by Lillie Sauer
What is inspiration? I’ve never really questioned it until recently. It’s usually portrayed as the illumination of a mental light bulb or some similarly sudden “Aha!” moment. Maybe sometimes it is a lot like that for some people. Still, there are those of us who don’t often feel like we have the mental wiring required to spark ideas in an instant; who feel rather like our ideas are small, delicate flames that demand intensive, gentle tending to grow into something impressive enough to share with others. Can such a needy thing be inspiration? Well, I don’t see why it can’t be and hopefully I’ll be able to adequately explain this point. But do we really need to know more about how and when we are being inspired — will it benefit us? Yeah, I think we do, and it will. It will prevent us from smothering that wisp of inspiration (either intentionally or accidentally) and help us to be more aware of its presence when it is especially small or quiet.
In order to begin to understand our creative/imaginative selves (i.e. ourselves when we are expressing our ideas honestly and without hesitation), we shouldn’t be afraid to be still or “unproductive.” As to the former, we all probably agree we could benefit from more of it and in the case of the latter, it is a fallacy. Society rarely gives merit to those who move slowly and think quietly. Rather, it more often places value on being efficient, busy, and otherwise overtly “successful.” I write such words derisively because of the connotative quantifiability they’ve been stained with through time. Now when a person is called successful, we immediately take it to mean they’re wealthy, well-known within their social spheres, hold a prominent position in their career field, etc. In short, it’s assumed that success can be added and subtracted in terms of observable changes. But in using the word in this way, we are entirely disregarding the perspective of the individual in question on the matter of their success — namely, whether they feel successful and, most importantly, if they’ve succeeded at the things that they hold personally valuable. I’ll get back to the idea of personal values, but it’s important to talk a bit about creative empathy.
The aforementioned social lack of regard for how a person feels about their own accomplishments is imprinted upon our respective creative processes and blocks our sense of inspiration. For myself, that usually plays out as something like this: a thought comes along at the right time and spurs a feeling of inspiration. But just as the ideas begin to flow, I might get a bit ahead of myself and begin to consider my work’s reception — where it will fit in, how people will react, how it compares to others’ creations – and I’m overwhelmingly reminded of the need to be successful by others’ standards. Then, as quickly as it began, the stream of ideas gradually becomes a bog, and as I look around inside my mind, I’m unable to find exactly what I was so excited about in the first place. At this point, if I were to push myself to stick to my original idea, while still worrying too much about what people will think of it, I know I’ll end up making something stiff and cold and boring. It is always blaringly obvious when someone is uninspired (i.e. disingenuous) and trying to tell you what they think you want to hear or trying to emulate someone else’s truth. In ignoring or falsifying our true feelings about things, we will never create something with which others can connect or share in any excitement, since we’ll have contributed no passion for them to feel or sense otherwise.
The best path we can take to avoid dull and lifeless creations is honesty. In my fairly short and unimpressive life so far, I’ve learned that nothing worthwhile comes from being dishonest with yourself. I tried to write books when I was a kid. They were about the sports I didn’t play or the friends I didn’t have. Even then I knew that my ideas were boring and that no matter how much detail I added or how many interesting words I could come up with, that wasn’t going to change. Of course, I attributed it to my inability to create stories and characters instead of a lack of truth to myself, so I just stopped trying. I never realized that I could just tell stories about the things I did every day. I didn’t have to write about what I thought other people would find interesting. They wouldn’t have been interested no matter how relatable I tried to make blonde-haired Kate who plays soccer sound. I didn’t think my honest feelings were important enough to express, though, so I moved on to other things after a few failed attempts at getting excited about writing. I probably walked away from writing at my computer desk and headed toward the woods behind my house to play in the creek or climb a tree, or biked to a friend’s house to play Spyro the Dragon, or sat down at the dining room table to read or color, or some other endeavor of genuine self-expression that could’ve been the inspiration for my stories. I always wanted to be a creative person, someone who makes things, but would’ve never for a second dared to consider my personal experiences to be worth sharing. Maybe this illustration is more about my lifelong struggle for confidence in myself than of the complications generally faced when dealing with inspiration, but just the same, it is about an inspired individual who mistook inspiration for epiphany and so, never knew just how ready she was to create. And I am certain by now that inspiration is nothing at all like epiphany. It is an experience that requires self-assurance and honesty and joy.
In case I haven’t alluded to this idea enough by now, it’s extremely important for each of us to take the time, if we haven’t already, to think long and hard about what we care about in life. If you truly are convinced that you can be happy/satisfied/content with pursuing meaningless (to you) work or relationships or activities in your spare time, then no one should be trying to stop you or convince you otherwise. I only say that because it’s unlikely that you are both (a) happy and (b) willingly living a personally meaningless life. But my thoughts here aren’t meant to make you care more about anything in particular or to care about something other than you do. The thing is, you absolutely care about something, so be honest with yourself as to what that is. Whether it’s one thing or a few, if thinking about it excites you, if it’s something you would hate to live without, if it’s something that you find yourself willing to sacrifice sleep, food, and attention for, then it’s probably exceptionally valuable to you.
So what? Even if we know fully where our values lie, not all of us can reasonably pursue only those things and get by comfortably in life. But I don’t believe we have to take into account every person’s situation, disposition, or values in order to say that ultimately, if you’re discontent with your life and have resigned to feeling that way indefinitely, then you’re taking your ability to find inspiration for granted and no amount of good things happening to you will save you from such resignation. If you truly value something — anything at all — you’ll find the motivation to pursue it regardless of costs. And if you’re still not sure if there’s any passion to be found within yourself even after a long time of thinking about it, don’t be discouraged. Not everyone is lucky enough to find that tiny flame of inspiration on their own. I most definitely couldn’t. If that’s the case, then talk to people, read books, play video games, explore new places and ideas, and something’s bound to ignite you.
So, what is inspiration? It can happen quickly, sure. It can come on slowly, either with minimal effort or pure intentionality. But it is not mindless. It is not just for the excessively ambitious, the gifted or the expert. Rather, it probably looks and feels a little bit different in each of us. If you make yourself slow down enough to really tune-in to the moment — watching the sunset slowly change colors, actively listening to another’s thoughts, fully experiencing a cup of great coffee – whatever you take pleasure in, without the usual distractions that prevent the rest of your senses from taking part in the moment – then you’ll start to know when inspiration is approaching and what to do about it.