Tag Archives: inspiraiton

Negativity and inspiration

Inspiration isn’t always a lovely, fluffy thing. Sometimes inspiration is born of rage, frustration, annoyance and other ostensibly ‘negative’ emotions. I’ve written some really good blog posts off the back of being bloody annoyed with people. It’s important to acknowledge how these emotions can drive creativity and that they are just as important as feeling all magical and wanting to do something beautiful as a consequence.

When it comes to social justice, rage can be a really important source of inspiration. The trick is not to let the rage run unchallenged. Being cross doesn’t of itself get much done. Getting cross and thrashing about in an unconsidered rage somewhere on the internet can do far more harm than good. It’s important to take the time for the rage. Sit with it. Hold it close. Work out what needs changing. Take the energy of the rage and turn it into a push for change. Fighting against things is seldom that effective. Fighting for things is much more productive. Let your rage show you what it is that you need to fight for.

Boredom, frustration and apathy tend to get a bad press. If all you do is wallow about in those feelings, they can trap you in inaction and a sense of powerlessness. However, you can also use them as a spur. Breaking out of limitations is often difficult, but the need to escape from those stuck feelings can be a superb motivator for taking the plunge and doing something new.

If you’ve written poetry, you’ve probably at some point done the kind of agonised bleeding on the page that comes from depression and heartbreak. Misery and setbacks are awful to go through, but working out how to meaningfully share your pain can be a good and restorative process. You may be able to comfort others by showing them they are not alone in their struggles. You will undoubtedly become more able to feel compassion and empathy, which in turn points the way towards the kinds of actions you might take.

Oysters make pearls as a way of protecting themselves from the discomfort of grit that gets in their shells. Some people, and experiences can impact in much the same way. Creating can be a way of coping. It can be a way of processing shit into gold. It can also make it possible to deal more gently and kindly with people who were annoying you.

Suffering is not essential for creativity. But at the same time, our creations are richer, more thoughtful and better informed when we’re able to draw more widely on experience and aren’t focused exclusively on nice things and whatever makes us comfortable. 

After the inspiration

Unhelpfully, creators are often depicted making their art in a rush of intense inspiration. In practice it doesn’t really work like that. The rush of inspiration is a wonderful thing, but the results are usually messy and need working on. After the inspiration comes the tidying up, and the working on whatever you’ve got.

What the rush of inspiration gives you is raw material. An idea, or a cluster of ideas for a thing. It might even give you a first draft, a sketch, a design. Then you have to sit down and develop it. The idea for a book has to be developed into a detailed plan perhaps, and then actually written. The poem written in the heat of the moment is probably going to need refining when your head isn’t on fire. The thing you drew in the heat of the moment might require reference material to develop into a finished piece.

It’s all too easy to become focused on the rush itself – which is an exciting part of the process. However, the idea that we can make a finished piece flat out from raw inspiration is so often a misleading one. Creativity is more than the initial rush of ideas and enthusiasm. The crafting part is just as much a part of the process. So is gathering your tool kit and learning how to use those tools. Learning about the form you are working in, finding your ancestors of tradition and your contemporary, living community is also an important part of the process.

For most people, the sudden rush of inspiration is a rare thing. If you wait for it to turn up then you could be waiting a long time for your art to happen. If you practice your craft skills, study your form, and work in more planned ways, you actually make more room in which inspiration can happen. It’s not just about becoming a wildfire of untamed imagination. Inspiration can be with you at any part of the process.


All forms of creativity require us to some degree, to engage with them as a process. Writing about bardic work tends to focus on the output of the committed creator, but the creative response of an audience is of great importance too. If we develop ourselves as co-creators, we support our own creativity and the work of others. Making something is of limited good if no one interacts with it.

Some media encourage us to be passive recipients, just sitting there soaking up whatever is thrown at us, not asked to think, feel, or imagine. As an audience, I have no time for this. It’s one of the reasons I do not own a television, as far too much content there seems aimed at a passive recipient. We mistake voting for engaging, all too easily. I do not enjoy the kinds of film that are all about turning off your brain and letting it wash over you, nor do I have much time for the kind of music written to act as audio wallpaper.

Yet at the same time, my experience of creative industries is that there’s a lot of pressure to create work that can just be absorbed passively by an audience that will have forgotten you even while it experiences you. I’ve heard the same kinds of stories from too many creatives: People don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want to have to think, this is too difficult, too demanding, they won’t like it.
Some of you do.

