Whenever there is inspiration, which translates as “in spirit,” and enthusiasm, which means “in God,” there is a creative empowerment that goes far beyond what a mere person is capable of.
That’s a quote I’ve often repeated to people from the German author and teacher Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 28 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Acceptance and Change, but today I want to get into talking about inspiration and rituals.
So what exactly is inspiration and how are we supposed to get inspired? Well, first perhaps we need to look at the word itself, inspiration, like Tolle did in that quote I read at the beginning. To get more academic first. Here’s what The Oxford English Dictionary says of the noun inspiration is:
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; the quality of being inspired, especially when evident in something; a person or thing that inspires; a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea; the divine influence believed to have led to the writing of the Bible; the drawing in of breath; inhalation; an act of breathing in; an inhalation.
So whatever we that noun meant, there’s probably a few more things we need to understand about it. Literally, from the Latin, inspiration means “to breathe into” from the verb inspirare.
So, breath is life and the creative life comes through inspiration. Carl Jung writes about this in his autobiography when he remembers carving wood in the 1920s. Here’s a bit of what he wrote:
Only while I was doing this work did the unconscious supply me with a name. It called the figure Atmavictu – ‘the breath of life.’ It was a further development of that fearful tree of my childhood dream, which was now revealed as the ‘breath of life,’ the creative impulse.
The artist, the creator breathes in the inspiration. The “breath of life” then goes into a wood carving, musical instrument or invention or onto the page or canvas. From a biblical sense you could say God breathed life into the world, into worlds.
This kind of talk about inspiration makes some writers and artists I’ve met want to thump their head off a wall. A lot of the time they see inspiration as anything but a magical process, calling it only part or even irrelevant to the creative process. As William Faulkner once said:
I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.
You can go online and find countless writers, articles and creative people commenting in much the same vein, saying that the creative process is almost mechanical, like a mechanic greasing your car (E.B. White) or an engineer thinking about an engineering problem (Doris Lessing).
So, yes, getting to that inspired point is work. But if it is then that means we can all get there, no? Or couldn’t it be both at the same time, work as well as allowing inspiration or “spirit” to come into us?
Stendhal says something along the same lines:
Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.
Of course this is easier said than done. The mental walls of procrastination enjoy waiting instead of working.
American writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how frustrating this process can be. Instead of using the word inspiration though, she replaces it with “genius”:
… my creative process is — I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too. You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?
So, to get inspired we need to make time, find space, be consistent, and have the intention to find inspiration by working. Only then does inspiration come, when we’re not expecting it, but in a timeframe when we’ve decided to work. Also, if we put in the work it will come to us when we aren’t working, when walking as I talked about for Nietsche and others, or daydreaming, or doing yoga. But if we haven’t opened ourselves to the work daily, or consistently then those flashes of inspiration can’t come as often when we’re not in front of the canvas, or computer or blank page.
So, why do we not talk about inspiration more? A physicist who came to La Muse – again to anyone coming to the podcast on this episode, that’s the retreat myself and my wife Kerry ran for nearly twenty years in the south of France. Anyway, one summer this physicist told me people don’t talk about inspiration because we’ve become so bogged down in science, not what he called ‘the spirit of science’. He went on to say how all the great physicists and scientists he knew about were some of the most inspired creators, but that science took ownership of them when they were dead, forgetting the imaginative leaps they’d had to take to arrive at new creations. I still remember him smiling and saying we should all be as inspired as Einstein and quote “live life as if everything is a miracle.”
The miraculous is suspicious to the academic, the scientist, but whether they trust in it or not, inspiration exists, like quarks. And like a quark, every time you look at it, it disappears. You can be an agnostic, an atheist, an evangelist, but the thing to understand — inspiration exists. From my experience, and the experiences of the majority of the creators I’ve met, that ineffable flow is there, and the last thing you want to do is analyze it. It’s there, it’s beautiful, and it serves a purpose.
The problem arises when people start to try to quantify it. It’s never quantifiable. That’s why when you ask creators how they came up with what they created they kind of look at you and say, “Well, it just went there”, or “That’s what seemed right”, or “That’s where it fit”. They’ll tell you a part of where it came from, what event or moment inspired it, where they came up with it, but not exactly where it came from. This is why a lot of creators are resistant to even the word inspiration, like Faulkner earlier, as they don’t like to question their process, where their inspiration comes from. They get uncomfortable. A lot of the time they think it’ll take away the magic, the mystery of the process, jinx their creative flow.
Where did the painting, idea, song, line, invention, business idea come from? There’s no answer that seems compatible with everyone accept that it comes from somewhere, that little voice, that lightbulb moment. You never know where it’s coming from, accept that it comes from within you, and not by thinking about it, but by being “in the zone”, or meditating on it. Then it appears.
So, what’s your word for inspiration? The unconscious, the numinous, “thinking”, meditating, contemplating? Countless creators have been inspired by the Muses, God, the Unconscious, Mother Earth. The noun doesn’t matter. What matters is that we know what it is. The word I use to describe it is inspiration. To you it could be Mind, a Higher Power, the Universe, quantum mechanics, unicorns. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s yours.
For Blake it was the “holy spirt” — again that word spirit. As he put it:
I myself do nothing. The holy spirt accomplishes all through me.
For Brahms, the word was God. Oscar Wilde looked to the stars:
We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
The spiritual, the ineffable, in contemporary society has been co-opted, like the word “creativity”, which I talked about in earlier episodes. It’s been co-opted by part-time yogis, meditation experts and motivational coaches, to mention a few. They talk about spirit and spirituality as something special, precious, unattainable. To me, real spirit and spirituality is found in inspiration. We have to reclaim this word of spirit, inspiration, because when someone says to me “I was inspired to…” invent, write, build, cook, crochet, then I know I’m listening to something deeper than thoughts, deeper than emotions. I’m listening to someone who’s inspired, and I love being around inspired people. They make me want to create even more. They energize me with their inspiration, literally and figuratively.
