Go After It with a Hammer

Øystein kjører Mustang cabriolet i ørkenen

Inspiration is a strange phenomenon. It appears out of nowhere when you least expect it to, and then when you really need it, it can be so hard to obtain. Haven’t you often felt like the more you the chase it the more evasive it seems to become? The question is really: Can you will inspiration – or are they two opposite forces?

I think our concept and understanding of inspiration changes with age or maybe more likely with experience. I remember in my younger days when I started out as a photographer and started to write as well; I was waiting for inspiration to empower me. Back then inspiration was some mythical power that would strike from nowhere and suddenly lift my creativity into ecstasy. I could sit at my desk with pen and paper and wait for lightning to strike – or I could go out in the street with my camera and hope for some magical perception to come upon me that would make me see everything clear and ready to be photographed. When it didn’t happen, well, it just wasn’t my day then.

Today I maybe don’t have the time or the patience to wait for inspiration to strike. I more and more believe in the words of Jack London. He said: Go after it with a hammer.

I really do believe you can force inspiration to happen or maybe I should say find flow. Will it, if you will. It’s still evasive, but it’s not completely out of our control to make it happen. Yes, some days, it’s not happening, but if I haven’t at least tried to grab inspiration out the air, I know I have let myself down. In their book Art and Fear the authors David Bayles and Ted Orland writes: «To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work […] Your art does not arrive miraculously from darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.» What they say is that inspiration is not a miracle, it’s work – and hard work as such. Experienced artists have learned how to get on with their work; they have learned to proceed even when inspiration seems to have abandoned them. They go after it with a hammer and make it happen. How they do it is often not transferable to others. It won’t help you to know exactly what van Gogh needed to gain or lose in order to get on with his work. We all have to find our own way.

This much said I still recognize that with creative work there is something more than pure willpower and conscious labour. While you can will yourself to work, it’s not necessarily possible to will yourself to find inspiration. But you absolutely can find ways to encourage inspiration, to find that first step when you enter what is often called flow and your mind takes on a life of its own and finally the creative process literally takes off. Flow and finding flow can be learned. You may call upon your will to get motivated to begin work. Taking myself as an example, I use music to motivate myself to get started. When I for instance find it hard to start writing something, some really expressive music can help me get going. For others it might be the opposite, they need complete silence to be able to start writing. Well, if that’s the case, create an environment that ensures you are surrounded by silence. For me a strong cup of coffee may also be a trick that gets me started. I have found ways to go after inspiration even when I am not inspired to work. I just know that I have to will myself, even when I am not already in the mood, simply to allow myself to get in the mood – if I am to achieve the altered state that on some level I desire. Similarly, you may need to make a conscious decision to begin doing whatever you have found gets you in flow, though you are certainly not in that altered place when you first make the decision. Go after it with a hammer. In my previous posts Finding Flow and In the Heat of Flow I write a little more how you can facilitate finding flow.

The writer Ethan Canin has said: «The freeing moment is sitting down and sometimes writing two sentences and somehow that unlocks this other thing and it comes out. You cannot write a novel out of inspiration, out of a moment of genius. There’s no substitute for sitting down every day for four hundred days and writing a page.»

Regardless of what you believe, it’s a good idea not to wait for inspiration to strike before embarking on work. Rather, you can learn to take matters into your own hands and put yourself in a situation where flow can happen. Inspiration is notoriously unreliable. Don’t sit up waiting for it. Again to take myself as an example: When I go out on the street to photograph and I don’t feel inspired or I see no picture, I still force myself to photograph, even when I know those photographs will be for the garbage bin only. I push myself through the initial inhibition; suddenly things start to happen, flow sweeps me along and pictures begin to happen. It’s like driving a car, if you don’t push the gas, nothing is going to happen. Only then can you enjoy the breeze in your hair.


109 thoughts on “Go After It with a Hammer

  1. Excellent summary! You seem to have very good insights into how our mind flow to get thing done. Your examples are right on! I think music also helps with the inspiration but definitely a good ingredient for great fun during photo editing 🙂

  2. The key perhaps, as you put it Otto is “not to wait for inspiration to strike before embarking on work”. Many a times work turns out to be rather inspiring itself and pushes you to go further.

  3. Brilliant post, Otto … as always. Patience – I wasn’t born with any .. but I’m very suborn. Inspiration is a must for me .. when working with camera and images, otherwise it goes totally wrong and more of less a waste of time and affords.
    But if I have inspiration in my heart and soul … I’m flying and everything I put my camera against comes out brilliant, at least in my book. To sit and work with images when the heart and soul isn’t present .. done it many times, but I’m never really pleased with the results.

