It can be a rare thing, but what do we do when we finally have inspiration?
First, we have to define what inspiration is, and what inspiration is not.
Inspiration, as we are talking about it today, is the phenomenon of sudden euphoria, a sudden surge of ideas and clarity. Have you ever had a great idea in the shower? Have you ever just been walking outside and a brilliant idea just slipped into your head? Inspiration often happens when we least expect it. Rarely does it come at our desk.
And it can feel great! It is tempting to think that inspiration is just a random, struck by lightning situation. But thinking that way may lead us in the wrong direction.
If we follow that line of logic, that we only create we are inspired, then there is going to be a lot of time where we don’t create. I’m not writing today, I’m not inspired. Obviously, there is nothing easier in the world than to NOT do the creative work. But, if we are in the business of creative work, waiting for inspiration is simply not a possibility. Not if we want to make consistent progress.
Inspiration is not an excuse. Or rather, a lack of inspiration is not an excuse. When we say that we aren’t inspired, that the muse isn’t speaking to us, this is an excuse. It is an excuse to not do the hard work of showing up.
Inspiration is different than flow. Flow, as we are choosing to define it here, is the status that comes from work, where things click. Time evaporates and we dissolve into our work, like a special kind of tunnel vision. (Not one that is limited, one that is focused on the possibilities of the project.) Some would say that flow is a kind of inspired work.
Flow, is cultivated. Flow only happens when we show up. When have a set of parameters to create in. Flow is the result of practice, of dedicating yourself to the process.
Lightning bolt inspiration, is the result of something different and functions in a different way that flow.
In Alex Pang’s book Rest (which I will link to in the show notes), he outlines a thesis about the deep connection between work and rest. Rest as he defines it, can be manifested in various different ways, from sleep, to play, to vacation and so on. Rest is the companion and partner to work, it is a vital part of the process.
(When we sleep, our minds are working to solve the problems and encounters of the day) This is where dreams come from, they are a by-product of this. There is of course, far more nuance to this than I am giving, but for the sake of brevity, it will do.
As we rest (and remember rest can be sleep, but it can also be play), our minds, while seemingly focused on something else, are actually slowly but surely cracking the code of the next big problem.
This changes how we think about inspiration and epiphanies. Epiphanies are less of a random gift of insight, and more of the delivery of a long ordered package. Inspiration, works in a similar way.
So what do we do when inspiration hits us at a bad time? Often it can be like waking from a dream. While you are in the dream, the details are so clear and vivid. The action unfolds all around you, you are swept up by it. Until the alarm goes off. And then it’s like trying to catch air. It evaporates.
A friend of mine, Billy Stewart, helped me with a creating a dream journal. While it was a fun little project at the time, I didn’t realize the connections it had for inspiration. Some of Mr. Stewart’s advice for keeping the dream journal had a lot to do with waking up.
He urged me to not move as a woke up. As soon as you move, the dream fades fast, so keep still, even if you know you are awake. As best you can, replay the parts of the dream that you have in your head, over and over again.
Don’t worry about catching all of the details, they will naturally fade away. The dream journal is not about catching all of the details, it is about getting as much detail as you can in the time you are in.
Dreams are very much like the beginning of a project. They feel fresh and exciting because they aren’t crystalized. They are only immediate.
And our job as artists is to take what we can from this non-crystalline idea and build it into something that we can share with others. That last part is key. The art comes from the connection, comes from the sharing.
Many of us have started the greatest novel ever, the greatest painting, the greatest screenplay. I can start the greatest piece of music I will ever write, right now in my head. It starts on a Db. But, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t complete. If I can’t share it with someone. Is a painting really art if no one sees it?
I think this is part of what drives daydreamers. To be fair, I think we are all in some way or another a daydreamer. But, what seems to differentiate one artist from the next is their willingness to act, as opposed to dream.
I think many of us believe that dreams are fuel for action. That you have a dream and then, through the illumination of the dream you find your path to action.
When in reality, it is our actions that fuel our dreams.
So, what does this have to do with sudden inspiration?
The trick is appreciating that it can and will happen in inconvenient places. If we can appreciate that we aren’t going to get all of the juicy details, it makes writing it all down that much easier.
Having a notebook nearby, or a voice recorder app on your phone is essential. Being able to recognize when you are being struck by inspiration ties in with the idea of keeping the details of a dream.
It is a race WITH clock. Let me say that again. It is a race not against the clock, but with the clock.
The clock and the inevitable loss of detail is not your enemy, it is your friend. Because instead of focusing on all of the details that you are missing, you can focus on the details you do get.
Getting an idea from inspiration is like getting a cup of water, from a raw, flowing Waterfall. Wild and alive, untamed and thriving, this is what inspiration is. All we need to do is get a glass of water from it. That’s enough, that will make the difference!
So, what about when lightning strikes, I’m flooded with inspiration for a project an idea, but I’m having to focus on that day on a different project?
What if it comes at a time when I’m free, but I really need to deliver on something different. Something more pressing, but in the moment, not-interesting?
This happens all the time to me. I’ve got to finish this brass quintet by next Sunday, but here I am being inspired to work on a tuba concerto. Or here is an idea for a podcast episode!
Do we sacrifice our obligations of the day in service of something that is inspiring now, but won’t come to fruition until after the first project?
I believe that we always prioritize what is on our table first. But, when inspiration strikes, I do give myself permission to HUSTLE and scramble to write down my inspired ideas for a half hour.
If I am just really feeling inspired with this different project, I give it time. I race with the clock for a half-hour.
I write down every little possible thing I can get from it. All with the understanding that it is a race with the clock.
If I view it as a race against the clock, then it is easy to become defensive against the clock, to downward spiral. “If I only had more time”. That kind of thinking kills inspiration and drive, so don’t let it take yours.
Remember that you only need a little bit of inspiration, a short window.
I say this because, the obligations that we have set for ourselves, the ones that come first, need our attention. Especially when it feels like we aren’t called to them.
It can be tricky coming from an inspired “lightning catching” half-hour, where everything is flowing and exciting. But, we have to remember that inspiration feels so good and exciting precisely because it is not set in reality. It can exist like a dream, but when we aren’t dreaming, we are awake. In the real world, where actions have consequences.
So, let the inspiration take you where it goes. But it never comes at the expense of the pressing projects of the day. Art is made in time. And key and crucial part of the art is the time in which it is made, and the time that it exists in the artist’s life.
The work you do today matters, you can only make the work that you make today TODAY. You will have a slightly different perspective tomorrow.
Embrace this. Rejoice in it. Seize the day.
Today is a window. It is a short span of time. And regardless of whether you feel inspired or not, this window will pass. And as each day passes, they create a huge quilt of days. Your life is a work of art. Show up, do your best in that moment, and maybe, you’ll catch some lightning.
Below is a link to the audio file of this episode of the Sand Dollar.