The Myth of Inspiration

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It’s occurred to me recently that for my entire life, I’ve been operating under a misconception about creativity and inspiration. I’ve always been the kind of person who gets absorbed in a project and could spend an entire day working on a painting, a story, a design. But I have to be excited about it, inspired by it and driven to do it. If I don’t feel that way, I don’t bother to start.

I wait for inspiration to strike instead of going after it.

My co-worker Doug operates in the opposite way. He has written two books, and I always assumed that these stemmed from a place of great inspiration. But they didn’t. They came from the chase: he shows up and writes until something sticks, until inspiration strikes. He schedules time to write even if he has no story in mind, even if he doesn’t want to write, even if he feels like he’s failing every time he tries. And after doing this long enough, he finds he’s created a book. And another one. And that his work is getting better with every word. But it’s because he didn’t sit and wait for it to get better.

When I state it this way, it’s obvious. But I usually do the opposite.

In the past few days, I’ve repeatedly come across snippets on creativity and inspiration until the point has been drilled into my head. I don’t have to wait to be inspired but must work to find that idea, the spark, the inspiration. A Facebook friend recently posted a link to a thoughtful piece by David Cain called “16 Things I Know Are True But Haven’t Really Learned Yet.” The following two resonated with me:

6) Creative work is something that can be done at any time. It’s no different than any other kind of work. Inspiration is nice but completely optional. I’ve almost completely come around on this one in 2013. But sometimes the Four Horsemen still trick me.

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11) All you need to do to finish things is keep starting them until they’re done. The idea of doing something in its entirety always seems hard. But it’s easy to commit to simply starting on something, and then you’re past most of the resistance. Continuing is just as easy. (Thanks to Leo Babauta for this one.)

On the same day, I was reading Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind—which, by the way, is fantastic and worth checking out—and came across an essay on writing called “That Crafty Feeling.” She talks about her creative process and her neuroses during writing and editing, and she included a description of how she begins a novel. The first 20 pages, she says, are the hardest. She’s still finding her story, her voice, her inspiration, and that process can take years.
It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of novel am I writing? … I reworked those first twenty pages for almost two years. To look back on all past work induces nausea, but the first twenty pages in particular bring on heart palpitations.

But she sits down and writes despite not feeling like she’s getting anywhere. Then, Smith says, the cobwebs clear and she begins to see the story come together.

It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter … When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months.

It reminds me of running. In March last year, I ran my first half-marathon. The summer before that, the most I’d ever run at once was 4 miles, and six months later I was doing 13.1 without stopping. I’m not a great runner, and I’m not a fast runner, but I realized something when I was training: the first 4 miles are the hardest. After that point, your muscles are warm and your body gets in a rhythm. Your brain finally shuts up and stops telling you that it can’t do this, and it becomes quiet and at peace. Suddenly, you’re just moving forward—even if it’s slowly—and everything feels fluid. You feel like you could continue this way for hours.

Starting to run sucks, but continuing to run is a pleasure. Just because I don’t feel like starting, just because the beginning of the process isn’t fluid and fun, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep going. It means I should continue until I hit the rhythm.

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