On inspiration

Something I have been reflecting on a lot lately is inspiration; where it comes from, what feeds it, and how to make the most of it.

Over the years I’ve found that I go through periods where I become very intensely inspired about specific things – to the point that almost all I can think about is the project or projects that I’m working on. This can be extremely rewarding, but also incredibly frustrating, with no obvious way to manage effectively. It seemed like there was never any discernible rhyme or reason for when these times would strike or how long they would last; it could often be incredibly difficult to satisfy the creative impulses that came along, and most maddening of all – I wasn’t sure how to trigger them consciously.

In addition, it also felt like this kind of all-or-nothing drive was often easily misunderstood – including by myself – as a sort of careless impatience, or worse, an erratic string of obsessions which would fade away just as quickly as they had appeared – rather than a genuine, lasting interest. There’s nothing worse than feeling like something you have been working on intently for months and are passionate about might just be some latest flight of fancy.

Managing Inspiration

Rather than just jumping endlessly from one new thing to the next, I realised that I was actually cycling through a few of the same creative outlets – focussing solely on one to the detriment of all the others. These cycles could run from days to weeks to months to years, and I had no real way to predict when they might end.

The nature of this meant that I felt guilty about neglecting my other passions, and  inevitably made collaborative ventures especially tricky. For example, if I was currently deeply inspired about photographic expression, I found it almost impossible to garner enthusiasm for writing songs as part of a band.

The all-consuming nature of this kind of heady inspiration also means that you lose some objectivity in relation to whether what you are doing is actually any good – the constant desire to create pushing everything else aside. Even just considering this possibility was enough to drive me to despair. TL;DR I needed to find a better way to manage these driving forces.

It has only been very recently that have I begun to get something of a handle on all of this. Now, rather than simply waiting for inspiration to strike and abandoning all other projects when it does until the juice runs out, I can strike something of a balance. Here are some of my observations and tips.

1. Avoid the gaps

Rather than see multiple outlets as being in competition with one another, I’ve come to realise (with insight from wiser people than I) that they can actually support and feed each other. For me (and I think many other creatively wired folk), having lots going on at once is far more preferable to hitting a period where I’m unable to do anything. Having various different passions means that I can shift from one to another and keep up the momentum across mediums – rather than hitting a total expressive block. It is much harder to find inspiration after that than it is if you are constantly inspired in separate areas.

2. Take a break

There are piles of books out there that will tell you the key to getting things done is to commit to doing a little bit each day. This path-of-least-resistance approach can be a great tactic to help get you over any initial procrastination, and build longer term habits. If you commit to playing guitar for five minutes a day, you are bound to find yourself playing far longer. However, when it comes to expressive outlets, the danger here is that you turn something you love doing into a chore, with the idea that you must constantly be progressing at least a little for it to be worthwhile. That kind of feeling kills creativity, and sometimes in order to find inspiration you need to give yourself space to take a break from something and then come back to it – without feeling guilty. This will pay dividends.

3. Grab inspiration when it comes

Of course, sometimes inspiration gloriously swells up from nowhere, and you need to make the most of it while you can. I came across a quote the other day from Margaret Qiao (from this awesome book) which puts it better than I ever could.

When you feel inspired, or have an idea, stop whatever you are doing and follow the inspiration. It’s very difficult to rekindle the spark once it goes out and impossible to conjure up on command.

This inspired me to write this post!

4. Seek out inspiration

Sometimes, you have no choice but to work on something – whether that’s because of deadlines, personal expectations, or because you are part of a collaboration. In these times, if you find yourself completely uninspired, it can be an incredibly taxing and difficult process.

As I mentioned, I previously just rode the waves of inspiration, jostling on the creative seas with no way to control what happened. I presumed that was all just part of the tortured artist process and revelled in the misery of it. However, what I’ve come to realise is that there are actually ways to help trigger periods of inspiration – you just have to actively seek them out.

For me, this has meant that before I have to work on anything specific but don’t really feel like it, I’ll spend some time on related things that I think is really interesting. For example, actively listening to bands who have really great vocalists before I have to sit down and write lyrics; watching a Japanese TV show I like before I study some of the language; or looking through pictures from photographers I love before developing some film.

This might seem painfully obvious, but in practice it’s something that I never really bought into before as nothing ever clicked. However, that’s because most of the things other folks find inspiring or share online won’t work for you. To give another example I never used to care much for photo books, but have fairly recently discovered that having a collection of these I can browse through almost never fails to inspire me to get out and take pictures.

5. ‘Write drunk, edit sober’

It isn’t clear who actually said this originally, but it isn’t all that important. Rather than taking this literally, when you find yourself struck by an idea, squeeze as much out of that feeling as you can while it lasts – but don’t worry about finishing everything then and there. Get the bulk down on paper, canvas, on film, or on a blog while you are drunk on inspiration – and then revisit to apply the finishing touches later. The urge to publish quickly can be unbearable at times – and sometimes you should – but the important thing is to make a start will you have the drive to do so. You can always come back to it later.

On ‘Creativity’

When I was (a lot) younger I would spend a lot of time doing things that weren’t homework. I used to edit and publish a DIY school newspaper; make my own ‘radio show’ mixtapes; write short stories; and a myriad of other things. That’s something I’ve carried on as I’ve gotten older, through avenues like my small-time cassette tape record label, and music project unexpected bowtie.

Perhaps as a result of that kind of thing, I got lumped in with the arty creative crowd, and I hated it. Whenever there was some sort of brainstorming session or group discussion at school or work, such as trying to decide on a name or a strap line for some project, I was always told: ‘Come on, you’re a creative person. You’ll be able to think of something great.’, and of course… I never could. How was I meant to translate the weird stuff I did in my spare time into a stunning one liner for an ad campaign? It was an impossible task.

There’s this common idea that there are two different kinds of people: those who are ‘creative’, and able to just pluck amazing ideas for anything out of thin air… and others simply aren’t… as if creativity in of itself is a particular skill. That was the perspective that was hammered into me for so long, and since I didn’t have that sort of seeming creative genius that allowed me to come up with flashes of brilliance on the spot, I really came to resent the idea and label of ‘creativity’ in general.

As time has gone on though, I’ve come to think of things differently. I know so many amazingly creative people that do so many different things, but who are hopeless when placed out of their own wheelhouse and ways of working… and when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to expect anything else.

As far as I am concerned, creativity isn’t (necessarily) about the ability to conjure up something specific for any given situation on demand. Instead, it is the urge to make stuff, whether that’s something like music or poetry; something tangible like jewelery or paintings; or something like cutting hair… writing code… or performing live in a band. Creativity isn’t a skill that can be turned to any task at hand, but something rooted in people that derives energy and satisfaction from the act of creating something… whether it’s any good or not. Somebody can be a creative person whilst pumping out absolute dross, because it’s the process – not the product – that matters.

I think we do our students and colleagues a disservice when we call them ‘creative’ and expect them to produce brilliance in response. Rather than having the intended complimentary effect, it just ends up as a rope around their neck, and produces expectations that are too much to live up to. I’d happily never hear the phrase ‘you’re a creative person’ ever again.