    1. I know what you say – patience has never been a virtue of mine either. I like how you express your mode when you are in flow like flying around and capturing brilliant moments. Thank you.

      1. I’m glad you understand what I want to say .. because sometimes I wonder myself. *smile – I’m a bit poetic when it’s about photographing … otherwise not even close. *smile

  4. Wonderful post, Otto. And it’s this line of yours, “if I haven’t at least tried to grab inspiration out the air, I know I have let myself down” that shows your amazing willpower. I agree with you completely. We must reach for the things we want, not just wait for them to appear. But as you hinted at, we must do so with grace and humility. And I also agree that our perspectives on want and will and success change as time goes by. That’s a very good thing, if you ask me! Thanks as always for the thought-provoking post!

    1. Good to hear that you found something of value in this post. And, yes, going for inspiration with grace and humility, that’s important, too. Thanks for pointing it out, Melissa.

  5. Inspiration is an energetic “flow”…. the way I see it, anyway.

    There’s a current flowing at all times… all around us. Some of us are more adept at recognizing and harnessing that energetic inspiration than others. There are times it seems to flow freely and without end… other times we are “low energy” ourselves and it seems to elude us.

    Spirit and inspiration are in a perpetual, symbiotic dance. (Ah! A thought struck me at just this moment. The root for the word “inspiration” = “spirit”! )

    In terms of energy AND inspiration: “Like attracts Like”… and “A body in motion, tends to stay in motion.” 😉

    I find myself today, between projects… but I’m eyeing a naturally discarded Macaw feather here on the desk….

    Yes, indeed. color me inspired EVERY time you post.

  6. I think it was Sibelius who said we have many of our best ideas when we are young – before we have the technical skills to make full use of them.
    When I am short of inspiration I often look back on work I produced many years ago. Almost invariably I find a ‘trigger’ that works. (It is also reassuring to note that there has been some growth in my artistic understanding and expressive capabilities!)

    1. I think Sibelius is somewhat right – and at the same time I think it depends on how willing you are to keep your mind open to new trends and ideas and not stagnate as often happens when we grow older and how “found out” how everything is suppose to be. But, yes, it’s a good idea to go back and look at earlier work to get some inspiration. Thank for the comment, Louis.

  7. I always seem to find in reading your posts of the artist’s experience. My experience so often mirrors yours; I’m nodding my head in agreement to what you’ve written. It’s the same here. I find there are similar things I do to facilitate the process of art.

  8. I never was aware of it, but I always put on music when I start post processing my images. And it’s 9/10 times the same album. Great post 🙂

  9. I’m just past the half-way mark of a 365 project and I’ve found what you’ve written about here to be true for me. Many days I sit and ask myself what I can photograph. It’s usually not until I pick up the camera and start taking pictures of something, anything, that inspiration strikes. Not all of the resulting work is “inspired,” by any means, but some of it has pleasantly surprised me. As always, Otto, a thoughtful and well-written post.

    1. That is really the beauty of a Project 365 – it forces you out every day even when you feel you have no inspiration. And of course not all days are equally inspiring, but just doing the work helps you get to the other side of flow. Thank for sharing your experience.

  10. Otto’s inspiration strikes again 😉 Seriously, I really enjoyed reading your well-written post. It is definitely full of insight and full of tidbits that will be food for thought for some time. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I agree that pushing yourself through a dry spot can lead to good things. Each creative step we take builds on the next and sometimes inspiration happens just because you show up to do the work.
    Your posts are always so encouraging, Otto, thank you!

  12. One tiny thought to add to the mix: while you’re “going after it with a hammer” it helps to keep your mind open to possibility and be willing to go off on a tangent should one present itself. I remember struggling to paint a realistic scene and getting nowhere with it. I got so mad I decided I just didn’t care anymore and was going to attack it with furious, unrealistic, energetic brush strokes. It turned out to be one of the best abstract pieces I’ve ever done and it was sold shortly thereafter!

    1. You are absolutely right, we should always be open to possibilities that comes to us – even when they seem counter productive. Thanks for sharing your profound experience, Alli.

  13. I absolutely agree. You actually mentioned two of the things that get me in the zone as opposite alternatives – music and stillness. For me, if I take myself to a nice quiet cafe that plays cool music at just the right volume and enjoy a cappuccino sitting in a comfy chair, letting my mind be still and open to wander aimlessly, that unlocks whatever part of my mind the energy that drives me to capture the world around me comes from.

