How to Find Inspiration as a Creative

The word Inspiration comes from the Latin term meaning to “breathe into”.  Isn’t that lovely?  Breathing life into creation, a gift from the gods, dancing with the muses… Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Erato, the muses of poetry; Melpomene the muse of tragedy, Thalia, the muse of comedy; Clio the muse of history; Euterpe and Terpsichore, the muses of music and dance.  Oh yes, and then there’s Urania, the muse of astronomy, but I don’t think she’ll be of much help to us.  But we, like Virgil, bending our ears to the voice of inspiration… it all sounds so lovely. 

You may think to yourself, well that was fine for the Greeks and Romans, perhaps even the Romantics, but no one thinks like that today.  Really?  I recently read a post about inspiration where the writer suggested that we are inspired by the arts, because the life of an artist is free from responsibility, of rules and constraints.  Working in the realm of pure ideas, artists are like Gypsies, free to wander, and to be whomever they want to be.  I hate to break this to you, but those folks are still out there.  

Perhaps it’s just me, but in my art practice, I live with all sorts of oppressive burdens, constraints, and rules.  And many of those problems are out of my control.  And as for the noble Gypsy lifestyle, I lived in Eastern Europe for a long time, and many of the Gypsies I know suffered greatly due to poverty, social injustice, prejudice, and worked really, really hard to make a living for their families.  But I’m guessing that’s really not the point.  Art inspires others for a variety of reasons that speak more to what the viewer brings to the experience, rather than what the artist brings.  We’re saddled with centuries of grandiose conceptions about art and beauty that are lovely affirmations of the importance of art to the individual, and to society… but that doesn’t help me much when I’m staring at a blank canvas, and I have a deadline.

Now, everybody has a bad day now and then.  And we should definitely give ourselves a break for being human.  But what do we do when that block becomes more than a momentary blip?  I assume it’s due to the grind of the coronavirus pandemic, but I’ve heard a number of artists tell me lately that they’re in a slump; that they just can’t seem to work right now.  While totally sympathetic, it occurred to me that as small businessmen and women, is that really ok?  Putting on that business owner hat, can we really afford to have periods when we don’t produce?  Now in previous posts I’ve talked about the need for self-love, and for giving ourselves permission to mess up, and to be vulnerable and human.  Am I going back on my word?  Absolutely not.  

I think there is a huge liability in being so close to our work.  An accountant can step back from emotion, stress, and pressure and look objectively at the numbers.  Mistakes are easy to find, and solutions are straightforward and clear.  You fix the math, you update a ledger, and it’s all fixed.  It’s not so easy when everything you do, and everything you feel, comes through in your product.  Sometimes it’s hard to even distinguish between the artist and the art.  So while we must be kind to ourselves, and foster a positive place to work and create, we also have to run creative businesses.  And that takes a whole new set of rules and attitudes.  At the end of the day, we are our own product, right?  Now we’re all human, but if we have to depend on our creative productivity to make a living, and our product depends on each of us as individuals, how do we plan for this “human” variable?  

It seems to me that there are ways to deal with a lack of inspiration.  And if we know that part of the human condition is that we will have dry spells, then we should have techniques at the ready when those dry winds blow.

The good news is that a group of neuroscientists got together and found out that there really IS something going on in our heads when we are inspired.  That’s a bit of a relief.  I’m not trying to be sarcastic.  I once was chatting with Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, and when talking about where he looked for inspiration, he stated that he didn’t believe in it.  He held that writing poetry was work, hard work, and the way you created good poems was to write and rewrite and rewrite.  While I don’t believe for a minute that he was trying to diminish the creative process, he was trying to emphasize that we creatives can get downright silly sometimes when searching for a Muse.  Just go do the work.  Leave it to a poet to shake up my world.

So if you’ve already devised strategies to find inspiration in your daily to day art practice, I congratulate you.   If not, I’ve come up with 5 handy ways to find inspiration, and bolster creativity.

  1. Routine:  We all know that, even when we argue to the contrary, we love routine.  If we exercise every day, we want to exercise every day.  If we always eat at 5pm, we get hungry at 5pm.  So it is with inspiration.  If we create every day, then we increase the likelihood of finding inspiration easily, because our minds are expecting inspiration.  Now that routine can take many forms, it could be meditation, listening to music, or just the act of getting settled at your workspace.  There is no secret that church services utilize specific rituals, music, incense, architecture, and art.  All of those elements are meant to inspire a certain reverence, and elevation of the soul.  We can create our own rituals for our creative day.
  2. Interdisciplinary: Sometimes another form of creative expression can start those juices flowing.  If you play an instrument, spend some time making music.  Write a short story, or a poem.  If you are a painter, work for an hour with clay.  Write a blog, or journal, or write a letter, cook something amazing.  Find some other way to be creative, and see if that inspiration will leap from one platform to the other.
  3. The Blank Canvas: I have to work on this one myself, but clearing away the clutter from your work area can go a long way too.  That may even be part of your daily ritual. Cleaning our space of distractions can help us focus more specifically on the work at hand.  I’m sitting here typing, and in my peripheral vision I have notes for my next vlog post, a file of to-do items, a recall notice for my car, and two partially completed watercolor sketches.  How long will it be before one of those shiny objects takes my attention away from writing this blog entry.  My cat has to circle three times before she can lay down, and I often think that preparing my drafting table, or arranging my paint brushes and canvas, choosing some great music, all are part of my circling before I get down to work.
  4. Doodle Time: I also make a point to spend time in my sketchbook.  Just the act of doodling can do a couple of things for me.  First, it can clear my head, much like meditating, and just getting all the clatter from my brain to quiet, and allow me to focus on creating lines, and loops, and such.  The act of doodling can create a spark in me to try something on canvas, or give me an idea to add to a piece that’s in progress.  If not, then I can always take that doodle, and turn it into a piece of art as well.  Sometimes just using that doodle as a starting point, I can add color, build on lines, and complete the doodle into something that can stand on its own.  Then I bag it, and throw it into the bargain bin on open days.
  5. Transference: Sometimes, when I feel that I just can’t get in the mood, I will pick up an art book, or even pull up a movie about an artist.  Very often just having that much of a nudge can put me in the mood to paint, or plant the seed of an idea in my head.  I will often go to YouTube and find an art tutorial, or an interview with an artist about their practice.  There are so many inspirational fonts around us every day, so there is virtually no excuse for not finding something to jog us back into the productive mode.  Let’s face it, art inspires artists to make art, which in turn, inspires artists…  It’s all a vicious circle… but a rather lovely one.

So what are your triggers for inspiration?  And how long do you allow yourself to push creativity to one side before you act?  I’d be very interested in your responses, so please give us your tips in the comment section below.

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