I could be walking in the woods when a chapter idea comes to me, or cooking for my family when I realize what a character is supposed to do. It’s a joyful experience, as if a weight gets lifted, a sigh of relief inside. Oftentimes I’ll actually take a deep breath and sigh, and smile. Then I grab a notebook before it disappears.
It can also just come in the most bizarre ways. I talked about the wonderful Stephane Hessel in one of my first episodes, Why Create and What is a Creator? when talking about how important it is to create. I want to repeat again today, that quote of his:
To create is to resist; to resist is to create.
I was in resistance to inspiration when it came to writing. After being told the story of my good friend’s father, his concentration camp experiences, uncles in the resistance and much more I told her that’d make a wonderful story. She looked at me and said I should write it. I resisted. Said I’d stopped writing. Then I got home that evening after driving for hours and found Hessel’s Time For Outrage in our mailbox. I had completely forgotten about it, thinking it was lost in the post, as I’d ordered it months before. Another story about a Jewish survivor and that quote again, talking about resistance and creation. I was resisting. So I gave in and start writing the story that eventually became a novel inspired by both their lives.
As soon as you want inspiration it will not come. It can’t be forced. You do the work, follow your process and rituals and it will come. To open to inspiration, we have to train our minds to shut up, to encourage our emotions to remember, and open our in-sides to the love of doing what we need to do.
We have to get out of our minds (thoughts) to get to the heart (emotions) of what it is we love (inspiration) to create. This is not a want, it’s a need. A want is the mind again. A need is what we love.
Spirit’s the suggestive voice, far quieter than thoughts, and even more powerful than emotions. Indeed, as Tolle said at the beginning, this is what inspiration means: “in spirito”, in spirit, when the spirit or soul speaks from inside you. It doesn’t talk to us inside our head. It comes from a deeper, quieter place on the in-side of us which we “hear” in our head.
Usually like this: “It just came into my head,” or “It suddenly hit me that…,” or “It was like it came out of a dream,” or “It came to me out of the blue,” or “It suddenly dawned on me.”
Great creators open the door into what they “hear”, into their spirit, through their creations. Simply think of van Gogh, Tolstoy, any of the Buddhist poets and artists, Rumi, St. John of the Cross, the list goes on and on. They all speak of spirit, write of it, try to paint it.
So, we don’t know where inspiration comes from, but there’s nothing like reading back over something you’ve written to wonder: “Where the hell did that come from?” “Did I write that?” That’s when you know you were inspired.
Another thing: inspiration is not all of creation. It’s a starting point. It can connect great pieces of work. Help close them. When I talked about the description of the dancer ‘lost’ in the dance in episode 17 – The Dancer and the Dance and Doing What you Love – I was trying to capture that passionate, disconnected, out-of-the-world mental state of being when one, a creator, is caught up in the creative process, a rising in some creators to something close to the religiously ecstatic, like the Whirling Dervishes in dance. Those are the magical moments in the act of creation – unforgettable when they happen, like being struck by lightning. But this could only be the prefatory shape, the beginnings. When the imaginative fire cools and the coldness of thought has to reassess, question where this creation is going, how to clarify it, make it whole. As an Australian friend reminded recently by quoting Yeats’ gravestone epitaph:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman pass by.
Or another analogy he used, the small locked gate of C S Lewis which leads through the Wall into the garden of the Rose, the Imagination.
Mozart, in one of his letters, talked about this kind of fire when talking about growth and inspiration. He wrote about when his “soul is on fire with inspiration”. You mightn’t form the whole thing in your head at once like Mozart, but the idea of the fire of inspiration being something that grows inside is very important. Like a garden, you plant the seed, and the plant eventually flowers as it’s nourished. It just takes time to blossom, from inside. And the best way to nurture our inspiration? Through rituals.
No. You don’t need to sacrifice an animal. But maybe you need to sacrifice something. You do need to have non-negotiable things, which means you need to have rituals, routines.
Of course, routine is not exciting. It’s repetitive, and repetition breeds frustration. It’s boring. But if you want inspiration to appear, you have to appear first. To be able to be bored. You can’t just expect to get inspired. So, the second question to ask after understanding your word for inspiration is what is your creative routine?
If you don’t have one then you need to create one. It means being predictable. Get yourself into your office, your studio, your shed at the same time, or for the same amount of time, or on the same day, consistently.
For example, some composers get into composing by starting with a Bach piece. Some writers start transposing notebooks into the computer. Others start where they left off the day before: Hemingway, Steinbeck. Hemingway also stood and wrote, then got his stuff typed out. Again this is another habit or ritual to get him into his daily work. Thomas Edison, before he went to bed every night had the ritual of asking advice from his subconscious, the question he was trying to answer that day, before he went to sleep. Why? Because he’d have his answer the following morning.
Engage the esoteric. Switch from your left to right brain by lighting a candle, or repeating a mantra. Have a literal invocation, as Homer did to the Muses. Rituals and routines work. They allow inspiration to show up, to flow, and afterwards to make sense and art, a creation, out of inspiration.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a German author, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. Literally, this one means:
An empty sack does not stand.
Ní sheasaíonn sac folamh
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. It aint no radio show. There’s no advertisers etc. paying for this, which is great because nobody’s telling me what I should and shouldn’t say or think. Independent. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and do the work but above all be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.