Last week Owen Shifflett wrote a challenging piece entitled Consumption: How Inspiration Killed, Then Ate, Creativity. It stimulated thoughtful responses from photographers Chase Jarvis and David du Chemin.
Shifflett’s original post was directed at designers who have come through formal arts education and addressed the habit of seeking inspiration by drawing upon the work of others.
“When we over-saturate ourselves in other people’s work it short-changes our own creative development. For example, so many of the design inspiration sites on the web today serve up content in bite-sized chunks, resulting in a form of visual junk food. While the work featured on these sites can be some of the best our industry has to offer, the way that it’s displayed usually throws concept and story out the window in place or pure visual sugar. The story of a design (the problem and solution) are stripped away so only the visual execution is left to absorb. This view of design rots away the core foundations of our profession.”
For me, inspiration has to do with the realm of ideas and creativity has to do with the realm of activity. Inspiration is the thing that happens as move towards an idea; when we extract information from the world and realise there is a story that needs to told, a problem that needs to be solved, or melody that deserves to be sung.
Creativity is the application of inspiration – ideas and insights – towards a tangible goal. While our inspiration might be the realisation that sunsets are beautiful, creativity is the process of trying to realise a beautiful picture of a sunset, even if it takes us years to do so.
The important point for me is that we do no need fresh inspiration in order to be creative and we need it less the more tools, knowledge and experience we have at our disposal.
Inspiration comes of working every day
Waiting for inspiration is death. Shostakovich suggested composers should write every day, not so much because it moves you closer to completing a score, but because it reminds you where you are. By continuing to work an idea you leave yourself ready to receive the next one. Pablo Neruda also wrote every day believing who could not know if today would be the day he wrote his greatest poem unless he actually sat down to write.
This year I’ve gone through every project, score, sample, loop and file I’ve created since computerising my studio six years ago. Looking over work there are many more unfinished songs and incomplete ideas than tunes I’ve finished. I used to beat myself up over not completing things, but I’ve come to accept that’s the way it is.
“Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.“
Not every idea, or inspiration is a good one. Moreover, not every inspiration is one that resonates with our creative voice or one that we have the tools or skills to realise. I still imagine musical sounds and ideas that I can’t quite realise, photos that I lack the skill to create and stories that I struggle to tell.
A while back I posted a link to a brilliant series of videos from Ira Glass, of This American Life fame, on the process of creativity and storytelling (found via Garr Reynolds and well summarised well by Duncan Macleod).
Glass points out that when we launch into a creative “career,” our taste is often better developed than our skills. We have a better grasp of what constititues bad art long before we posess the ability to create good art – and, that realisation can be massively discouraging.
At this stage that imitation can be tremendously helpful. I always encourage guitarists to the solos of great players note-for-note. I do this because a) guitarists are notoriously lazy about sharpening their skills and b) executing musical ideas requires that you learn to make your fingers follow your mind (and your imagination’s “ear”).
It is easier to learn to do that when you are following someone else’s playing, because there is an objective right and wrong “out there” to compare yourself with. It’s just too easy to delude yourself into believing that when you play your own ideas what came out was what you meant to play.
If that sounds like hard work, well it’s meant to. Musicians talk about woodshedding, which is an allusion to locking yourself away in a cabin in the woods, away from all distraction, in order to hone your craft.
“And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren’t operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.”
I quoted those words in a post back in 2008, where I was trying to summarise some of what I’d learnt about the day to day struggle of being “creative.” Inspiration is an important and essential part of the creative life, but it is a realitvely small slice of it.