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How to Be Your Own Muse

Esther Yi’s Y/N was a perfect example of how not to be your own muse. Y/N is a story about a nameless woman falling in love with a young Kpop idol and moving to Seoul in hopes to be closer to him upon his abrupt retirement from the industry. I can’t tell you more because, truthfully, I only read ⅓ of it. The choice to set the story in the controversial frame that is fan culture, then have it be paper thin and haphazard, ruins whatever effect the core image was supposed to have. For a story that is supposedly centered around love, its failure to love–or at least respect–its setting made it weak.

Actually, I selected the book because of a misreading. Instead of Y/N (pronounced ‘your name’–or even your actual name– and drawn from a popular style of reader insert fanfiction) I read it as ‘Yin’ and assumed it would be about the metaphysical concept I’ve been studying recently. When I found out what it really was, I was still excited because it’s a fun premise that I’m deeply familiar with. Hence why I’m incensed by the lack of commitment in the story. Be it the narrative voice or the characters, there’s no real life in any of it. It’s all plastic backdrop filled in with lavender prose that attempts to convince you of the depth of the narrator’s obsessive love. Everything is simply going through the motions of what Yi wishes to convey. As a result it accidentally manages to be a (surface level) critique of fan culture and parasocial relationships (the author’s own words, I swear, I’m not purposefully trying to flame her).

I understand on some level that the story is intentionally erratic and somewhat nonsensical, but how am I supposed to root for someone with no discernable personality? A more generous interpretation of this would be that it intentionally represents its namesake; a character in the novel says this of Y/N fanfiction to the nameless narrator: “In order to accommodate the biography of every reader that might chance upon the story, the writer creates a character void of personality. But there can be no story without a proper protagonist.” This is true, even if it’s a misrepresentation of said genre. While I’m sure they exist, I’ve never seen a Y/N fic devoid of personality become popular. There are many popular Y/N fics, and I’ve read a fair handful I’m not ashamed to say. 

The narrator also says this of fanfiction: “...most of the stories were unreadable. After all, the authors weren’t writers, but fans who had turned to language as a last resort.”

My greatest fear as a writer has always been sounding like a hater, but if I must join the ranks in order to express why I feel so strongly about this subject then I can only hope Hailo and Bella Ve let me inside the club. To clarify, I detest a great deal of fan culture and the toxic environments it helps breed. Fanfiction is diverse; of the millions that exist (and I must have read thousands in my near twenty years of engaging with it), I find very many fics lacking in all ways possible, just as many–if not more–filled with breathtaking writing that snares you within their worlds, and nearly all of it written with a sense of devotion. If there’s one thing Yi got right about it is the idea of “language as a last resort” to express the weight of one’s feelings. I believe that all writers treat language with that sort of desperation. You don’t just write because you think you’re good at it or because you’ve studied it, you write because you almost have no choice but to get the words and feelings inside you out less you choke on them.  

With that said, I don’t write all this in some spirited defense of fan culture and fanfiction. However, I am of the mind that if you are going to include something in your narrative, especially in such an important role as the frame, you should commit! Your frame is what tells people where to focus their attention, it’s not simply a cute little cover.

Now, onto why it was a good example of what not to do. At multiple points throughout the story (the ⅓ I read at least), it was hard to discern if the narrator loved Moon, the idol she was obsessed with, or wanted to be him. She and multiple people believed she bore a resemblance to him; to the extent that she was asked to dress up as him at a fan event, leading to her ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend becoming obsessed with her and stalking her afterwards. Before then it was her attempting to have a sexual fantasy of her and Moon before inserting her (at the time) boyfriend into the scene and having him engage in intimacy with Moon instead. 

A large part of what draws the narrator to Moon is his unique dancing. When she starts writing fanfiction, she attempts to recreate a movement she wrote for him and fails; despairing about how stiff and uncoordinated her body was in comparison to Moon’s. Even the cover of the book has figures of ballerinas on a stage, which I feel corroborates my observations. Idols, muses, and even lovers in a way, exist on a thin line between love and hate and that line is named envy. Perhaps it's uncharacteristically pessimistic of me, but when you love someone, part of it is based on how you see yourself in them. If not from the start then slowly over time. To see eye to eye, to see yourself in their eye, to see yourself with their eyes. That’s love isn’t it? But there’s that thin line we walk between loving someone we admire and relate to, and hating them for all the things we thought we adored. Loving them as they are, until they start to expand beyond the acceptable borders. This is why it’s so easy to turn on your idols and drain your muses.

Within the fan space, idols (as well as all celebrities that have dedicated stans) become muses. In many cases, such as the one in Y/N, they’re more so avatars than muses, because many of these women, who make up the majority of this portion of fan culture, use these men (be they idols, actors, musicians, or even fictional characters–animated and otherwise) as a means of expressing things they feel unsafe or unable to express. That was part of the draw for me when I originally stepped into the space. Many of my interactions with men used to be colored the same. I remember becoming superficially yet obsessively entangled with a boy simply because he was pretty (like a girl) and was a good lyricist. It was safer to connect to my creativity by focusing on theirs, but I was never fulfilled. Eventually, the more I found myself invested in my art the less interest I had in focusing on idols or pining after men I didn’t actually want. To decenter men is to give yourself permission to create and destroy all on your own.

