Finding Inspiration

Artist often speak of seeking inspiration, or going to “find” inspiration. They take off, sketch book tucked under their arm for the sometimes-elusive moment of inspiration.  The truth is, this is an important aspect of the art making process that doesn’t get taught in schools.  It doesn’t get taught probably because its not seen as a search for knowledge, and most schools only deal with things they feel they can measure or crunch the numbers on.  Inspiration and the act of being creative has in many ways eluded many scholars and researchers.  Granted, there has been more study on this elusive state than every before, but there are aspects of it that simply are too difficult for the number cruncher to deal with.  As a result, its hard to quantify, grade, or evaluate.  We certainly see the results of it, but rarely do we ever try to explain or teach it.  How do you grasp the wind?  How do you define mystery?  For me, this is where a very juicy conversation can begin. 

I can’t say that I can teach you how to be inspired because inspiration is a choice.  It may not seem that way, but inspiration is the confluence of a number of different parts of your brain all operating in synchrony with one another, and the choice comes in choosing to feel differently. But how do we feel differently?  Most people settle into a comfort zone where they can begin to imagine and let the creative wheels roll.  Rarely do we reflect on just what it is that we do or what we need to do when that special moment eludes us.

Below are some simple things that you can do when you want to feel creative.  Some of them are to first be consider rationally and then use without being too overly self conscious about them. 

Stop The Noise

The first one is to learn how to stop thinking in the way you may be used to.  When I say this, I mean, stop trying to overthink something, and stop the mind chatter.  You know what I am talking about;  you sit down to make the next masterpiece and all you can do is wonder if you will have enough time tomorrow to pick up the dry cleaning and whether you will have enough money at the end of the month to pay for some airline tickets for a trip you have been wanting to go on.  Stilling thought is more an art I think than anything.  Some will say you can’t still thought, but I know that it can because I often do it in my work.  I am even in the process of developing a way to help people to be more creative by giving them things to do that will naturally still thought.  When you do this, you also still anxiety and uncertainty which go to rob you of precious energy that could be put to better use in being inspired.  

So much of this process is about allowing.  How does that happen?  You allow your thought to be stilled.  Part of this process involves relaxing.  When you can be relaxed and remain relaxed, your tendency to dwell on even the slightest sliver of uncertainty will slip away from you in an ever-increasing way.  The benefits to you are huge, and it also helps with the quality of your creativity.  In fact, when I speak to artists about this, they all tend to say about the same thing; inspiration normally comes when the mind has been stilled. 

We are always thinking, I suppose, but the quality of the thought changes.  We move into a more feeling and thus receptive place first as the clutter of thought thins out.  It feels like riding a boat in choppy water with trees all around only to break out into the open sky with smooth water.  The effect is freeing, and just as you clear space on your computer hard drive, you too can free up space on your own brain desktop so different kinds of experiences can take the place of what was there before.

This is in truth very much what zen buddhists do when they meditate.  They allow the mind to go quiet and its in this relative silence that the Tao, the universe, emerges.  For you, its inspiration, and it is exactly the same thing. The difference between a monk and an artist is that the monk is banking the energy while the artist is making a kind of exchange where the energy is being used to create something.  For some, it feels like a force, a change in your body chemistry at minute and subtle levels.  You feel more calm and your more rational mind switches off and your more intuitive self switches on. I am describing it this way because this is how it seems to most people when in truth we live in our rational minds a lot.  Maybe too much.  This overemphasis in the concrete and rational means that there is less of a balance between the two hemispheres in your brain.  We tend to lean to the left brain operation so it only seems like we are switching it off.  We are in truth deemphasizing it for a greater give and take.  I think it is true that true creative inspiration is not one brain or the other, but both.  When we are able to balance both sides in a natural manner.

