You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Can you create your best work without inspiration?
Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.
Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.
Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Creativity and inspiration are not the same. 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 serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.
It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded 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 your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.
Neuroscience has shown that the creative act involves higher level brain activity. Ordinary pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.
You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
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 Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration
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.
In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. 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) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time 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. 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 doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.
Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
Everything Is Material
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
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. Examine 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, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.
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.