Idolatry is creating an altar in another’s image and imbuing it with all your energy and, dare I say it, even if you’re using it to subvert the pains of womanhood or make a commentary on gender you’re still centering men. It seems like nothing, but it transforms your mindset. You must make room for yourself. All your altars can’t be for men; not even men whom you’ve superimposed the female struggle onto.

To illustrate–and this is me telling on myself–whenever I think of this phenomenon I always remember the day a popular writer in the One Direction fandom called the newly liberated Zayn a misogynist. Not because of anything he did to a woman, but because in his mini Tweet war with Louis post departure, he said he should “stop making bitchy comments about [his] life.” Her wholehearted rationale was that Louis is the member who is feminized the most so the use of the word “bitchy” was gendered violence. I was so baffled because the only people who were feminizing Louis were people in the section of the fandom who engaged in shipping the members with each other. There were only two reasons he was the most feminized member. One, he had a strong relationship with the highly popular Harry Styles. Two, he was short and had hips. That’s it. You could maybe also add on the fact that white female readers and fans of various media love to project themselves onto the average brunette ”characters.” He never stood a chance against fandom psychosis really.

But this is what happens. We center men in all aspects of life, even our creativity. Women devote themselves to their image even when it’s the feminine spirit they’re exploring. Why is there shame in our image? The shame is taught. In school, in religious organizations, through the media. 

Connecting with men as a means to connect with the creativity within us is a losing game. We’re often conditioned to feel like the only way to safely shine is to be a muse or be in awe of a greater talent, but that talent 90% of the time is fueled by you and every woman who has ever entered his life. Just as often, that supposed safety net is actually a noose. 

Being someone’s muse comes with a dark side. This is not some secret; countless articles have been written about it and it even has a TV Tropes page. With every new case, my weariness of the title muse grows alongside my disappointment, but never my surprise. My most recent disappointment has to be what I learned of the Japanese photographer, Masahisa Fukase, who photographed his wife leaving the house everyday in various vibrant expressions and outfits. I loved seeing those photos pop up on my timeline, and I’ll always admire how dynamic and beautiful she was in them, but it’s tainted with the knowledge he threatened and intimidated her to get those photos. 

Muses generally are considered to belong to the domain of the arts, but they do extend past that. Whether it be art or just life in general. I’m reminded of a tweet I once saw where a girl wrote, “Oh, you like his personality? Thanks, it's mine.” Even more recent is the Tiktok (rip pending) debacle where a woman was being flamed left right and center for sapping all the character from her boyfriend’s apartment. She was almost entirely unrepentant and her boyfriend didn’t seem bothered either. I remember a commenter saying, “how much do you want to bet the reason for the overhaul was because it was the work of his ex?”

Still on decor Tiktok, there’s also the even wilder story of the woman who’s renovating her boyfriend’s purchased home with her own funds. Not too crazy, if not for the fact that she also pays him rent. The comments were filled with people shaming, pitying, and laughing at her for decorating the home he’ll be sharing with his future wife for them–which future wife will probably renovate anyways–thereby wasting her time, energy, and money. I will not be going more into my opinions on that as this is already a tangent. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a muse is a source of inspiration. In a writing class I once took, the instructor discussed the ‘flow state’ with us. She described it as a feeling of heightened confidence, intuition, and being limitless. She then proceeded to define the word inspiration. I’d never thought of the meaning of the root of it (do schools still teach root words or have they removed them alongside phonetics?) but it is ‘spir’ meaning breath or God. How lovely. 

“Inspiration is to breathe life into or have life breathed into you.”

The word muse also brings to mind budding flowers, reclining beauties sampling succulent fruits, and newness. I think of love and seduction and play. It’s not always easy being someone’s muse, and that relationship is rarely all roses for the muse. So, in the spirit of playgirl spring, there’s no better question to ask ourselves than how to be our own muses. 

Shortest possible answer: focus on yourself. 

However, the shortest answer isn’t always the most helpful one. There are so many ways to focus on yourself that it makes me dizzy to even think about. In the past ( and sometimes even now) when I had to focus on myself I would teeter on the edge of self criticism and analysis paralysis and end up being so wholly unproductive that I didn’t even want to be my own friend, let alone my own muse. Thankfully, the past is the past, and while I cannot claim to be an expert on museship or the art of the playgirl I’d like to think I dabble a bit. 

The key to being your own muse is making a routine out of it. Boo, unsexy I know, but it’s true. The time you once dedicated to filling up other people and building altars for them in your head; use it on yourself. I’m reminded of stories my parents used to tell us about fetching water as youths. While everyone fetched water back then, it was generally the task of young girls. Either alone or in groups, they would travel up the hill to collect water from the river. This was a long trip and it was taken almost every day. Similarly, for you to become your own muse, you must take the time everyday to traverse a path that will lead you to that well of creativity you’ve ignored and let others fill up on while you were busy toiling away, perfecting their golden statues. If you must build an idol, let it be of yourself. Ikengas, vision boards, take your pick. Let your form collect power.

Take your time, kneel by the edge, and play in the water. Let each day you sit and play act as a force that compels the water level to continuously rise up until it overflows. Until what was once a well becomes a geyser or a waterfall. Until your knees are soaked and your hair is wet and you feel like you can take a plunge–emerging reborn. Let it start as a puddle, even, if you must. Return to the child you once were and jump in it, splash the water around with your hands, and gaze upon your own image like an infant Narcissus. Life is only so long; can it be a life well spent idolizing others and never seeing your own reflection?


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