How is it that sometimes I can be so full of inspiration and drive to create, but other times I can’t even get myself off the couch?
Why is it so difficult to remain in the state of forward momentum?
How could I reinvigorate that creative spark after the fire has died out?
I’ve tried to answer all of these questions, and more, in this two-part essay.
There is a door
On this side of the door is my normal daily life. “Adulting”. Doing stuff around the house. Eating. Sleeping. Working. Talking to my partner. Meeting people. Sitting on the patio. Reading nonfiction books and articles. Watching videos.
On the other side of the door is the world of my imagination. Some call it the dream space. (Dreams and imagination are made of the same stuff, after all.)
The door is invisible.
Until very recently, I wasn’t aware it existed. I don’t even notice when I pass through it. One moment I’m in this life, and then I blink, and I’m somewhere else in my head. Or I see the world in front of me through a filter, and a perfectly normal object looks extraordinary.
While I’m on the other side of the door, the normal world fades.
Time passes faster.
Deadlines seem less important.
Chores become irrelevant.
Bodily needs fade into the background.
It’s not practical to be on the other side for long. The more time I spend in it, the less connected I feel to people in my life. I don’t need anything or anyone, because I have everything I could ever want or need right there.
Or so I think.
The lack of sleep, proper food, and isolation from others isn’t healthy. If I spend a full week on the other side of the door, when I come back I get the worst reality hangover. Everything seems sharp, loud, and overwhelming. I feel trepidation whenever I enter through the door—I know the return will be unpleasant.
I never tried scuba diving, but I imagine the feeling is similar. No matter how wonderful the deep embrace of the sea is, eventually you run out of oxygen, and you have to go back. We’re not meant to be underwater forever. Nor are we meant to be on the other side of the door forever.
Sometimes I can’t find the door.
For most of my life I didn’t need to—I’d stumble through it without intending to.
People ask me how to go through the door, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone because it just happens when I least expect it. I don’t know how I do it.
That’s a bit of a problem if the doors don’t show up for a long time. I wonder why.
Am I doing something wrong?
Did I change, or did the door change, or did something else change?
Why has something that used to be so easy become so difficult?
Life did change.
Not just for me personally, but in general.
We’re never bored.
Silence and isolation that foster creativity are scarce.
It’s difficult to keep up with the demands of this life and keep the doors open. There’s always something in the way, blocking the doors, turning me away from them. Traps everywhere.
I’m looking for passwords.
Anything that would reveal the door and let me through when I want to go through.
I don’t know yet if it will work, but I hope so.
The practice of entry
When it comes to personal creative work (drawing, painting, writing, crafting, or whatever) I need to feel inspired in order to do it well. If I attempt creating when I’m not inspired, it just isn’t good. I don’t enjoy the process, and the result is not great either. (That’s just how it works for me, your mileage may vary.)
In my professional life as a graphic designer, I know how to create on demand. I start working even when I don’t feel inspired, because I have to! Sometimes I’ll sketch or fiddle in Adobe Illustrator for hours, and nothing good comes out of it. But I’ll keep going the next day, and eventually I’ll break through and inspiration will start flowing.
I don’t have hours to sit in front of my easel and just dabble with paint until inspiration starts flowing. It’s not even a matter of productivity—it’s the frustration of working in a way that doesn’t feel enjoyable at all. I’ll endure it for the money, but that’s not the way I want to work when my most cherished personal projects are involved.
I’ve accepted my sporadic output of paintings, books, and crafts. My creative process has seasons, and when I’m not in the right mental space to create, I’m just not.
But when I feel a bit burned out by work, and I could really use some spontaneous creativity, I can’t help but want to create more. It’s a natural desire. However, wishing for it still doesn’t mean I can just snap my fingers and do it. If it were that easy, every creative person would be prolific all the time. Given the amount of books written about creative blocks, we know it’s a bit more complicated.
The ass-in-chair approach isn’t effective.
Most of my earlier attempts at getting myself to work on a personal project had to do with sitting down and trying to make some progress, despite how I feel about the project at that moment. It wasn’t so successful. Remembering that feeling of frustration kept me from showing up repeatedly. I felt a strong repulsion to that process.
The way I was raised conditioned me to associate “activities I must do” with punishment, and it’s understandable that I rebel against it as an adult. Maybe someday I’ll be able to get over the repulsion and be like normal people. For now, I need to find alternative ways.
BJ Fogg’s lab experiments on habit forming demonstrated that feeling a positive emotion helps with establishing a habit faster than feeling unpleasant or neutral emotions. The feeling of struggle actually impedes the formation of a habit. When things feel easy and pleasant in the beginning, they’re more likely to stick. Once the habit is formed, a person can increase the challenge. (I wish I could confirm that this works, but I usually give up on a habit after 40 or 50 days.)
Another way I might go about it is to change the goal.
My old goal was to start creating.
My new goal is to feel inspired.
When I feel inspired, the doing takes care of itself. I don’t even have to try—inspiration takes the wheel and I just flow with it.
But the question is then how do I invoke that feeling? Do I have any control over it? And what if it doesn’t come?
I’ll answer the last question first: if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. I can’t always feel inspired, that’s impossible. Courting inspiration for just a few minutes is enough. Yes, feeling inspired is my goal, but I don’t have to reach it every time.
Next question: do I have any control over how I feel?
There is a concept in cognitive behavioral therapy called the Cognitive Triangle which highlights the interconnectedness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors:
According to this model, we can interrupt the cycle of Thinking > Feeling > Doing (in both directions) at any point by changing the easiest link.
