The most difficult part of being an artist is that creativity cannot be expressed without first receiving inspiration. Through years of trying to regularly force out masterpieces and make great things within a rigid schedule, I slowly came to realize that the two are truly interdependent. I have never created anything noteworthy without first receiving the inspiration to do so. Every remarkable creation, I believe, begins with a spark. For some people, those sparks may come daily, for others, months may go by without even so much as a flicker. During different periods of my life, that seem to ebb and flow like most aspects of nature, I have experienced both. And not only does inspiration fail to follow any kind of a predictable schedule or guidelines, it can also come in many different forms.
For myself, the joy of receiving a brilliant idea through inspiration is up there with the greatest feelings one can experience in life. Early on I decided if I was going to pursue art with the majority of my time, effort, and energy, it was important to gain a better understanding of this inspiration thing as quickly as possible. I knew I would not only be happier for it and be able to enjoy art and life much more, but it would also be impossible to create anything meaningful or fulfilling without it.
The idea of inspiration is not a new gimmick or a recent discovery by any means. The ancient Greeks believed that the inspiration that guided the painter's brush, the sculptor's hands, or the writer's pen, came from another realm, sent from goddesses called Muses. Christians believe it comes from God, or the Holy Ghost that acts in accordance to his will. Buddhists refer to it as satori--a sudden moment of enlightenment that cannot be intentionally forced--in their own philosophy, and monks sit quietly for hours on the floors of monasteries waiting for it to happen. What they all have in common is that they see inspiration as something that cannot be demanded as one pleases, it happens on its own terms, and instead of being a product of the conventional mind, it enters the mind from somewhere else.
This presents a problem for those of us who are dependent on inspiration for our work. However much we'd all like to, we cannot simply sit down when it is most convenient and command it to enlighten us. For example, I wrote most of this not in my office on my computer, or even on a comfortable couch with a notepad, but while sitting in my bathtub (which was meant to be a relaxing break for myself from any work at all). It wasn't ideal, but I know well that inspiration does not respect one's preference. It can come at any time, and usually happens while we are in the shower, walking our dogs, petting a cat, playing with our kids, or even as we are just about to enter sleep. I can't even count all the times I have woken up in the middle of the night with a great idea, or the perfect solution to a problem I was facing, and took it for granted, assuming that I would still remember it in the morning, only to find that upon waking, the sole thing I could recall was that I had a great idea, but the idea itself was nowhere to be found.
The perfect words to begin an essay, beautiful lyrics to a song, or a remarkable scene just waiting to be painted, all come through delicate, fleeting inspiration. This is why great creatives and minds all throughout history--Leonardo DaVinci, Marcus Aurelius, Socrates, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Jobs--from all different fields, have always had a paper and pen constantly at hand. They all understood that inspiration is sacred, and the creations that are born of it far exceed anything that can be built by simply hammering away at something. There is no greater anguish for an artist than to receive a brilliant idea, only to watch it slowly fade away as they cannot find any way to record it.
While the arrival of inspiration may be random and unpredictable, the moments in which it presents itself all have a common theme. As seen historically as well as in my own life, the most elegant and clear inspiration comes in moments where the mind is at ease and is not strained or distracted by demanding tasks. It comes in moments when we are present, in silence, and most of the time, alone. It doesn't come during a heated argument, or while in a crowded room. It doesn't come when we are worrying about the many things we have to do tomorrow, or the things we did wrong yesterday. It definitely doesn't come while mindlessly scrolling through a feed of loud pictures, videos, or exaggerated news.
If you were hoping I would explain to you how to deliberately receive inspiration whenever you please, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I don't think anyone has found that out yet. Even modern science struggles to arrive to a definite conclusion on how inspiration enters the mind. All I can do is point you in the right direction, by sharing some practices that have worked for me, so that you can better prepare yourself to receive it.
1. Eliminate Distractions: Like I said before, inspiration tends to arrive during moments of silence and solitude. If you are hoping to find inspiration, do not bother seeking it in noisy, busy places.
"All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence...
Silence the general consecration of the universe."
- Herman Melville
Give yourself time during the day to simply sit and do nothing. Don't fill every spare moment you have by entertaining yourself with your smart phone. It's ok to not have anything to do sometimes. Embrace it. It will not only clear your mind in order to receive inspiration, but it is relaxing and gives you time to recharge before you go back to work. This is actually a real practice in eastern philosophy--the wu wei; intentionally sitting quietly and doing nothing--and is seen as action, not inaction. It is not viewed as laziness, and actually requires great discipline to include in our daily lives, now more than ever.
