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.