For the past month or so, Tom and I have been involved in a weekly podcast called artshare – http://art-share.org/ for more details and to pick up old instalments. It’s dominated by visual artists at the moment, I’ve been the only published fiction author in the mix, (quick amemnd, because it turns out Brigid is a published non-fic author and I didn’t know!) but I anticipate that changing. People can ask questions via the website, and we try to answer them. Thus far the focus has mostly been on practical, businessy things, but this week we’re going to be talking about inspiration. I’m prepared to bet someone will ask my least favourite question. Hence the pre-emptive grumble.
“Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s not hard to answer – “by being alive and paying attention”. What troubles me is the question itself. It pre-supposes a number of wrong things and I’d like to take a moment to pick that over.
1)It prioritises inspiration over graft. This will usually go with words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’. Most of all creativity is work, not a magical event that only happens to a special few. Anyone who puts in enough effort can do good and creative stuff. Without developing skills and understanding, and learning your craft, no amount of inspiration can help you.
2) It postulates inspiration as something that comes from outside. Every time we talk about where we get our inspiration ‘from’ we place the source of creativity outside of ourselves. Again, that’s about making it magically inaccessible. Only people who can go to that special other place get to bring back ideas, we are encouraged to think. Bullshit. There are more ideas out there and in your head than will ever be realised. Everything has the potential to be an idea. Inspiration is a process that happens inside you, grasping a potential idea and seeing what to do with it. There are more questions to ask and possibilities to chase than there is time even to consider, much less act on them. Inspiration is not a scarce resource, it is the water we swim in, we just need to realise that.
3) Asking where ideas come from suggests that getting ideas is difficult or unusual enough to merit thinking about. It’s easy. What is difficult, is getting good ideas, ideas that will work, that other people engage with, that can be made real and so forth. The difference between daydream inspiration and the vision to make something, is knowledge, experience and occasionally sheer luck. The more of this you do, the better able you become to spot a workable idea in amongst all the alluring rubbish. It’s also often the case that having just one idea is worthless – certainly from the perspective of writing a novel. You don’t need one idea, you need a whole load of ideas that can be woven together into something new.
Be alive, pay attention, do things, think about stuff. Experience, experiment, live. Then you will notice that there is more inspiration than you know what to do with, and after a while, you’ll start knowing which bits of that you might meaningfully run with. What matters is nurturing the inspiration you get, honouring your own vision, and putting in the work needed to turn ideas into realities. It troubles me enormously that we perpetrate myths about creativity and inspiration that are untrue, create unreasonable expectations of creative people, dismiss the actual work involved and discourage the majority from thinking inspiration is available to them.
There is no magical difference between successful creative people and everyone who wants to be an artist/musician/actor/author/dancer/poet. Ability is about effort and time. Success is ability, marketing, networking, people skills and taking good risks. Without the work, any idea of luck is irrelevant, and probably has more to do with getting those other ingredients all lined up anyway.