Although it seems counterintuitive, in my life it has caused for increased productivity rather than less productivity, since working off of inspiration is always more effective. What can be frustrating is that to your boss, coworkers or spouse, this will most likely look like you are slacking off, unless maybe they are familiar with ancient eastern philosophy as well. The next time your spouse notices you sitting around and asks you to help with something, just tell them you are busy practicing wu wei. You're welcome.
"The advantage of nonaction. Few in the world attain these."
- The Daodejing
When it is time to get to work, put your phone away, leave it in another room if you have to. This has been the most effective way to moderate my own phone usage. Close out of browsers like email or facebook on your computer that will send alerts. You need to allow time for long, unbroken periods of concentration. This will not only help the inspiration to arrive, but it will allow it to continue to flow and you may come up with many new ideas in just a few, solid hours of work.
Whenever your focus is disrupted by a text message, notification, or email, you have to start channeling inspiration all over again. Studies have shown that the more time we spend trying to multitask (which it is impossible for the brain to actually focus on more than one thing at a time) and the less time we spend in deep focus, the less capable of deep focus we become. The opposite is also true; the more time spent in deep focus the stronger our ability to focus deeply becomes.
2. Moderate Your Inputs: If you are having trouble feeling inspired, reflect on how you are starting your day. When you wake up, what is the first thing that you do? Look at your phone? I know that's what I used to do, and instantly I was bombarded with images, words, news, and lots of unnecessary drama. If we take in too much information throughout the day, it will actually do us more harm than good, it will burn us out, and we won't have the ability to focus on the things that are actually important and learn what will truly benefit us when it comes time to. With social media, the internet, and instant access to basically everything at any time of day, people are now suffering from 'information overload.'
"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."
- Herbert Simon
Now I have made the habit of starting my days by giving myself some time to read. Not on a phone, not on a tablet, but real, paper books. Looking at a bright screen, up close is overstimulating, while reading simple text on plain paper can be soothing and allows the mind to wake up slowly. The pace you start out the morning with is going to effect the entire rest of the day. Books are also more inspiring than reading countless captions, clickbait headlines, and articles, which may have nothing to do with one another and won't go very deep into single concepts. Books are better organized, intelligible, and are mostly made to educate the reader, not just grab their attention. Learning more about the lives of others, the world we live in, and different fields can spark all sorts of ideas.
It is easy to waste time on smart phones, computers, and all of the fancy gadgets we have available to us now. And ultimately, they are all designed, with bells, whistles, and applications in order to grab our attention and sustain it for as long as possible. They are distracting by nature so it requires a real and conscious effort in order to avoid using them too much. There is nothing wrong with electronics, they are powerful tools that can make a lot of things easier for us, if used correctly. Whenever you unlock your phone, turn on your computer, or open your laptop, just make sure you are doing so with a specific intention, and not simply to pass the time or relieve boredom. Boredom can be positive, and usually inspires creativity if you can bare to just sit with it. When you sit down at your computer or reach for your phone, try to always ask yourself first, "is this necessary?"
Using electronics mindlessly will also wear you out, since there is such a constant outpour of information. Clean up your feed regularly and only follow pages and people whose posts you would like to see. Rid yourself of unnecessary clutter in your feed that may keep you from seeing the things that would actually inspire you.
With photography, limit the amount of imagery you are looking at on a regular basis. Looking at photographs that you thoroughly enjoy, are different from your own, or have characteristics you would like to see in your photos, can be inspiring and help you to receive new ideas. However, if we look at too many things, our attention will slowly become diluted, and we will no longer be able to appreciate and distinguish quality when we see it.
I recommend viewing photographers' personal websites instead of just scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. This way you will avoid seeing other photos and videos that are irrelevant and have a better, more thoughtful experience. It is more beneficial to look at 10 images and contemplate them deeply than to see 100 and not have the time or attention span to really dissect and study them. View them full size, in appropriate lighting, and set time apart to do so, this way you can really appreciate their details and subtleties; focus on them, one by one.
3. Go For A Walk: Many great writers in history have said that they often overcame 'writers block' by leaving their offices and going outside for a walk, where the inspiration for their next words would tend to come. Engaging in light, physical activity puts the mind at ease, and can help quiet the ceaseless chatter of our distracting thoughts. Even scientific studies have shown that walking increases creativity, and that walking in nature does so even more. Suitably, as a landscape photographer, I have received many of my ideas while hiking in the wilderness, not just for photographs to create but for writing topics and personal matters as well.