    But when I’m just not feeling it, the key is to just get out and do it anyway! If people take just one thing from what you’ve written, I hope it’s that. So many times persisting when you’re just not in the flow will pay off. You just keep plodding until that magical moment eventuates, and once it does, there’s no stopping you!

  14. So true. One of the great myths is that you can’t create until your muse settles on you. But you can’t wait. And it always amazes me how, if I just sit down and start working, the flow begins.

  15. Thank you, I think I might carry a hammer with me as a reminder! Well, maybe not, I might be suspected of something more sinister than being inspired.

  16. This is an excellent article Otto. I used the ‘write a page a day’ approach when I wrote my novel. There was no substitute for just sitting down and writing that page. On some days many more pages followed the first and on others, it was just the page but that page was always completed no matter how I felt. It’s just good discipline and I think the same must apply to our photography although I’m not quite so disciplined as to ensure I take at least one picture a day. Perhaps this is something I must start to do. Thank you for such a timely reminder of discipline and innovation Otto. I think we all need the former for the latter to appear.

  17. Another great post with many good thoughts plus a very cool picture of you. I found that most of the time I don’t have to will or force inspiration at all, I just find it easily as long as I’m not isolating myself from the world and its people. But it’s rather difficult sometimes to make room for these moments of creativity. I can also totally relate to the feeling that the “flow sweeps me along” as you put it, just walking the streets with a camera in my hand is often enough.

    1. Well, there is no need to force inspiration when it comes all by itself. That’s a great personal capacity. As for the picture in the post, it’s not of me, it’s my friend and colleague with whom I do a lot of foreign reporting. Thanks for the comment, Viola.

  18. Again you have made connections that “inspire” the inspired or uninspired. Inspiration is so much a state of being that “going with the flow,” which is part of what you suggest, does open the inner spirit to pay attention in intangible ways. Letting go of the notion can help put one on the road to discovery, just as you implied.

  19. I totally believe that we can will inspiration. I know it. Every art project I’ve ever done has come about by me deliberately thinking about what to paint, what to draw, what to write and what to photograph. The “ideas” never once manufested on their own. I had to take an interest in something, and nurture or sometimes forcefully strain that interest into creative expression.

  20. I have been thinking about this a long time but finally have started to sit down at my table and do spontaneous paintings using watercolours or acrylics without judgement (well…) and letting it happen.Just scribble no image making. It is soothing and it helps me to listen to those urges as to what line or what colour to use next-helps me to see the physical world differently and be inspired..

  21. I have found myself willing inspiration, forcing it at times, perhaps that’s a natural instinct to force ourselves from the day to day, life, problems, obstacles, at least for me as of recent, I think it’s my job, that I’m too overly eager to leave stunting my inspiration, I think if you’ve given up hope in one aspect of your life (my job) sucking the creativity out of you (me) thankfully though I finish my contract in three days, and move into another career the start of the new fiscal year (April). It had sucked me dry, stressed me to my core, where I can’t even find the passion to edit my photos. I think inspiration depends on if we are in a nurturing environment (like work which takes up majority of our day) or a hostile one. Sorry I meandered a bit…

    1. Don’t be sorry, it’s very interesting to read how we all deal with inspiration and what motivates us. And, yes, you are right a job that feels like it sucks you dry, will be very demotivating for creativity, even beyond the job itself. So congratulations with moving on to a new career – soon. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  22. I love the quotes you used, wonderful! I totally agree about shooting…sometimes I feel like I need to build my energy as I shoot and as it grows, so does my inspiration. For that reason writing is so much harder because the energy is so internally driven…but yes, there are those magical days when two sentences and a bit of writers block transform into the best thing you’ve ever written. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always….

  23. An interesting post Otto, I’d never considered inspiration before. I guess it’s something I take for granted (when I am inspired) and don’t notice when it’s not there. Maybe because I’m not doing ‘creative’ activities all day long, my inspiration is channelled into the time slots I have available more readily and flows more easily. Food for thought!

  24. Precisely stated and I concur with your thoughts and observations, Otto. We can work to make the possibilities possible and pick up the hammer and know the “labor of love” that any creative work can be. There is a reward for both that mystical moment of inspiration and the “working” moment of being creative and stressing our minds and hearts to give birth to that spark that lies somewhere inside of us. If it were all easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. Serendipity is nice to experience, but purposely putting ourselves into creating can give us real pride and satisfaction.

    1. You make some very good points. And I think you are right in that if it was all very easy, we wouldn’t appreciate the result as much as when we actually have to put in some hard work. Thank you for adding to the discussion here, Phil.

