These women were extremely important for him – but not as sparks of inspiration. They urged him on, they disciplined him. Similar to the role of a modern career coach.

What about Hanimann himself? “I am the exact opposite of Saint-Exupéry. He had no rituals at all – sometimes he would write on a plane with a notebook on his knees. For me, rituals are very important. Writing is a lonely business and you need to organise yourself. I need habits”, Hanimann says. Like many authors and artists, he prefers working in the morning. Maybe it is because the rise of the sun mirrors the development of the creative process. “For me, the time between 1:30 pm and 2:30 pm has always been the worst. It’s dead time”, he says. “Others think the same way. Nietzsche talks about “the big day”, but in a negative sense, when the sun is blazing down. That‘s why people in Southern countries invented “Siesta” time“. And how does Joseph Hanimann handle writer‘s block? “There is only one thing I can do: I have to put the text aside and try to do something else”, Hanimann replies. “Time is the best way of resolving writer‘s block”. So writing cannot be forced? “To a certain degree you have to force it”, he says, referring to discipline. “But you have to know how far to drive yourself on and when you have reached a point where you have to stop, in order not to ruin everything. If that happens, you just have to wait for a better muse. It‘s essential to believe that it will come eventually.”

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