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You Have to Be Ready for Inspiration

Sunday, 9. June 2019 23:57

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about it being time to write the next blog post. He asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?” I don’t recall my answer, but it was lame, I’m sure. The real answer is that it comes from all sorts of places. Sometimes it’s something I see, or something I hear or something I read. Or it could be any one of those that sets off a chain reaction of thoughts that ends in what might be called inspiration.

Then as I was thinking about inspiration, this week serendipitously brought Austin Kleon’s blog post “It’s not inside you trying to get out, it’s outside you trying to get in,” which posits that inspiration comes from outside. We do not have books, or songs or photographs or paintings or poems inside us. Rather they exist in the universe and come to us for expression. He quotes artists as divers as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Michael Jackson, and Henry David Thoreau to make his point. Not only do inspirations come from outside, but if we are not receptive, they go elsewhere to find acceptance.

There are at least two implications contained in this idea. The first is that we creatives are not really creators. We don’t originate the ideas, the inspirations. Rather, we in some way prepare ourselves so that we are ready to receive the idea when it comes. Then we snatch it out of the air or ether or wherever it is and write it or paint it or sculpt it or do whatever we do. Cave as much as says this in his advice to a “blocked” songwriter.

The second implication is contained in the first. It is that we as artists must make ourselves ready to seize inspiration when it does arrive. As I have written before, inspiration is not something that we can always count on. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t. What is important is that we are ready, which means that we show up, we exercise discipline, we do the work—every day. And that showing up and doing the work readies us for inspiration. As Kleon puts it in one of his blackout poems:

the Muse

is ready to

surprise me

if

i

show   up every day

and

say,

“Wanna hang out?”

Art is, at least in part, about making connections and seeing patterns. The inspiration triggers a set of ideas which ends in our making those connections and seeing those patterns. And if we don’t figure out a way to ready ourselves, then the inspirations fly by unnoticed. Connections don’t get made; patterns don’t get recognized.  We call that “being blocked.” Then we often bear down, which closes us off even more from the universe, and then we really are creatively blocked.

It’s not really magical, although it may look and sound that way. It may not even be mystical, although some would argue with that. It is simply doing the work that is required to be creative and doing it regularly, putting ourselves in a mental and physical place to be receptive to our own flow of ideas and not thinking so hard in a single direction that we close out other possibilities. Only when we are open can a new idea develop. Then all we have to do is recognize it and do something with it.

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Ruts and Routines

Monday, 30. September 2013 0:28

Routine is both comfortable and comforting. There is security in knowing that you will do the same things in the same order and for more-or-less the same duration every work-day. There is reassurance in knowing that this weekend will follow a pattern much like last weekend and very much like next weekend. Routine makes everything stable.

Many of us have a tendency to fall easily into routines. One of the strengths of the routine is that we don’t have to think about it. No concerns about what to do next—we look at the clock or the calendar and we know. If it’s the right time and day to work on our art, we do that. If it’s time to eat, we do that. And so on. I rather like routines for all of those reasons mentioned, but I have a friend who reminds me that doing things always the same means not that I’m in a routine, but in a rut.

But then, ruts are comforting too, and ruts are really comfortable, and easy. You really have to think about nothing. Just put the wheels into the grooves in the road and you don’t even have to steer. And since you are a creature of habit, you don’t have to think about speed either—you’ll go along at the same tempo you used the last time you went this way.

We all pretty much agree that ruts are bad, but a rut is simply a routine that’s gone on long enough to make it a practiced thing without any conscious alternatives. It’s that no conscious alternatives thing that’s not so good. That prevents us from seeing new possibilities, from exploring other methods, from developing new ways of thinking. It’s comfortable, and, because it amounts to autopilot, we tell ourselves, it leaves us more time for creativity.

Or does it? I have been working on a very large project for weeks now. Because I’ve learned to take my own advice, I work on it every day. This has resulted in plodding along, working every evening—sometimes just a little; other times for a longer period. Unfortunately, I am in the not-so-creative, preparatory part of the project. It’s work. I slogged onward, unknowingly losing interest every day. Then the deadline of another project suddenly interfered, forcing me to alter my routine. The results were wonderful! The second project got finished on time, and that energized me so I was able to go back to the larger project with fresh eyes. Suddenly I began to see possibilities that had been invisible before.

The obvious lesson is to avoid ruts, and perhaps even routines. Unfortunately, the latter may not be possible, particularly for those who have day jobs or other obligations. Perhaps a better alternative would be to change our approach: instead of telling ourselves that we should work at our art every day or week or whatever, perhaps we should, in addition, set goals. For example, instead of writing for a set time every day, Stephen King writes 2000 words; he does not stop until he has reached his goal. Some days that takes a rather short amount of time; others require a longer period. Another thing we can learn from observing King is that he gives his work a high priority, meaning that he may have to have adjust some other aspect of his life when things are moving slowly. Many of us do it the other way around, and short our artistic work when life intervenes.

Like many artists previously discussed here, I am a great believer in discipline.  However, when discipline becomes a routine which then develops into a rut, we must find a way to break out of that rut and renew ourselves. Our work will only benefit.

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Want to Do Better Art? Develop Discipline

Sunday, 18. March 2012 22:52

No matter how much imagination and creativity and talent you have, it’s of little use unless it is applied. And often the application requires something that many in the arts tend to avoid: discipline. From experience I know that discipline is a trait lacking in many theatre arts students, and I can think of no reason that students of any other art would be different. These students, like most of us, get into the arts because it satisfies a felt need, or we have talent, or we find it really appealing. Then to succeed, we have to figure out how to take it to the next level, and the level after that, and the level after that.

And that takes imagination. It also takes discipline. This is an idea that comes up again and again when artists talk about what it takes to make art. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner says:

There is a romantic notion to writing a novel, especially when you are starting it. You are embarking on this incredibly exciting journey, and you’re going to write your first novel, you’re going to write a book. Until you’re about 50 pages into it, and that romance wears off, and then you’re left with a very stark reality of having to write the rest of this thing. […] A lot of 50-page unfinished novels are sitting in a lot of drawers across this country. Well, what it takes at that point is discipline … You have to be more stubborn than the manuscript, and you have to punch in and punch out every day, regardless of whether it’s going well, regardless of whether it’s going badly. […] It’s largely an act of perseverance […] The story really wants to defeat you, and you just have to be more mulish than the story.

A number of artists have commented on the relationship between discipline and inspiration. Douglas Eby in a post on “The Creative Mind” quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in a TED talk, “Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius [muse] assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

Notice that Gilbert is not just talking about writing, but about any art. Painter and photographer Chuck Close advises:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the first rule of doing work that matters, no matter what it is, is to “go to work on a regular basis.” To be brilliant, we must not only go to extremes with our imaginations, we must do so on a regular basis. Discipline is also a requirement.

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