Surely the propensity to “fall asleep” as we function is more common than anyone would care to admit. How easy it is to catch ourselves mechanically slogging through the motions from time to time – left unchecked and our work turns dismal. For this reason I offer a gentle injection, a nudge of sorts, and pass on a few “secrets” to ignite artistic inspiration in your journey as an artist.
Actually, the following are less secrets than gems hidden in plain sight –often overlooked by aspiring artists, while indispensable among the accomplished.
So, what are these gems?
- Look everywhere for new ideas
- Guard your solitude
- Practice boundless patience
When applied, these three practices can lead you to new levels of creative aliveness and productivity.
Look everywhere for new ideas
The concept of assimilating ideas, or “scratching,” (as Twyla Tharp calls it) is crucial as it elicits in us a wakefulness to life everywhere at all times. And what better way to live, than to pay attention to the details in every moment? It’s like thrifting or a perpetual scavenger hunt. There are subtle “hints” for grabs in every direction we look. According to well known creatives across the board, this awareness to your environment is the key to generating new ideas.
In choreographer Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it For Life, She dedicates a chapter to what she calls “scratching”, or assimilating the ideas of others to crack into brainstorming. She shares her difficulty of going from nothing to something when considering every dance routine.
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.” It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the studio floor. Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. …You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going.
I call it scratching… That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toe-hold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward… Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private … I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” This happens to anyone who is willing to stand in front of an audience and talk about his or her work. The short answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking “where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.
She goes on to suggest scratching could be anything from people-watching at your favorite cafe to absorbing the music of world-class composers. Being attentive in daily conversations, copious reading, visiting museums, or studying the intricacies of nature also offer vast amounts of creative material to stimulate ideas. And scratching is not an orderly thing, it’s done wildly and without reserve or restriction – anything goes. In fact, the more free you are, the better. Scratching involves improvisation without allowing the mind to limit you:
When you’re scratching for an idea, you don’t need to think ahead. You have to trust the unconscious rush and let it hurtle forward unedited and unencumbered. Let it be awful and awkward and wrong. You can fix the results later, but you won’t generate the ideas at all if you cool down the white hot pitch. Scratching is where creativity begins. It is the moment where your ideas first take flight and begin to defy gravity. If you try to rein it in, you’ll never know how high you can go.
In the book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, we can easily imagine a dauntless Thoreau “scratching” too, as he interrogates everyone he meets and follows every whim and curiosity when walking in the woods:
Author Laura Dassow Walls writes about Thoreau:
He spent much of every day out on his “springy & unwearable” legs, as Channing called them, interrogating farmers, children, laborers, wood-choppers, shopkeepers, Indians, railroad workers, hunters, fishermen—in short, everyone except the loafers and “bar-room idlers” with nothing to do and with whom he had no patience. When Channing asked him why he was so endlessly curious about everything, Thoreau answered, “What else is there in life”?
And on the subject of writing you can sense he’s extracting ideas with a wild freedom when he says:
“You must try a thousand themes before you find the right one—as nature makes a thousand acorns to get one oak.
We should give ourselves permission to forage through life’s experiences with a sense of abandonment, applying what we pick up in a thousand different ways until the smallest grain sprouts and gives birth.
Guard your solitude
Successful artists have a penchant for solitude – where else do coherent thoughts or bright ideas come from? Guarding your alone-time is a crowning achievement. Not doing so results in mental chaos – it’s that important.
Albert Einstein recognized this when he said “the monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”
With candor about her struggle to keep solitude, poet Mary Oliver says:
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Practice boundless patience
In the beautiful book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke asserts that fulfilling an artist’s vocation requires an arduous path of endurance and gestation. He writes:
“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”
Having this patient, long-haul approach to life develops character, presence of mind, and no doubt, requires trust.
Continuing on the germination and growth motif, philosopher Herbert Spencer in his autobiography explains his thinking process in a conversation with English novelist, George Eliot. What he in effect describes, is a posture of delicate and considerable patience which make space for ideas to germinate slowly over time without the least strain or angst:
My mode of thinking does not involve the concentrated effort which is commonly accompanied by wrinkling of the brows. The conclusions, at which I have from time to time arrived…have been arrived at unawares – each as the ultimate outcome of a body of thoughts that slowly grew from a germ ... Little by little, in unobtrusive ways, without conscious intention or appreciable effort, there would grow up a coherent and organized theory. Habitually the process was one of slow unforced development, often extending over the years; and it was, I believe, because the thinking done went on in this gradual, almost spontaneous way, without strain…
Many of the great thinkers, inventors, and artists share the conviction that creativity and inspiration cannot be forced into existence, but seem to grow naturally from a peaceful substratum when given generous time and space.
So if you’re mired in a mechanical mindset, practice silence, patience and a good dose of freedom to gather new ideas – these are foolproof ingredients for regaining your inspiration and nourishing your creative genius.