I will say unequivocably that your body will mirror your thoughts and feelings in an immediate way.  If your thoughts are always on the uncertain future before you, you will remain distracted, nervous, anxious, and scattered. This is hardly a good place to be when you want to be in full command of your creative juices.  As an artist you ARE the “machine” that is manufacturing magnificence, but what you make will only be as good as how you feel.  Certainly you can sit down at the bench and continue crafting a piece of jewelry as if on auto pilot while your head is stuffed full of things, but try being creative when you are over burdened in this way.  I say that in the hectic life we lead, it is important to make good transitions from the life at the office or out running errands to the sacred space that is our creative minds and beings. 

The best way to connect with your creative self is to think back on your childhood before you started to set up perceptual barriers to your creativity.  I come across this all the time with my students in college.  Today we began a project in glass that involves making a clay pattern that we will make a mold of that will hold the glass which will be slumped into the mold. We talked about the project our last class period and I asked for students to come with a drawing.  At the very least, they would have an idea, a game plan for what they were going to do even if they wound up changing the idea in mid stream, which of course I allow in my classes simply because this is part of the learning process.  Sometimes you have to think you want to do something only to actually learn you really didn’t like the idea to begin with.  Getting in touch with your natural self and your natural likes and dislikes is an important part of finding your own creative and aesthetic vision.  Today, though, everyone sat looking down at the clay on their board with giant question marks above their heads. Some had an idea, some did not.  I explained that they simply had to start.  “Just jump in; this is like swimming.  Stop worrying about how cold or deep the water will be and jump in.  Once you do, you will find that it is not as bad as you had thought.”  Slowly, they began building their pattern.  In the process, though, people began to play.  They began to do just what they did when they were kids.  In fact, when I asked some of these students what they were doing, they looked at me and said they had no idea where it was going.  Normally, I think we tend to feel like this is a bad thing, but you see this is just what we do as children. Making art is not about making art but is instead play. And very often, play is tied up within discovery. If you KNEW what you were going to do, it wouldn’t be an adventure, right?  Part of the joy and fun of it is actually in not knowing.  In this state a part of you stands back and watches.  Another part is bringing form to something and another part is busy imagining what the next big idea will be in its development.

It is here, in this state, where you are potentially the most creative. I explain to my stude
nts that whenever I get stuck or feel anxious about what I am going to do next in any type of creative work I imagine that I have all the money in the world.  When I do that, it triggers all of the barriers within me to drop and I create with wild abandon.  It loosens me up enough to be willing to consider the possibilities. It also allows me to flow.  I feel more at peace, I feel happier, and I feel like I drop into this really great groove where everything is perfect. It is here that I let accidents happen and it is the happy accident that often serves to suggest some new direction that I myself had never thought of before.  Granted, this kind of thing can’t happen in my glass studio or else I would never get the production work done, but it sure can be a great way to brainstorm because interesting things happen when you aren’t so rigid and allow yourself to play and discover. 

Part of this involves this idea I mentioned earlier having to do with stopping thought.  A very curious thing happens when I do this, and I suspect it is identical to what the monks experience because their description of it and what I encounter are identical. There is an upwelling of energy that is very peaceful but also blissful. This energy isn’t inactive, though.  It is very dynamic.  Normally the reaction to this state is to USE the energy for something, and it often tends to get bled off with our gazillion thoughts that we have every hour of the day.  But imagine turning that off or tuning that part out.  Imagine being amazingly present but without any intervening thoughts whatsoever.  This is a state where you feel something called “Presence.”  It is like someone is standing quietly next to you, but not saying a word.  You can feel as though the train has simply stopped or is frozen.  There is a sense of time being suspended and there is a very different quality to your awareness. There is in truth a great liberation felt in this moment.  All thought goes out the window, or maybe its as though you simply walked up one floor above all the hub-bub and are now silent as the party downstairs rages on.  There are many ways to get to this place within, and most often it does take some practice.  For the artist, I think that this can be easier for them than other people.  In the same way that monks busied their minds with prayer beads, the artist can keep themselves busy with the making of something while they experience this quietness of mind.  The advantage here is that when you do this your ability to really see your surroundings increases significantly.  If you are drawing a flower you are no longer trying to get it to look right, you are merely observing what is there and getting it as close to that as possible. 

