The Myth of Inspiration

Paint BrushesAt the recent Intersections: Faith & the Arts Conference, we ended the final session with a panel discussion where the main speakers were invited on stage to dialogue with the other attendees. Derek Martin, moderator and William Jessup University host, kicked us off with an easy question: “Where does your inspiration come from?”

Of course, this isn’t an easy question at all. So it was no surprise when we responded with awkward silence. As the other speakers hesitantly weighed in, it gave me a chance to think about my own wells of inspiration. Yes, I listen to music, watch movies, read books (though not as many as I should), and experience art when I can. Yes, I try to hang out with creatives as much as possible, both in an unstructured, “let’s do coffee” kind of way and also in a structured “let’s make art” kind of way. And yes, I try to remain attentive to the still small voice that keeps me Kingdom-focused and other-centric. But when it came my turn to speak, these were not the answers I gave.

Instead, I told them the truth: my inspiration comes mainly from deadlines.

Most of my deadlines are fixed. Sunday comes once a week. Christmas and Easter come once a year. I write a blog post every two weeks or so. I release a CD project every three years. These deadlines—both fixed and self-imposed—are really what drive my creativity.

There’s a bit of a myth associated with the creative process, that inspiration happens in moments of Spirit-filled, ethereal enlightenment. We have these lofty notions that artistic inspiration happens when clouds part and rays of heavenly serendipity shower down on our blank pages and canvases and stages. Like the ancient Greeks, we await the muses to descend from Mount Olympus and stir us up. And though Spirit-filled inspiration definitely does strike the artist of faith, the truth is that most inspiration happens in the midst of hard work and slog-filled drudgery.

Ernest Hemingway was famously known for his strict spartan approach, writing deliberately early in the mornings and working while standing for long periods with only a pencil or typewriter.  Johann Sebastian Bach is not only known for the intellectual and artistic beauty of his music, but also for the prolific discipline which produced a dizzying body of work including a full 300 cantatas. And Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky once wrote, “We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

There’s an internal tension at work in the artist—a tension that pits our hard-won mastery of technique with the need for imagination and inventiveness. Art is born from such tensions. I think this is one of the things that differentiates the professional artist from the hobbyist. We create in the midst of this internal tension of expertise and inspiration, and thankfully, we can lean on our hard work and expertise when inspiration does not come. Deadlines become our inspiration because we have attained a level of excellence that allows inspiration to flow more easily. And when inspiration does not come, we can still perform at a high level.

In the midst of this tension, there is another dynamic at work. We must apply the very difficult discipline of releasing our artwork, even when it may not have turned out the way we wished. For we must make peace with our creations, allow it to exist outside of our preconceptions of it, in order to let it truly be what it is. As creators, we release our art to the Creator, who can use it quite apart from and beyond our limited imaginations.

Intersections Panel 2014

Madeleine L’Engle reminds us to listen and to be a servant of our artwork. It is the only way our art can become greater than ourselves. She quotes Jean Rhys, who reminds us:

“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Interestingly, when I revealed that deadlines were my muse, all the other speakers chimed in heartily in agreement. For all of us—as authors, musicians, painters, actors, directors, dancers, and all our ilk—are merely small streams and creeks which feed the lake.

[Lower photo (R to L): Derek Martin, me, Shane Grammer, and Lyn Lasneski respond to a humorous remark by Rondall Reynoso (not pictured).]

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5 thoughts on “The Myth of Inspiration

  1. There is an old adage that art is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. After being gone from the book publishing world for over a decade, my sixth novel will be released in a few weeks. Inspiration was vital to jump-start me, but dogged commitment got me to the end.

    1. John, wow, congratulations on your upcoming release. You’re absolutely right about authoring a book. Inspiration is usually the conception, but the actual pregnancy and birth is a lot of work!

  2. And as you know, Manuel, one’s greatest blocks are usually procrastination and doubt. I worked my tail off this winter but it was worth it, and I did it with a badly damaged shoulder after two horse wrecks last Fall on a wilderness elk hunt. But, I just got an endorsement from Shann Ray — whom I mentored just a little bit when he was young. He is now a professor at Gonzaga and won the American Book Award, the High Plains Book Award and Bakeless Prize for his book, “American Masculine.” Producing bears fruit. Sounds silly and repetitious, but producing something — not waiting for more lightning to strike — bears the fruit. By the way, Shann has another book entitled “Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity.” He is someone to keep one’s eyes on.

  3. My immediate response to this question is “the message”, what do people need to hear in this moment? I expect some see my method of creation a cop-out as it pertains to inspiration, explicitly creating in immediate response to another’s presentation of a message. To be honest, I think that of myself on occasion. Despite that my inspiration is always found in communication. I ask myself, what is being said, what do the people need to hear, and what role does my art need to play to complete that bridge? Like an addict feeding an addiction, once those questions have answers, I cannot rest until my work is complete.

    My inspiration to continue creating spontaneous, prophetic art (especially when I feel a failure on my efforts) can be summed up in my experience in this morning’s service, when the sight of my artwork a as the sermon closed brought the woman seated behind me to tears.

    Inspiring the world by connecting people with God through art. That is my inspiration.

  4. When I teach or write, I think about it ahead of time but do my best work when it is almost due. And as a writer sometimes I just have to start writing something, anything, questions until I see what I am thinking. And I am surprised at times what comes from my writing that I didn’t know I thought until I wrote it. I suppose it may be the same way with music.

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