Reuse, recycle, renew!
Skin Tones in Watercolor
Zen and the Art of Inspiration
To Sleep Perchance to Dream
News for January
Zen and the Art of InspirationWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Happy New Year, O readers!
By the time you read this, November will be long past, but because of our buffer, I am writing this from the land of post-stuffing, and the month that happens to contain Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month.
Nanowrimo happens once a year when a bunch of people get together on-line and try to hammer out a 50K novel—or at least 50K worth of a novel—between the 1st and the 30th. You can read all about it at www.nanowrimo.com and make plans to sign up next year. It’s cool.
I participated in 2006, got about 20K in, lost interest in my story, and went back to my regular life.
Then, what with one thing and another and one video game and another and one bit of bad writing and another, I found myself standing on the metaphorical brink, waving my fist in the air and screaming “I have had enough of humorless tormented paladins!”
You, uh, don’t want to know how often I yell that sort of thing. But this was different. Suddenly, I had something.
And so, with my heart full of spite and my brain full of fire, I sat down and hammered out 50K in a little under a week.
It was really cool while it lasted.
Unfortunately... and this is the point of my column... inspiration doesn’t last.
Oh, it’s glorious while you’ve got it. Painting, writing, doesn’t matter. For an hour or a day or even a week, you’re giddy and snorting and stammering incoherently to your long-suffering friends and pounding at the keys or flailing at the canvas, and if you can get it pointed in the right direction, you can kick out an amazing amount of work. You feel like a bloody warrior-poet. You could tear down a brick wall, or at least nail a really cool manifesto to it.
And then it goes away again.
Sometimes it goes away for a long time.
There are lesser inspirations. There’s getting excited about an idea, or a medium, or an individual painting. But the real fiery manic oh-my-god-am-I-having-a-psychotic-break-or-what kind of inspiration is a rare thing. I think I get it maybe a couple times a year, tops, and when I do, I generally blow out a painting in a fit of absolute madness, and it usually turns out to be one of the good ones.
I would give my left arm and my eyeteeth and my hope of heaven to be able to tap it regularly.
But I can’t tap it at will. And—here’s the trick—hardly anybody else can either. Not reliably anyway.
And that’s probably a good thing, because if my husband hadn’t done laundry and dishes and shoved food in front of me for that week, you don’t wanna know the kind of shape I’d be in.
The real knack of any creative field isn’t inspiration. The fact of the matter is that if I only painted or only wrote when I was downright Muse-ridden, I’d have maybe five or six paintings and a handful of words to my name.
No, the real knack is to keep slogging on when the inspiration’s faded. The skills still have to be honed. The half-novel still has to be edited, and the other half wrung out of limp grey matter to join it. The canvases still have to be covered. The gleam in the eye of the chickadee ain’t gonna paint itself, brother.
Now, the temptation, of course, is to go “Oh, god, my muse has left, I am nothing, it’s over,” and then weep over your keyboard/canvas/chicken ranch. And despite my general allergy to whining, I can sympathize with this—oh, lord, can I sympathize— because frankly it’s not as fun to write or paint when you’re not inspired. Art is glorious when it’s working, when you’ve got the genuine, pounding, fire-on-the-mountain kind of rush going on. It’s better than sex or LSD, and I’ve done both. Heck, I’ve done both at once.* Inspiration still trumps it.
But most of the time it’s not like that. Art is hard, or everybody’d be doin’ it. Most of the time, to make it work, you slog. You spend whole days ripping a scene apart and rewriting it to try and make it work. You re-start a painting five times, and eventually give up. You spend weeks with your brain full of things that you could paint, and none of them that you actually care about enough to paint.
And the terror of inspiration is that once you get it, you start to think it should be like that all the time. We become inspiration-junkies. We need our hit of mystic fire, or we start asking unfortunate questions, like “Why am I wasting my time?” or “Why will anyone care?” and we go watch TV and sit around waiting for lightning to strike, instead of rolling up our sleeves and getting down to work.
Or we feel incredibly unproductive, because hey, we kicked out ten paintings and an epic poem last week—how come we’re still slaving on one painting this week? Are we slacking?
Or worse, we start to worry that because we don’t live in a constant haze of inspired-ness, we’re not Real Artists. Surely Real Artists live in a state of constant inspiration!
Hell, maybe some of ‘em do. At a guess, they’re the ones who died young.
The fact is, though, that the vast majority of great artists and great writers and everybody else spend most of their time working like dogs. Anybody can paint when the Muse is sitting on their shoulders and whipping them like a racehorse. But the work still has to get done when you’re tired or cranky or not to sure about this idea or would rather be staring out the window. That’s the work that’s important.
Be afraid of inspiration. Oh, sure, love it, cherish it, get down on your knees and beg for it—believe me, guys, I’ll be right down there with you, and I’ll bring my own kneepads. There are weeks when I would open a vein to get the Muse to speak to me, and I don’t even quite believe in her.
But be a little afraid of it, too, because like anything powerful, you can misuse it. And the main way you misuse inspiration is to think that you need it all the time.
*Not actually as fun as you’d think. Hard to maintain the proper mindset when things like the wood grain in the headboard are suddenly so fascinating. But remind me to do a column about art and drugs sometime.
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