A couple of months ago, I watched an absolutely fascinating TED Talk by a writer called Elizabeth Gilbert. In this short lecture, Gilbert talks about how creative inspiration used to be viewed as something spiritual that came from outside the writer or artist – and about how this old idea about inspiration can still be useful to creative people in the present day. It’s well worth watching.
I discovered this fascinating video whilst reading a critique of it by Emma Brock. Although Brock’s article is primarily a sociological opinion article about creative success, she also argues that there’s no spiritual dimension whatsoever to creative inspiration and success. Instead, Brock points out that creative success is mostly due to talent, practice, perseverance etc..
So, which one is it? Is inspiration something mysteriously mystical or is it something explainable and practical?
I’d argue that both perspectives are true.
One good description of creative inspiration is that it’s like a strong wind. If you’re sailing an old-fashioned boat, then having strong winds can help you reach your destination faster. However, if there isn’t any wind, then you can still get the oars out and row to your destination. It might be more exhausting and take a lot longer, but you’ll still get there.
Creative inspiration can also be likened to gambling. After all, great ideas can appear seemingly at random and you can never quite predict when you’re going to feel inspired. However, if you think of inspiration in this way, then you’ll face some of the same problems that you probably would if you actually went to a casino.
In other words, you’re almost certainly going to lose much more than you win. If you just sit around and wait for inspiration, then it’s most likely that you’ll spend more time being uninspired than inspired.
Personally, I tend to agree with Hugh Brody’s idea that creative inspiration is more like a type of hunting than anything else. Like a treasure hunter combing a field with a metal detector or a deer hunter stalking through the woods, success depends as much on determination, knowledge and skill as it does on pure chance.
Yes, there’s an element of chance involved. But, if you’re constantly trying to think of ideas, if you keep writing or making art when you don’t feel inspired (it doesn’t have to be any good, but you still need to put in the effort) and if you have plenty of experience, then the chances of finding inspiration are significantly higher.
As for where creative inspiration itself comes from, I’d argue that it’s both spiritual and “rational”. It exists both within and outside of artists and writers.
Sometimes inspiration will come to you when you combine two (or more) ideas that you hadn’t thought about combining before. Sometimes inspiration can happen as the result of having an interesting daydream when you feel bored. Sometimes you’ll get inspired by your experiences or by something that you’ve read, watched, seen, played or listened to. There are plenty of “rational” sources of inspiration that can be easily explained.
On the other hand, there’s something… otherworldly… about feeling inspired. It’s those situations where a brilliant idea for a painting or a story just suddenly appears in your mind. It’s those situations where a tantalising fragment of something just appears in your mind and you have to work out what the rest of it looks like.
It’s those situations where you suddenly feel energised and enthusiastic in a way that you can’t quite describe. It’s those situations where you have a dream one night that is utterly unlike anything you could have imagined on your own.
It’s those situations where writing or making art doesn’t feel like writing or making art (it’s difficult to describe, but it’s when writing, drawing and/or painting feels more like playing a really cool videogame or something like that).
So, yes, inspiration is both spiritual and rational. It’s also like sailing, gambling and hunting. It’s also something that’s probably slightly different for everyone.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