the magic 1%
Do you really need the elusive 1% of inspiration, or is 99% perspiration enough to get the job done?
Inspiration is one of those ideas people use to separate artists from the rest of the population. Popular culture shows an artist writing or playing or painting like a person possessed, forgetting to eat or wash in the process. They’re overwhelmed by the spirit of creation and must capture it before they lose it.
Perhaps as a reaction to that, many no-nonsense creators simply dismiss it. Show up, do your work, and you don’t need inspiration. Once you start, you’ll find whatever you need along the way. Prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing it as an excuse for failure to produce.
You might share one or other of these views. You may have been inspired and found the experience both thrilling and elusive to repeat, like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Or you get on with hitting your daily word count and find that’s more than enough.
But is it possible that both viewpoints are true?
Seeking The Muse
All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired.
Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
The Nine Muses of Ancient Greece were goddesses who symbolised arts and sciences such as poetry, singing, astronomy, drama, and so on.
Artists of the time called on their muse to bring forth their best work.
The idea of the muse as inspiration persisted into the last century, often personified as a woman who inspired a male artist. Sometimes an artist in her own right, she embodied an artistic concept for the man whose work often featured her as a model. Dali, Picasso, Rossetti, and Rodin all drew on their significant relationship with a woman, while Francis Bacon’s muse was male.
The muse reflected the artist’s vision while also challenging him. Her presence as model or sounding board encouraged him to push the boundaries, infusing his pieces with more energy and no doubt encouraging him when the results were viewed with confusion or disdain. Every movement that we now accept in art began with artists who dared to go further, risking the scorn of their contemporaries.
The muse shines her light on a new path and whispers in the artist’s ear, “That is your way forward. Be brave.”
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Creativity and inspiration are not the same things. They can exist separately or together.We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be perfectly serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
But if you have inspiration, you can create something much more. Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were in the shower or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction, as though a billiard ball collided with you.
It’s impossible to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.
The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says that it happened in your brain. Your brain is a collection of a trillion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, a self-regulating system capable of near-miraculous processing.
Neuroscience has evidence that the creative act may involve enhanced neural processes. Normal pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.
Put another way, you can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
But add a spark and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.
Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill
Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill
Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you, ready and waiting.
The Power of Habit
Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.
Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.
If your spark drifts by and your eyes are closed, you’ll miss it. If you have no materials, or there is no oxygen, you won’t be able to use it. This is where a routine is your friend and constant practice is your teacher.
Forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Put in the work to improve. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.
The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) can be tedious and boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the training miles so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.
Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. You need to clear out the constant chatter of conscious thought. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary. Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.
Some people get their breakthroughs while in the shower. It’s a time for most of us to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, as in the morning pages of The Artist’s Way.
Some people move around. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
A Chance To Dream
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
A tired mind is a slow mind, barely able to cope with the familiar let alone come up with something new. Lack of sleep is so common these days that it’s seen as normal, but to be truly creative you need sufficient rest. The average is six to nine hours, so experiment and find your ideal. Work back from your rising time to find when you need to go to bed.
The other reason to sleep more is to get enough REM sleep, the phase during which we dream. Often this phase occurs just before waking naturally, so if your alarm wakes you before you complete your sleep cycle you will miss out.
If you can remember your dreams, keep a notebook by the bed to write them down on waking. Sleep allows the conscious brain to rest and the subconscious to work without distraction. There’s some evidence this can result in more creative insights. Dream recall can be difficult to start but improves with practice.
Everything Is Material
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Henry David Thoreau
If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.
Get out from your routine and search out something new.
Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.
Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.
Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.
Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Look up at buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.
A Marriage of Opposites
It’s a dull world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be realised. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, seek inspiration.
Build your skillset, sharpen your tools, challenge your capabilities.
Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it.
If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.
Go to it.
To depend entirely upon inspiration is as bad as waiting for a shipwreck to learn how to swim. To leave everything to natural spontaneity is as bad as to make everything the result of mechanical predetermination… perfection is the harmonious blending of the two.
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