The creativity of the audience is something we could celebrate a lot more. When you are engaged with an innately less passive medium (radio, books, theatre) or with something that aims to make you engage, you have to bring yourself. Your life, experiences, emotions and ideas get into the gaps between the words, the spaces between panels, the empty back of the set where the castle ought to be… you fill it in. Your inspiration and imagination takes on the holes in the story, works out what happened before, and what happens after. If you’ve lain awake at night imagining alternative endings for Snape, or establishing the motivation for Lady Macbeth (what was that reference to killing babies about, anyway?) If you listened to Somebody that I used to know and pictured the people, the flat, the whole relationship implied by that song… you know what I’m talking about. It’s not a high art issue, it’s the willingness to consider the social implications of Calvin and Hobbes, and to otherwise step into what you encounter and do something with it.

No two people read a book in the same way. Toni Morrison once said something to the effect that the most important bit of a book, are the things you don’t say. Gaps matter. Holes, ambiguities and uncertainties are all invitations to the co-creator to come in and add their own bits. And so you give the lead man your father’s eyes, and that holiday home you had once becomes the location. You wonder what happened to Christopher Robin when he grew up, and you clapped your hands when Peter Pan asked you to.

Without the co-creator, the art is only half made.

Slowing down, again, more

Last week I had the pleasure of reading T Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of your Life (a splendid book, proper review here – http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/556296405). Some of it was eerily familiar. The words about taking on too much and running too hard, and deciding that just working in the morning is still really a day off, and all those twisted paths that lead to burnout. I’ve written repeatedly about my respect for the slow movement and the importance of slowing down, but reading Make Magic of your Life made me aware that no, I haven’t really done that thing properly. I run hard, and I fall over.

I notice that running hard and falling over is something I dream about, in a literal sort of way.

Then, reading, I found this…

“…larger patterns that turn into obsessions, sometimes leading to marriages, trips around the world, or engagements with projects that end up eating our lives, driving us in unhealthy ways toward narrower and narrower corridors of being, and sometimes leading to explosion or collapse.”

It gave me goosebumps. I used to have a rich dream life, but during my first marriage that dwindled away to a handful of repetitive nightmares. One of them involved me running down narrower and narrower corridors, up ever narrower flights of stairs until there was nothing left to do but jump out of a window, fly or die. In this book, T Thorn Coyle explores the importance of desire, of following the calling of your soul, and what happens when we run round because we feel we should, and when we let other people or our own habits of being pull the strings. I’m going to come back and talk about the desire aspect, but at the moment the slowing down is the issue. I’m so used to pushing my body to exhaustion and beyond, and have a long history of getting into situations where that was expected, and then not getting the hell out of those.

I can slow down. I can take more time for me. If I am ill, I can rest and Tom is brilliant about supporting me. I do not have to do everything now. But I’m still, in part, running down the dwindling corridors because I feel like I should. Even though I know it doesn’t work. I’m a creative person, and my ability to do good work is not about a willingness to grind myself into the floor and work ten hours a day seven days a week. That is not the environment in which creativity thrives. It is a way of becoming much less productive in a matter of weeks. One thing to do a long stint because my head is on fire with inspiration, quite another to sit here churning it out because I feel like I should.

I know, because I’ve tested it, that if I make a point of doing less, what happens is that I achieve more, and the quality goes up. Sure, I could churn out 10,000 words a day if I put my mind to it, but a good 9000 of them would be shit, and after a couple of weeks depression would descend and I wouldn’t even feel able to get out of the duvet. If I write a couple of thousand words that are the best words I could possibly have found that day, there’s a fair chance I end the day with 2000 words I feel proud of. That’s actually double the output. To do my very best work, I have to stop, wait, rest, incubate, think, study, experiment and imagine. I have to gather the raw material. It’s not just about coughing up words.

I do not want to keep running down those corridors.

Since the meltdown that hit me early this year, I’ve been doing better in terms of managing my energy, and improving the quality of my work. Win all round. But I have to keep fighting those little voices that demand more and faster. I am not a machine. There are things to be said about the care and maintenance of geese that lay golden eggs.

Make Magic of Your Life was an affirmation for me on this score. To see someone else; an author who achieves so much and is widely respected, talking about those same issues of overdoing it and burning out, makes me realise that I’m not being stupid in slowing down. It’s not laziness. It’s necessary. I have to fight the rhetoric of the factory floor and the production line to keep doing what I do, but it’s not just me. Slowing down is necessary. Not just for me, but for anyone who wants a life, and to be more than a cog in someone else’s machine.