|Alphonse Maria Mucha, Poetry, 1898.|
Via the Alphonse Mucha Art Gallery
"'Our digestions, for example, running sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars -- the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.'" - G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
I said Inspiration is the elusive cousin of Imagination. Actually, I take it back. Inspiration is a species of iridescent fish that swims in the great sea that is the imagination, and I think our job as creators of art is basically to go fishing. But please, leave your industrial trawler at home. You know how a fishing trip is supposed to go, right? You go out in your little boat, you bait your line, and, well, catching fish is not really the point, is it? Even if you're a fisherman by trade, there's a lot of waiting around and enjoying the view...and then, snap, zip, you reel in your catch. And here are five ways to ensure you have a fruitful fishing trip on the vast rainbow ocean of the imaginary.
1. Get your boat. Get on the boat.
|by Paul Kuczynski via Mayhem & Muse|
When I'm making collages or physical art pieces, though, I tend to need a four or five hour chunk in the middle of the day. I'll do some actual work (like, y'know, stuff I get paid for), eat lunch, wander around the internet for a while, clean my studio, pick my nails, whatever, until I've exhausted everything else I can possibly find to do without leaving the house. Then, and only then, do I tend to find that I'm ready to make something. As soon as I start snipping bits of paper or gluing or painting or sewing, that's it, I'm on a roll and won't stop for hours (by which I mean that I'll put off eating until I'm literally staggering because I just need to get - one - more - feather - glued.)
Figuring out that I work this way is what I mean by getting my boat. Actually doing the work is getting on my boat. That is, establish for yourself the elements that make for the best and most delightfully productive creative experiences for you, and then, well, repeat them over and over. In a sense, it's like sitting zazen: even if you're having a hard time learning how to meditate, you figure out the best time to do it, and then you go sit. You sit even if you're having a bad day or you can't relax or whatever your daily excuse is. You put yourself in the way of the creative experience. It's not guaranteeing you anything, but it's making it more likely. In other words: if you want to catch a fish, you must get in the boat.
2. Drop the line. Enjoy the view.
|Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Peter Breughal, c. 1555.|
But think of it this way: your job is to bring something home for dinner, anything. It doesn't matter what. You could, if you wanted, sit there with a bucket, scooping up everything that comes your way until you have a peculiar and wonderful stew or find an oyster with a pearl. If you fixate on finding one particular thing, in that vast ocean it's unlikely that you'll catch it - unless, of course, you're lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, which does occasionally happen. But if you're willing to see everything that drifts by as potentially fantastical, well, you'll have a much better chance of enjoying an unexpected moment of inspiration.
|Aerial view of a bubble net, via Neutrons For Breakfast.|
John Perry, in his excellent essay originating the term, uses it to talk about accomplishing long-term writing projects, but I made use of it today on a smaller scale. I was posing for a sculpting group today, and I wanted to use the time to think about the next part of my novel. I got very quickly stuck, and my mind wandered away to thinking about how I could make a really cool stop-motion animation as a book trailer for it when it was done, thereby securing me a billion YouTube hits and an instant publishing deal. Daydreaming? Yes. Cart before horse? yes. Useless? Well - no. Because as I was busy planning the video in my mind, I got the idea for a graphic showing a bunch of my characters chasing each other up and down some paper staircases. Except there's no part of my book where that happens. And bam, zing, lightbulb, oh of course, I realized that it was the perfect symbol for the thing that has to happen next. That is to say: I went fishing. When my fish proved too slippery, I started dancing little circles around it: when my book is done, when I'm famous, when I make this vaguely-related video...and then, just like that, I'm rushing up to the surface, and there's my fish, shining and flopping in my hands.
3. Go home.
|Listen, if the world wasn't full of absolutely impractically|
unexpectedly awesome things, we wouldn't have sea slugs.
Photo via eBaum's World.
There's a big difference between working hard and working bitterly, and while I'm all for working hard, it is vital to understand that the second you start to beat yourself up over your failure to produce is also the second that you stop being able to make anything of worth. Anything you do squeeze out in those embattled hours is likely to be sliced and soured by the violent spirit with which you went after it. Take a freaking break, already. See, because creative people tend to suffer from the stereotype that what we do isn't *really* work, a lot of us have the driving need to prove that we're productive in order to validate our lack of ordinary, acceptable productivity to the world, or our partners, or our mother, or ourselves, or to the little green demon dancing the meanie dance at the head of the bed and singing the you suck song every time we fail to produce on demand. (For more on why we seem to feel this way about creativity versus "normal" jobs, and the economics of an artistic life, I will once again vehemently recommend reading The Gift.) All the guilt and the self-flagellation is utterly and astoundingly counter-productive. So don't sit huddled in your boat until four in the morning, freezing and grumbling and eating saltines. Go home, put your boat away, and do something nice, like have a meal involving lots of fresh greens or reading a divertingly idiotic book. For the reasons why this will help, see structured procrastination, above.
4. Caught a fish? Eat with others.
|My little sister, who invented the Museum of Joy.|
More about her coming up in S is for Simka!
Although I come up with a hell of a lot of my best ideas while posing as an artist's model (seriously, there is nothing more conducive to creative thinking than standing stock still for five hours among a buncha artists - either you think interesting thoughts, or you go utterly insane with boredom and then, being insane, you think interesting thoughts - see, a win either way!) those ideas are often clarified, refined, or multiplied into a whole gleaming flock of ideas when brought into conversation. I find it helpful to talk to people who are neither exactly like-minded (you can't learn anything by defending your position against their differing perspective if their perspective doesn't differ) nor too different in their views (in which case you spend so much time defending your position that it becomes equally hard to gain anything new). Someone who is skillful at playing devil's advocate is cool or whatever, but far better to find somebody who both has strong feelings of their own and happens to be a good listener. (Yeah, good luck.)
|You can read the story behind this adorable photo here.|
5. Don't treat your ocean like a commodity.
Yeah, that's right. You think you did this all yourself? Gimme a break. It's a totally marvelous and inexplicable thing that any of us get to make anything beautiful. Don't take it for granted - not your body that takes the world in and put the pen to paper and interprets electrical impulses and lets you taste the nectarines, not your wild and magical mind flickering faster than anything we can possibly comprehend ever, not the people who taught you and brought you here, not the weird phenomenal world constantly filtering into to our immense and unseen sea of imagination. Just say thank you. It doesn't have to be fervent or humble or profoundly spiritual or whatever. Listen, we know what happens when we treat the real, out-there-in-the-world ocean like a commodity: it gets trashed. Sure, it's big and all, but that doesn't mean we're not doing a truly stupid amount to ruin it for just about everybody and everything. And like the real ocean, it's a beautiful, compelling, complex, shifting, peculiar thing, this being creative; no matter how much we participate in it, we don't really understand it, and we certainly don't control it. So would it kill you to act like maybe it doesn't belong to you, like maybe it's --- a gift?