“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” – Thomas Merton
Did you ever wake up in the morning incredibly inspired for no apparent reason? This happens to me all the time, but too often the inspiration has no practical focus. I find myself bouncing from one thing to the next and accomplish nothing, well usually nothing. The last time this happened I was so overwhelmed that I decided the best thing to do was to just write about my condition. The resulting achievement is this essay.
Why is it that you can go for days without any creative inspiration at all, and then it all comes flooding at you like an unstoppable tidal wave of energy? If we could answer this question, maybe we could more effectively control the flow of inspiration and energy a little better and be more productive.
It seems to me that inspiration flows best when I take a few steps away from any projects I am working and do something completely unrelated to those projects. What usually works best for me is to shut everything down for a while and immerse myself in the creative efforts of other people.
In the past few days I decided to do a whole lot of listening. I listened to a complete broadcast of a concert by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, a couple of progressive rock albums in their entirety, a collection of Spanish guitar solos, and some Beethoven piano sonatas, and I also listened to an audiobook recording of a couple episodes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”
Since it was the holiday season and I had more time off from teaching than usual, I also did a fair amount of TV watching. I watched a couple hours worth of the old Peanuts cartoons on TV by the great Charles Schulz. I remembered the show from my childhood, but haven’t seen an episode in years. During one of the episodes there was a lengthy section where the piano obsessed Schroeder launches into a Beethoven piece. The cartoon then went into full blown music video mode with strange and beautiful artwork fading in and out in synchronization with the excellent piano playing of Vince Guaraldi. I remember thinking wow, they don’t make cartoons like this anymore. It was a feast of sound and color. The understated animation, the characters, the dialog, everything was so out of place when compared with the popular cartoons of the day. When compared with the more recent cartoons such as “South Park” “Beavis and Butthead” and “Family Guy”, the Peanuts cartoons really stand out as being timeless.
But my intent is not to critique the value of music recordings or television cartoons in this essay.
In thinking about why inspiration comes all at once, I think it has something to do with the ability to step back from your own work and absorb the creative work of others. In this case I spent a few days doing just that. I listened to music, read some books, watched a little TV, and even went for a walk and took in the mood that the low, dark clouds created as they moved across the autumn sky. This all sinks in and mixes together and soon you find yourself inspired by it all to sit down and create something yourself; something that probably reflects, however abstractly, what it is that you have just taken in.
This is an important thing about creativity; and that is that it can’t flourish until you step back, away from your own work and your own thoughts and consider the work of others. Someone once said “to be a good writer you have to be a good reader.” This makes perfect sense and is true of the other arts like music and painting. It has been said many times that in order to be an effective speaker or musician, you need to be a good listener. To be a good painter or visual artist you have to train your eye to see in new ways.
But how do we make sure that we are doing enough listening to others? One key is to make sure you save enough time in your busy schedule to take in the arts. Everyone knows that we live in a fast paced world, but in order to be creative beings we need to reserve time to just sit back and listen, look, smell, taste, experience the world around us. This is nothing new, but it is something we always seem to forget, we find that even though we might find the time to be creative, if we haven’t found the time to participate in the creative work of others, we will sit staring at a blank page, or at the the piano keys with absolutely nothing of interest to say.
So step back. Find a way to take some time off and listen to your fellow artists. A book, an article, a song or a painting is never complete until it is read, heard or seen. By actively participating in the work of others, we complete a circuit that is the essence communication. This type of communication is like food or water, and it is essential not just for personal growth as an artist, but for our growth as human beings.