Tuesday TubeWatch: Creativity – Inspiration

By | March 31, 2009

How do we create? What takes us from the point where a story, or a song, or a painting doesn’t exist to a point where it does exist? How do we get a web site, or a new mathematical theorem, or a new game for our kids, where none existed before? What takes us from nothing to something?

There are many varied answers to that question, and many steps in the process(es). But the first step is invariably the idea – the inspiration.

But inspiration is tough to work with. It’s unreliable, really. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. When it is there, it’s frequently fleeting: an ember that needs to be coaxed into something usable. So how do creative people do it? How do they harness inspiration?

Those clips show three ways to handle inspiration [hey, Jon, check out the closed captions]. In the clips from Finding Forrester, action is used to drive that spark of an idea. In the first, it’s the pure action of typing, even in stream of consciousness, that Sean Connery’s character shows leads to ideas—just let the words flow and you’ll get something you can then work with and craft later.

In the second clip, he’s employing another method. When nothing is coming—when you’re blocked—it can help to use something else as a crutch just to get the juices flowing. If you’re drawing, trace or copy a favorite picture until you start seeing ways to change it to make it your own. If you’re designing a web site, start by looking at other web sites and beginning to recreate what they have, until you see ways to improve it or make it more unique. These aren’t meant to create the finished product immediately, of course, but just to get you creating… coming up with ideas… being inspired.

In the final clip, Bela Fleck got his inspiration in an epiphany, and needed to capture it before it faded away. He called his answering machine. He could start carrying an MP3 recorder. People who draw or write stories could keep a pencil and pocket notebook on hand. Find some way to hold on to those moments where inspiration comes unbidden.

I’ve had experience with all three of these entrees to creativity; I’m sure we all have, from time to time, whether we recognized it or not.

One of the creative things I do as a hobby is write music. I’ve had times where just playing on the keyboard, hitting notes almost haphazardly, eventually leads to a melody that becomes more defined—frequently more quickly than I expect. I’ve had times where I’m in the shower humming a song and it morphs into something completely different and interesting as I get into the flow of the music and start to define my own direction rather than following the original song. And I’ve also had times where I sit up in bed with a fully formed song (once even an entire orchestral piece) bursting in my head and I need to find some way to capture at least some of it. Typically in those cases I get to my computer in the next room and record myself humming or singing the tunes. A couple times I just had pencil and paper and had to guess at the notation on a hand drawn staff. (It’s frustrating to realize that I’ve lost more of those than I’ve captured.)

Back when I was trying more actively to write fiction, I had those same types of experiences. I used to carry around a notebook and a portable mini-tape recorder (in the days before easy digital recording) to try to grab my ideas as they came. In my day job, I’ve had inspirational moments of recreating our work flow to improve our output and I’ve had times where I needed to tease that inspiration into existence. No matter the medium, inspiration is a tricky prey.

It’s important to remember, though, that what Bela Fleck says is correct: once you’ve had the inspiration, then comes the craft. Taking that inspiration and transforming it into something fully formed and precise is a whole different animal. That’s what the character of Forrester says as well: don’t think on the first draft, just let the inspiration happen. The second draft is where the craft comes in.

But that’s a subject for another time.

How do you deal with inspiration? How do you track it down? How do you capture it once it hits? What is the weirdest situation you’ve found yourself in during those moments of inspiration that threaten to escape?

Here’s one of my weirdest: I woke up with an orchestral score for a scene of a non-existent movie going through my head. At the time, I had no way to capture that, and no skill for playing an instrument (still don’t have that). So I ran out of my room, grabbed my roommate at the time (who is an excellent pianist), and got him to play what I sang to him. Then he helped me jot down the basic notation. The whole time I was in my underwear.

Beat that. That’s today’s challenge. It doesn’t have to be musically related. It doesn’t even have to be something typically thought of as “creative” like acting, writing, or drawing. It could be a time you came up with a new way to approach something at work, for example.

Or you could just write to let me know I’m an idiot for sharing that story. Your choice.

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