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How to Catch Creative Inspiration


October 2023

For my last update, I invited subscribers to engage in a 30-second task to help open to creative inspiration.

The proposal came to me in the same way that most of the ideas for my articles and books have; it had the same sort of flavour. It felt as though it was external to me and had little to do with what I personally want, and yet it had entered my consciousness anyway. It’s not easy to describe, but it’s unmistakable when it happens and is often accompanied by a sense of being uplifted, even if it’s only very subtle.

Creative Ideas from the Outside

This concept of ideas coming from the outside is not new. No matter how deluded it may sound, the fact remains that many creative artists and writers will speak of their ideas as actual things that were originally outside them.

An example can be found in Haruki Murakami’s book, Novelist as a Vocation. In it, he writes about the first time he felt he could write a novel, and that it was as though a certain “something” descended upon him from above. Here are his own words about the sensation of being hit by the idea that he could write a novel:

“It was as if something had come fluttering down from the sky and I caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.”

Later, once established as a full-time novelist, Murakami still referred to ideas as external to him: “The novels floated directly above me, shining in the sky like a North Star. If I felt lost, all I had to do was look up. They would give me my location, and point me in the right direction. Had they not been there, I might well have ended up wandering all over the place.” He also says that the process of writing allows the experience of “practicing magic”. 

Speaking of magic, novelist Elizabeth Gilbert makes similar statements in her book about creativity, Big Magic. She considers creative ideas as things outside of us, wanting to be born and looking for humans to birth them. After Big Magic was released, an interviewer mentioned that the sceptical part of him struggled to understand how certain uncanny events described in the book could possibly have taken place. Gilbert cheerfully stated (as she has done on more than one occasion previously) that she feels no need to make sense of incidents like those in a rational way, nor to defend or convince anyone of her magical beliefs. She has acknowledged the possibility that her views about ideas may not be accurate, yet she believes in them, trusts in them, and finds them helpful in her life and work.   

Horror writer Stephen King is another well-known individual who does not attempt to persuade anyone to personally accept what he believes about creativity. In his memoir On Writing, he claims that creative ideas are outer things to be discovered – not necessarily shining stars in the sky, but rather like fossils. It’s our job to carefully and delicately unearth these pre-existing ideas in order to bring them to light, as intact as possible. When a journalist commented that this seemed hard to believe, Stephen King responded that they didn’t need to believe it, what mattered was that they believed he believed it. 

Steven Pressfield, author of War of Art, unashamedly speaks of his faith in the Muse when it comes to his creative work, and the concept of abstract ideas from a non-physical plane that wish to be made manifest by humans. He goes so far as to say that all artists understand that their creativity comes to them and through them, but does not come from them. He writes in the blog article A Prayer to the Muse:

“I know, as every artist who will tell the truth knows, that ‘I’ am not the source of any of the work I produce. The work comes through me from another plane. I’m the conduit. I’m the human voice. But the source lies elsewhere.”

The source of inspiration need not be limited to floating in the heavens or buried in the earth. Filmmaker David Lynch asserts, “Ideas are like fish” – the deeper you go to discover them, the bigger and purer the fish you can catch.

Whether fallen from the sky, excavated from the ground, or found deep within the ocean, creative people everywhere consider their inspiration and ideas as things they’ve been lucky enough to catch or discover, rather than having been formed or calculated purely from their mind.

Creative ideas come to all of us, waiting to be caught just as Marukami had caught that fluttering idea from the sky while watching a baseball game.

Around a year or two ago, my mother told me that a prayer had come to her in the form of a song. She hadn’t made it up (at least not consciously), and she had never heard it before. As far as I’m aware, Mum had never composed music or written prayers before, and is not particularly religious. Just this month, she mentioned that although she doesn’t meditate or pray “properly”, she still sings that prayer a lot when she’s on her own, as it brings comfort and a sense of connection. She has often said, “I don’t know where it came from.” 


How does one catch inspiration?

There are times when it seems to happen by chance. However, those who are actively engaged in creative pursuits (especially those who make a living from creativity) don’t just agree that ideas come to them from “out there”. There seems to be another shared belief among such people – namely, that it is not enough to rely on inspiration to visit. Discipline, hard work, and dedication are required.

Apparently, the Muse tends to favour the kind of person who can be depended on, who can be reliably found working away at their craft around the same time of day and at the same place each time. Self-consciousness, procrastination, waiting too long for inspiration, and worrying about what others think are all qualities that can be off-putting to the Muse and will scare away ideas that want to be born.

It's not that those who devote themselves to creativity no longer feel self-conscious, or are never tempted to put a project off, or do not wish to be inspired. They are also not immune to caring about what others think of their finished products – it’s just that they care even more about continuing to enjoy their creativity, so they will keep working at each project until completion, no matter how hard it is.

Thomas Edison was quoted as saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It’s rumoured that Edison spent a great deal of time in his lab, because he believed that his genius could be found there. Edison did not want to risk the chance of missing that genius on the rare occasion when it wanted to pay a visit. He wanted to be in the lab as much as possible because he knew that the genius could appear at the lab at any time.

You’re most likely to catch creative inspiration if you carve out time for it daily or at least weekly, and continue to dedicate yourself to working with your creativity even when inspired ideas are nowhere to be found (yet).

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