One of the great advantages to stopping normal thought is that you can for longer and longer periods, become much more observant of your surroundings.  If you are doing a figure study, you simply cease having all those nagging thoughts running around in your head. Where do I have to go after this?  Will I pass my test tomorrow?  Will I have enough money to make it through the month?  See, when you can still worry and anxiety, you quite naturally shift your attention out of the what-ifs and you shift into the NOW.  Its here in the NOW that your attention will bring you the greatest return.  Staying in the future or the past will be like tossing all your energy and inspiration into some unknown future or some unchanging past. Its just not productive.  But if you can still your mind you also still anxiety which naturally keeps you distracted and diverted from the task at hand.  When you can be quiet and calm like this, you are much more available to the figure study or the work that you are involved in. 

Nearly every student who has had problems with a project has also had problems with worrying how the project will turn out.  The problem with this way of thinking is that students wind up pondering a step that they have not even gotten to yet.  This takes them out of the moment and it also destroys any possibility for reaching this state of quiet presence I mentioned earlier.   If you stick to what is happening now and allowing what is not yet done to take care of itself once you get to it, you are naturally so much more present for what is happening NOW. So stop worrying, stop thinking about the future and cultivate a sense of mindfulness about the NOW.  If you do, you will invariably find that you are more at peace and a lot more calm.  Details will take care of themselves once you get to them.  Work speeds up, and you become more fluid.  You will also be much more effective at doing, say, that figure stuff because you are now using ALL of your faculties of observation instead of being scattered with so many worrisome thoughts. It takes some getting used to, but if you can do it, you may find that your powers of observation along with your creativity goes up significantly. 

Be Like a Child. 

When you were four or five and were involved in an art project, you most often were incredibly present for the activity.  You had nothing to divert your attention.  You had no worries that whatever you were doing didn’t LOOK like something.  All of this gets built or driven into us as we get older and our own innate creativity suffers as a result.  It is now known that people who try to imagine what its like to be a kid are actually more creative when they imagine in this way.  This is, I suspect, because the mere act of imagining it brings on those qualities from childhood that will assist you greatly in being creative and free.  Sometimes not knowing what is next in your project can actually be incredibly freeing.  A child is ready to explore each piece, never totally sure what will come next.  This is actually a cornerstone event….

Let Yourself Screw Up – The Happy Accident

Do you know that nearly every time I have ever allowed myself to go off plan or do something different than the way I had done it before and wind up screwing up, I have had some of the THE most interesting discoveries happen?  Sometimes I can get so caught up in how I think something is SUPPOSED to look like that I never allow myself the freedom to just wander, play, or even screw up.  So screw up.  Let yourself do something you didn’t intend and then see where it leads.  Jackson Pollock developed drip painting entirely by accident. One of the more significant stylistic developments all due to an accidental drip!

There is also clear evidence that when people are observed in a competitive event that when they can screw up that this seems to let off some steam or anxiety.  Once they have gotten the screw up out of the way, they are free to push as hard as they can.  It is a curious trait and it has to do with fear. It is less about our being capable of something and more about our fear of not being good enough.  Once we can get it out of the way, performance, in some cases, will increase. So don’t try to be perfect.  Don’t always try to be Mr. Impressive or Miss Amazing.  Its great to feel like you are all that, but the reality is that it is also a lot of pressure. When you stop doing this FOR someone and do it for the fun of it, the pressure is off.  You are free to explore, and as long as there is no plan, then “messing up” can simply be folded into the activity.  This only works if your environment allows for it. I have long since abandoned the idea that as teachers we need to hold a whip in one hand and push students hard.  I had teachers like that, and the only thing it ever did for me was to dry up an otherwise fluid creative river inside of me.  Fear and creativity simply do not go together. 

Don’t Wake Up Too Fast/Don’t Go To Bed Too Quickly

Its true that when we wake up, we can still be in a highly dissociated state. These states are most often linked to high creative output.  On the one hand, you might be slow to wake up and feel groggy, but if you allow yourself some time to ju
st imagine and think widely during this time in the morning or as you begin to go to bed, you might well find yourself thinking thoughts or coming up with ideas that you just aren’t as adept at when the clock strikes noon, for example. Experiment with letting yourself have an extra half hour to an hour in the morning to laze around in bed while directing your attention to any number of ideas to see what happens.

