The three (not nine) muses

On Friday 4th October, at 8.30am, Outwith was like a bakery – filled with warm bagels and fresh cinnamon buns, and coffee, and plenty of people. The pastries were from the lovely Deanston Bakery, and had been brought along by Creative Mornings, who’d invited me to speak on their monthly theme, discussed over breakfast in different venues around the world. For October, the subject was ‘Muse’ – and this is what I had to say about it… These are some quick notes, rough around the edges, but please let me know if they spark any thoughts about your own sources of inspiration.

Classical mythology has nine muses, but I am not so well stocked. Here instead are my three essential gods and goddesses of good ideas.

First muse is perplexity

For me a muse is ideally something or someone who you don’t understand. They should demand from you a new way of thinking in order to get closer to meaning or truth. They should be perplexing.

This subject or person represents a difficulty or complexity that you are drawn to in a productive, curious way – perhaps through an instinct that it will lead to something fruitful creatively.

When you’re searching for new threads in your life that might take you somewhere, it can be tempting to prioritise things that feel like they would or should suit you, but often this might mean you miss out on some interesting connections.  And I’m talking here about connections rather than hobbies or new pursuits such as learning the trapeze or perfecting your Mandarin.

I know this from both directions – when I’ve been most useful to other people in their careers, it’s not always because we’ve been a natural fit professionally; rather the opposite. I once made friends with an anthropologist who signed me up to a newsletter for his academic speciality – the social meaning of food cultures – and this is how I ended up spotting an academic paper about to published about why alcohol explains the success of the human race.

I worked with the author of that paper to adapt it into a piece of journalism – and the story has now been read by hundreds of thousands of FT readers. So for our audience, too, the perplexity of the piece had an attraction.

It’s in many respects the opposite of networking, which is useful in its own way but presupposes that knowing people who want the same things as you do is going to help you to achieve them. Perplexity puts a certain amount of trust in randomness.

A muse should feel weird, even a little wrong to be around. It or they should wake you up, make you feel curious or strange. Just think of the famous pairings of muses through the ages who look so odd together – a pair such as young Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and the middle-aged writer Gertrude Stein, completely unalike socially and artistically, but valuable to one another.

The economist John Kay describes this as obliquity – a very cool word – and a concept that believes that good ideas in one field come from immersion in something completely different, something oblique. Great news reporters use and benefit from obliquity all the time – from the basic understanding that information can and will be hidden in creative ways by other people, to an openness to meeting a huge variety of contacts both related and unrelated to your beat, knowing that somewhere along the line, you might stumble across a revelation.

Second muse is unfinished business

This is a cliché but when you believe you have a good idea for something, it can be hard to make that idea go away, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that it’s a hopeless, impossible cause that will almost certainly never come to fruition.

A traditional office structure is not the easiest place to get unfinished business done – because 100 other people have the same problem as you, and the Darwinian contest to get to the top can take up all your energy.

But in a way that doesn’t matter; it’s the unfinishedness of your project or dream that’s the important thing to consider.

Sometimes allowing something to remain undone means that it’s never spoiled as an idea; it never falls short, never goes horribly wrong, or never is just okay – rather than brilliant. So at some point there needs to be a confrontation with what is unfinished.

It was during an interview with Patricia Michelson, who started the cheesemonger and deli brand La Fromagerie, that I think I really decided to try and give my own unfinished idea a go. Patricia used to work in theatre management, but she got lost on a skiing holiday with her husband and ended up in a French village where she walked into a cheese shop that changed her life. She loved the cheese she tasted so much, she decided to make a business out of importing and selling it.

But the thing that really got me was what Patricia said about turning off the lights at the end of the day in the shop, knowing that she had started it all. It’s very cheesy – no pun intended – but I wanted to pursue that feeling myself.

Outwith is a place – as the company motto goes – for the unwritten part of your life, for finally knuckling down and trying to write the novel that you think you have in you. Maybe it’s not there, but I think there’s something to be said for finding out. Particularly if you apply the obliquity principle and discover that your novel might lead to something completely different, but just as exciting.

Third muse is translation

Translation is quite closely related to paranoia, which can be important and useful in journalism; both in finding stories and navigating internal politics. Knowing and questioning when someone is saying one thing but meaning another.

But more importantly translation is about origin and progression, and being able to adapt to new ways of seeing – and to also allow yourself to be misunderstood. One of my favourite literary discoveries this year was David Melnick’s homophonic translation of the Iliad, Men in Aida, which was an illuminating source material at the brilliant Zarf Poetry workshop on sound at Outwith a few weeks ago. Melnick used the literal sound of the Greek verse and ‘reheard’ it and reworked it as an epic poem set in San Francisco’s gay bathhouses. This is the kind of perplexity and obliquity that money can’t buy: sheer brilliance!