The trick however, is that you have to go for a walk simply for the enjoyment of going for a walk, without any hopes of receiving inspiration. Otherwise your mind will be focused on that, and the very effort of trying to receive inspiration will prevent it from arriving. (This is where a contradiction may arise with the monks sitting in temples day and night, waiting for enlightenment.)
"It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth."
As a landscape photographer, no photograph can happen unless you start moving. If you intend to make photographs but you are not feeling inspired, just get yourself walking. I go for many hikes, wanders down washes, and strolls through the forest, on trails I am not familiar with or even don't really lead to any significant destination. Just move through the landscape slowly, observing your surroundings and enjoy the walk, don't strain your mind or worry about making photos. If you are focusing too hard on objects to potentially photograph--tunnel visioned--you may miss the other things around you. Keep your mind open in order to take in the bigger picture. Be open to all possibilities. Inspiration always seems to find me this way, all of a sudden, when I happen upon something along the way that I had no preconceived idea of photographing. When I try hard or stick to rigid plans, that seems to always result in drier, more obvious, less compelling photographs.
4. Free Your Mind: I used to think that keeping lists was stupid, since I always had everything that I needed to do in my head. What I didn't realize was, by not making a list on a piece of paper, I was instead relying on myself to remember everything I needed to do. This was causing extra stress for me since on top of whatever I was doing or focusing on, I was simultaneously trying to keep track of what else I needed to do. Also, of course, my mind failed me from time to time and I would end up forgetting important things that I needed to get done. When you write down a list of the tasks you need to complete, you can organize them by priority and also declutter your mind. This way you don't need to waste mental energy on something that a piece of paper and a pen can remember for you, and they will do a much better job at it too.
5. Organize Your Space: Just as we must clear our minds to make mental space for inspiration, we need to declutter and organize our physical spaces that we hope to work and live in as well. I'll admit this is one of the hardest ones for me, but I have been making a greater effort and I have been seeing the results. Try to keep your work environment clean.
Keep important things safe and organized. Organize your files in a way that makes it easy and quick to find them when you need to. When you are trying to work in a space where you can't find the tools when you need them, everything is messy, and you don't have room to create something, you will be more stressed out and reluctant to do so. Make your workspace look so nice and inviting that it entices you to sit down and get things done.
6. Prioritize Your Health: What you put into your body directly affects what comes out of it. Input does not only refer to reading books, looking at compelling imagery, or being in beautiful places, it is also important to keep yourself healthy by eating food that will improve the function of both your body and mind. The less effort you have to put into things like catching your breath or moving around, the less distracted you will be. It's hard to notice any inspiration you may be receiving while you are preoccupied by the discomfort in your legs and lungs from being out of shape. The less you have to work at hiking and moving around the landscape the more you can focus on things like finding subjects and compositions.
The sharper your mind, the better you can digest the inspiration you receive and turn it into a product. The most important thing is getting enough rest, so you wake up with a refreshed and alert mind that is ready to work. I also like to take Lion's Mane tablets--a mushroom found in nature--which improve memory and cognitive function. Of course there are also more powerful substances that can alter your consciousness altogether, which may or may not assist you in receiving more inspiration. But that is for you to decide for yourself.
"A sound mind in a sound body"
Paying attention to the types of moments that inspiration comes to you--your surroundings, your actions, your mood--will allow you to mindfully and deliberately create more of these moments, whenever you choose to.
Once you receive inspiration, it is important that you act upon it. Sit down and let the idea develop and grow into all that it is meant to. From my own experience, inspiration usually doesn't come all at once. It begins with a small idea or concept, and then more and more comes, word by word, one piece at a time as I continue to work with it. This is why it is so important to create space for inspiration, you never know how big an idea you receive may become.
It is also essential that you become an expert with all of the tools of the trade that you work in. The more you are capable of doing, the more fully you will be able to develop ideas and express the inspiration you receive. Technical skills are just a small part of artistic expression, but limited technical knowledge inhibits creativity. If I want to design houses, but have never learned how construction works, architectural inspiration won't do me any good. I must first be familiar with the building materials available as well as the possibilities of engineering. You cannot execute what you don't know how to do.
I don't believe that artists and creators have some kind of a superpower, since all of the greatest ideas seem to come from without rather than within. The only difference between us who create and those who don't, is that we creators take inspiration much more seriously and are much more dissatisfied by living a life without it. I believe inspiration has no prejudice or bias, that it is constantly reaching out to us all, but only those who have created a space to receive it will be able to do so.