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Why Inspiration is a Dangerous Myth

Failing to feel inspired? That's probably a good thing...

Inspiration

Make no mistake about it, the spectre of inspiration is one that continues to haunt the creative industries. From design rooms to writing desks, there remains the pervasive notion that good ideas will simply walk up and introduce themselves to artists. Of course, it’s commonly accepted that you can hurry along and stimulate these ideas by visiting art galleries and listening to insightful podcasts.

Whatever the case may be, there’s a very real illusion that in order to create great work, you first need to be swept up by the feeling of inspiration.

This concept stretches a long way back. Indeed, the ancient Greeks claimed they were visited by muses and Saint Paul swore that he was inspired to speak by God. A millennium later, Sigmund Freud believed he could locate inspiration in the inner psyche of artists.

Clearly, the myth of inspiration is deeply couched in western culture. And sure, it reads nicely as a poetry, but in practical terms it generates nothing but laziness.  

Think about it this way; had I waited to feel sufficiently inspired to write this article, there’s a very real possibility that it would never have come into existence. Why, when I could have spent my time daydreaming or drinking coffee would I choose to undertake the frustrating task of ordering words on a page?

Obviously, I had to order the words you’re reading now because that’s a part of my job. However, if I subscribed to the myth of inspiration then I would have postponed this task until I felt like I was being carried along by an unnameable force. With no telling how long this might take, I’d likely miss the deadline, lose sight of my original idea, and fail to achieve anything.  I might even get fired.

Clearly, depending on inspiration is a risky business and it’s far more useful to develop some kind of motivation when it comes to producing creative work. 

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, the author Ernest Hemingway offers a salient piece of advice that should convince any remotely creative person that inspiration should be thrown out of the window to be replaced by a strong work ethic. Reflecting on his approach to writing, he describes how:

“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

Rather than depending on inspiration to fall on him, Hemingway agreed to meet it halfway. By simply picking up his pen and writing until he struck gold, Hemingway figured out that it’s possible to produce great work if you’re happy to suffer a little frustration along the way.

When I was writing this article, I decided that I would follow Hemingway’s advice. Specifically, when I wrote the line inspiration is deeply couched in western culture, I thought to myself “there’s something I can get stuck into. I’ll stop now and then I’ll feel more positive about coming back to it later”. Stepping away from my computer, I found that I was excited to return to my work and remained thinking about it in a productive way.

This strategy was evidently quite effective as the article has now been completed and I’ve achieved what I originally set out to do. I managed to transform a blank page into one that (lord willing) contains a useful message for you, the reader.

This is ultimately the problem that artists have historically relied on inspiration to resolve. As any writer worth their salt will tell you, a blank word document is the most intimidating thing of all. It’s simply overwhelming in its possibilities. Untouched, it has no mistakes cluttering it up and it maintains the potential to be the greatest piece of writing that was ever committed to the page.

But waiting around for inspiration to strike is not the way to combat this dread. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the writer (or designer, or artist, or musician) to pick up their tools and start working. Even when they don’t want to. Perhaps more so when they don’t want to.

In short, it’s necessary to dismiss the idea that there will come a time when the stars will align, and creativity will flow unabated.   It’s also crucial to remember that the ideal conditions for producing great work are just that. They are ideal and can never truly exist. Exciting designs won’t arrive in the heads of designers as if by satellite and great words don’t just arrive on the page. No, unlike Saint Paul, us mere mortals have to get to work. The rest, as they say, will follow.

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