  25. Amen, Otto. Sometimes I’ll just look at the clutter on my work space, shrink myself down, and ask, “Now what do I see?” Might be a street scene, a landscape or some fantasy environment. Something for a short story, poem and/or illustration. That’s my doodling method against writer’s block. Thanx for the post. Peace.

  26. Excellent post Otto, and I take solace in that you too think it is possible to ‘force inspiration’ and make something happen even when it all appears futile… Inspirational.

  27. I think that’s right, Otto. If we wait for inspiration, there will be missed opportunities. Jumping in may not always result in an excellent outcome, but it will always produced something that can be a lesson, or an opportunity to take that lesson to a new place later. I appreciate what you’re saying here. Waiting for inspiration can sound a lot like procrastination! 🙂

  28. Thank you for liking “Powerful Verticality.” Great post! 🙂 I also sometimes push myself to create some artwork even though I do not feel inspired. However, I find that trying too hard to create artwork is counterproductive for me. I try to find a balance between the extremes of pleasure and pain in hopes of reaching that flow state, but I am not always successful.

    I like the idea of creating an environment that encourages inspiration. When I feel lost artistically, I look at the work of other artists, and this usually helps me figure out what to do next. What I really need more of, however, is time. Lately I have been so busy with other things that I have not had much time to work on my artwork.

    1. Only a few very lucky ones are able to find flow every time they want, but there are different techniques to facilitate it, such as creating an inspiring environment. Time, though, is another issue, creativity takes time. Thanks for sharing your experience, Arlene.

  29. Music helps. Sunshine helps. Sometimes just a little fresh air can inspire. Lately it seems to take all of that and more to give me inspiration. I truly believe it is our never-ending, dark, bitterly cold and stormy winter we are experiencing that is keeping a lot of us from feeling more inspired.

  30. Loved your commentary! You stated this so well, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. Another element that plays an important part is passion. Without it, one won’t find what they are looking for. Speaking personally, I credit part of my success through exploration and curiosity, two things which have always been part of my personal passion.

    1. I am glad you brought in passion in the equation, which is something that hasn’t been addressed here, but I have written about in other posts. But yes, without passion there is not going to be creative or inspiration or flow. Thanks for making the point, Peggy.

  31. It makes perfect sense, many authors have said the same. One of them is one of my favourites – Paul Auster – he would just write down nonsense till he had something going… Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience with us. I really like the shot you enclosed here 🙂

  32. I agree, go after it. Maybe not with a hammer but at least chase it with your bare hands. I never believed I could write poetry until one day I just did and then forced myself to write something every day. Now I am able to just do that. If I don’t have any inspiration, all I have to do is take a walk with the dogs and I will find something to write about. That does not mean that it always comes easily but I found a way to make it work.

  33. Godt sagt (som vanlig)! Jeg bor litt utenfor Bergen, men det som kan virke for meg er å stille meg opp et sted i Bergen sentrum der jeg vet NOE alltid skjer. Før eller senere. Har en da fått en begynnelse er det “bare” å gå rundt etter mer.

  34. So true. Went to visit my sister in Sonoma for Spring Break and though taking pictures seemed to take some of my time enjoying the moment and the places we’d been, I know it must be done. Reminiscing the event, reliving the trip, I can’t wait to have when I return to Houston. I may even go back this Summer for good with my family.

  35. Great points here. As I’ve grown older (and possibly leaning toward wisdom), I’ve definitely embraced London’s idea of creating your own inspirational moments. In my 30s I finally came to the conclusion that I couldn’t just wait for things to happen–and, if I did, they might never occur. Fantastic post that gives me a lot to think about and motivates me to get the hammer moving again, as I hope it does for others, too. Thanks so much, Otto!

  36. Hej Otto, underbart inlägg, inspirerande i allra högsta grad. Insiktsfullt, klargörande med konkreta tips samt intressanta citat. Avslutningen du gör får mig att le stort och jag måste bara kolla bilden igen. Är så glad att jag hittat till din blogg och läser gärna dina inlägg mer än en gång, hittar alltid något nytt att ta till mig el fundera över.
    Bästa hälsningar

  37. Thank you for another great post Otto. I agree, inspiration doesn’t happen by chance or by a miracle. To find it I have to reach within in complete silence. But inspiration can also almost completely disappear when going through hardships in life, but I know it always returns, and like you said it takes work and sometimes hard work. It’s such a joy when I’m out with my camera and I begin to feel the flow, as if I enter in another state of being and I see and feel things differently. I know at this point that I’m in that zone, I am inspired and I let it flow.
    But these days maybe I will need that hammer to help me find more inspiration 🙂

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