Inspiration, Ideas, and What’s Worth Pursuing

The most common questions I get as an artist are “What inspires your work?,” “Where do you find your ideas?,” and “How do you know what ideas are worth developing?”

Inspiration is often described as something that happens to us, an element out of our control that suddenly erupts unbidden into our consciousness. At least, that’s how it felt when I was a child but only because everything I experienced in my youth was shocking in its novelty. I was struck by the unknown all around me. I used to associate inspiration with a state of ideational flow and the emotion of joy, excitement. A sort of creative high. A common misconception people have is that the experience of inspiration stays the same throughout one’s life. That inspiration is a thing that just hits us out of nowhere. But as adults, we begin to lose out on encountering new and surprising things because of sheer experience. So how does one get inspired?

There’s listicle upon listicle of what to do to find the soil for inspiration to grow: read, look at art, watch movies, talk to people, drugs, do things out of your comfort zone, travel, etc. But let’s move past that stage of gathering the raw materials of experience and look to the next step. For me,  inspiration happens when I’m actively working. When I start putting my mind into motion by writing or drawing, I start having to make choices and answer questions. Making those choices is where inspiration begins to blossom.

Say I sit at my desk and I’m not sure what to draw. Well, I’ll start by just scribbling anything. Maybe a flower. But what kind of flower? Is it from Earth or another planet? Another time? What does its petal formation look like? Its leaves and color? What medium should I draw this flower in? What will the image convey in ink? What will it convey in watercolor? What style should I draw it in and what will that convey? Where is this flower and what is the world like around it? How does the environment affect it visually? If this flower could speak to its surroundings, what would it say? If something or someone came across it, what would its reaction be?

And that’s just beginning with a flower. As you begin to have a conversation with yourself about and with the work, more and more questions will arise, creating a nice, rich compost of creative potential for you. Each question is a branch for you to follow or to graft another branch on. When you begin combining more than one idea, say a flower and the feeling of displacement, then even more potential arises. Drawing connections, contrasts and making interesting and abstract ideational leaps is the basis for inspiration, not the other way around.

There are any number of things that stop you from being inspired; that is, things that can impede your sense of curiosity. I think chief among them for creatives is a sense of expectation. Your own expectations and the expectations of others and culture at large. I don’t mean socially, financially, or career-wise, though those things can certainly be stifling. Most often, it’s the expectation about what a piece of creative work should look like. Creatives might feel pressured to stick to the rules of a genre or a visual style or a storytelling tradition, thinking breaking from the expectations around those categories is too strange or will result in failure. How can you be curious about something you know the end state of? This particular obstacle I feel can be overcome just by embracing a sense of risk and also cultivating trust in your potential readers or viewers.

Another hindrance to inspiration is fear of commitment. For creatives thinking about undertaking long-form or time-intensive work, they often wonder how to gauge whether an idea is worth pursuing. Common questions I see to address this problem:

  1. Do you feel excited when you think about your idea? Does it compel you to create?

The implication in this question is, if the idea is good, you will innately be excited and compelled to work on it. As a person who is often struggling with depression, I dislike this advice the most. Depending on a consistent emotion to fuel your creative practice is not at all reliable and chances are you, like most creative people, will hate your work when it’s in various states. Counting on a positive emotion to motivate you, like waiting for inspiration to strike, is useless.

  1. Will it appeal to others?

Worrying about your appeal to others, as valid a concern as it is, does nothing for creative work nor does it actually signify if it’s going to be a commercial success. There is no guarantee that your attempt to appeal to an audience will work. If you manage to wrangle your own concern about the audience into a generative form, I’d be impressed as most artists are terrified by their audience to a degree it stifles their creative process. For me, worrying about appeal is for marketing and products.

  1. Can you already imagine the entire story in your head?

This is a hit and miss piece of advice. It can be useful for some to know their characters and plot roughly or what they want a final piece of art to look like ahead of time but, more often than not, trying to imagine the final state of your work can be creatively immobilizing. Our motivations as artists are constantly shifting with our knowledge and our initial ideas change and mutate as we engage with them. Getting hung up on what you imagined the work to be and trying to align it with what’s in your head instead of engaging with it in real time is one way to stifle inspiration. Being open to conceptual transformation and not holding your creativity in a vise grip will open up more interesting avenues for your work to take.

Photo by Olafur Eliasson

In the end, there’s no barometer to measure what idea is worthy to pursue. Even subjects that have been explored to death in our creative canon can be made new with an interesting perspective. You make your ideas worth your time by cultivating your curiosity and forming connections between ideas, meditating on and complicating them. This doesn’t mean you need to take an idea to completion without stopping. Working in small steps, like outlines or writing scenes, sketching or testing out mediums, is a way to begin building a rapport with your idea. Sometimes letting the work rest for a time while you nurture and enrich yourself with experience is necessary.

But the only way to know if your concept is worth taking to its final form is to make the attempt to complete it. In the watery, fluctuating container of your mind, ideas may not reveal all their potential to you. But as you begin to externalize your ideas into a medium, new facets will begin to show themselves to you. Whatever your pace or process, follow your curiosity, take chances, and don’t be afraid to make strange connections and correlations between your ideas. The more you elaborate on your ideas, the more you make room for the unexpected to occur and it’s in those moments you will inspire yourself by gifting the work curiosity and breadth of interest.

But let’s dig further into inspiration. What comes to mind when someone says they were feeling inspired? Effortlessness, naturalness, a richness and clarity of ideas, productivity. But the idea that the ideal creative state is one of ease, of flow and inspiration, should be greatly distrusted. Early in your creative practice, you might fall into a work ‘flow’, where ideas and words that step forth unbidden, with ease. Be wary of that effortlessness.

Often this is because those ideas are just the easiest to reach. Tropes and clichés. A pre-digested conceptual cud. A perfunctory emulation. This could be the entire thought or specific language or style. ‘Inspired’ work only proves itself inspired in the reevaluation stage. When one isn’t inspired, they consider themselves fallow or even blocked. But I don’t think creative struggle should be seen a ‘block’. The struggle you feel is becoming conscious of every creative choice you’ve made so far. The idea, the language, the formal techniques, their relation to each other, your intent. Theres no way to do that without a concerted effort. When someone tells me the work came effortlessly in an inspired flow, it’s because they’re either 1) an actual genius doesn’t recognize deep analytical thought as a challenge or 2) simply lazy. The latter is the most common. I have never met a genius but I have met hard workers and hard thinkers.

Flow and inspiration belie another idea, which is ‘naturalness’. Naturalness is not just about authenticity, but the ego. Except there’s nothing natural about making art. Making art is examining yourself as you examine something else. Naturalness is an effect you achieve, not a creative state you inhabit. Inspiration is an emotional state that is valuable to feel but does not lend anything made in that state value intrinsically.

What do you need to be able to create anywhere, anytime? Inspiration, spontaneity and flow are fine starting points but they’re erratic, unreliable and often produce superficial work. What’s reliable is habit, concentration, attention, reevaluation. A well-trained creative instinct is useful but ideas aren’t inherently valuable just by virtue of being the first thing that emerge from your mind. Clarity also doesn’t volunteer itself naturally with every line and ideas don’t innately contain the magic of the emotional or inspired state.

Clarity through revision, re-evaluation, and practice, is what imbues the word, the line, the stroke, with the meaning you want. Good art is the result of hard work, meaning it’s all artificial not natural, not something which blooms upon first contact. And while this makes the process less romantic I hope it makes it more approachable and achievable for creatives out there.

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