I have also observed that some of my most creative and visually engrossing ideas often take place at a time when I am finished dreaming but am simply resting deeply.  As a result I have found that when I awake at four in the morning, I can have some really great ideas surface. My mind seems able to borrow the rich visual world of dreaming and tack it onto the world of my waking self. I am also very clear and rested.  I most often am also able to drift back to sleep after half an hour of wakefulness. I understand that this may not work for you, but I would urge you to try it.  It might mean going to bed earlier, or it might also mean going to bed later so that you can slip back into sleep easier. Waking at four in the morning and not being able to get back to bed might make for a very long day!  What works for me is I try not to get out of bed if I can help it. 

Do What Relaxes You

Its true. When you can relax, you can drop into brain states that are much more susceptible to being creative. Do things that make you feel good or that relax you.  Take a nice long shower, or do something where you are completely relaxed in your own thoughts.  This might be as simple as taking some time to go to a private place in nature to relax and doodle or write or lay in the grass for half an hour each day while being alone.  It seems, at least for me, that all of nature itself is perfectly content being where I am soaking up the sun and simply existing.  I think we actually miss doing this because we miss the state of mind that we reach when we go there and reach such simple states of calm. 


There is a technique that can be very powerful if you can use it to your advantage.  It involves breathing.  We all know intuitively that breathing cams us down. When you get really upset over something what do people most often say for you to do?  “Breathe!” they will admonish or remind you in that moment of excitement or upset.  There is a reason for this.  Now let me tell you a secret technique that can help you calm down very quickly.  If you try it, let me know what you think of it. 

The technique is really simple.  First, hold one of your nostrils closed and as you do this, breathe in through your other open nostril.  Do this about four or fives times and breathe in a long and full breath.  Exhale with your finger holding your nostril closed each time.  Take your time with this.  Don’t be in a rush.  Pause as you reach a full breath and when you have breathed all the way out.  You then switch to the other nostril and do the same four or five inhalations and exhalations just as you did before.  Once you have done this, examine how you feel.  If you were feeling excited or upset, can you remember what had upset you?  Do you feel relaxed?  This is an excellent way for me to transition from one activity to another. It is also very helpful when dealing with anything that might upset you or throw you off balance emotionally.  Being an artist or creative person, you are only as good as your own state of mind is, so it helps to do everything you can to chill and flow. 

Avoid Crowds

I know it can be hard to do this in a university town, but finding places where you can be alone can be very helpful.  Brainstorming is in truth something that happens best when you are relaxed and not self-conscious.  Sometimes being able to go to a coffee shop where people are all in their own worlds can be helpful.  Bury yourself in a book, or your sketchbook.  Find a time during the day when you know your roommates will be away in order to spend time alone in your room. I used to have to get of campus before I could relax completely when I was in college.  I looked forward to Fridays when I’d go with a friend to her house where we could sit and just hang out.  The nice thing about being with her was I never felt like I had to entertain her or say anything.  She very much accepted me as I was or HOW I was.  That was incredibly freeing and I felt a sense of solitude and lack of self-consciousness.  I just needed some away time and in this case, being at her place provided that.  Maybe you have other friends who “get” the same thing and might give you some space just to be “alone” or alone feeling.

Set Limits

Sometimes creativity is spurred when you limit the options available to you.  When you are given less, its more of a challenge to turn it into something MORE.  In this case, writing haiku is a very appropriate example of less is more.  By giving yourself certain boundaries in creating, you give yourself the challenge that your own nature may often relish and dig into.  Sometimes we all just love a challenge.

Be Happy

We know that people are more creative when they are happy.  Elevated mood can lead to a greater sense of optimism which helps to shake off any uncertainties you might feel about a project.  The key to being happy is not in dwelling on things you cannot control.  Much like being present, only concern yourself with what you CAN control NOW.  Worrying about the future wont get you there.  Taking care of the present will.  Now:  be happy!