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.