- A depressing thought lowers our mood. An encouraging thought uplifts our mood.
- Scrolling down the social media feed can lower or uplift our mood for a short while, depending on the content. (That makes it risky behavior.)
- Taking several slow, deep breaths can improve our emotional state and bodily sensations.
Changing our emotions just by force of will may not be possible, but we may be able to affect them indirectly through thoughts or behaviors.
How can I start feeling inspired on demand?
- Thinking thoughts or saying/writing words that evoke a feeling of inspiration.
- Doing behaviors that bring me in touch with my inspiration.
What are those thoughts, words, and behaviors?
This may not be universal. I’m a big believer in finding what works for you. People are different, and just because something works fabulously for someone else, it doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. The problem I’ve run into is that a thing that has worked for me for a while, won’t always work. It might work at a specific moment in time, but then it stops being effective.
The most likely reason is that I get bored of doing the same thing. I’ll do something for a good while, and then I’m just done. I can’t do it anymore. It loses all meaning and I don’t see the point in continuing. After so many years of thinking it’s a problem I need to fix, I accepted that’s just how I am, so I need to work around it. (Sense a theme here?)
I used to think that maybe if I just found the right thing it would be different. But no. There’s no “one right thing” for me. That’s just my personality. I don’t want repetitiveness from my creative practice, I want the opposite: freshness, excitement, curiosity, learning, expanding. Something new every day.
That means I can’t rely on any single thing to get me in the right mood. I need an extensive list of potential methods that may or may not work on any given day. I started compiling that list in my visual journal, and so far I have about 40 ideas.
Yes, I alternate between Croatian and English when I write in my sketchbooks, because that's just how my thoughts come out.
Some of these come from techniques taught by Havi Brooks, Lisa Sonora, and Andrea Schroeder. I usually adapt stuff to suit my preferences. My dear friend J. also offered some brilliant suggestions that she finds very inspiring.
I also have my own techniques that I’ve been doing spontaneously for decades, without considering them “techniques”. I try to look at everything related to a feeling of joy, relaxation, curiosity, wonder, and playfulness as a clue to where the door might be.
Does it work?
By now you’re probably wondering how effective this method really is.
This decision to change my focus towards nurturing inspiration is a new development, so I can’t say how well it will work long term. I can only say what I’ve noticed in the past month.
Immediately I felt less guilty about not making art. I’ve developed more compassion and acceptance. I pay more attention to how my actions are contributing to or taking away from my inspiration. That doesn’t mean I won’t do activities that are hampering my inspiration, but I am conscious of how it affects my creativity.
For the first few weeks, I’d just be opening the page with my entry rituals, choose one or two to do, and I was done. Nothing visible happened during that time.
By the third week, I’d get an idea to do this or that drawing, or to watch a certain art class and follow the activity in my own way. That’s my average level of creative activity, so nothing special, but still a welcome change after a break.
By the fourth week I was drawing something every single day. I even started making more “substantial” art that takes a couple of days to complete, not just quick sketches. I was really and fully through the door.
I have a little theory about why this works.
My steam engine theory of inspiration
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and hinted at it in my article Integrating words and images:
“I find that if I get sucked into long writing sessions, I have no creative energy left for drawing that day. (That’s why Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” never worked for me.) I find writing enjoyable, but it uses up all my fuel, so I need to limit it if I want to draw and paint more. I was most prolific as a painter at a time when I wasn’t writing at all.”
When I indulge in activities that nurture my inspiration, it’s as if creative pressure inside me is starting to build. At first it’s unnoticeable. After a few days of continued practice of wooing my Muse, I can sense it. But it’s not yet strong enough to push me into motion. I need to keep up what I’m doing. Then I can really feel that pressure—I’m brimming with inspiration and it has to go out somehow.
The secret is to jump on it at the right moment, and not let it fizzle out. I also can’t risk spending it on the wrong things.
Most often I spend it on writing, which is not “wrong”, but I write too much. I have hundreds of unfinished (and some finished) unpublished articles. I don’t have to write another new article for the next 5 years, yet I always come up with more topics to write about.
If I release the pressure through another creative activity (like writing), it’s gone and I don’t have enough left for drawing and painting. To build the pressure, I must keep the lid on tight.
Similar to the beginning of a romantic relationship, when you send messages to one another all week, but won’t have a chance to see each other until the weekend. Once you finally meet in person, it’s like fireworks. The anticipation makes the passion stronger—but you need to meet before one of you loses interest.
That’s my working theory, at least. Your mileage may vary.
“A person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”
The other day I was in a creatives’ meetup, and the facilitator read this Jung’s quote which echoed the issue I touched on in the first part:
“The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. The lives of artists are as a rule so highly unsatisfactory, not to say tragic, because of their inferiority on the human and personal side, and not because of a sinister dispensation.
There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire. It is as though each of us were endowed at birth with a certain capital of energy. The strongest force in our make-up will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it.”
That is a bit dramatic, but he has a point. It’s hard to live on both sides of the door at the same time. Sometimes you’re more on one side, and sometimes you’re more on the other side. Each choice has consequences for the part of your life that you’re neglecting.
This challenge is reflected not only in my schedule, but also in my physical space. As I get deep into my creative process, I spread my art supplies across every flat surface in my studio. I need to clean up my desk before I can do client work. And I’m lucky to even have a home office entirely for myself!
Unless you live a monastic life where your personal art is your primary source of income and no one else has any demands on your time, the struggle will always be there in some form. We’re all doing the best we can. I’m just trying to strengthen my inspiration so that I’ll be less tempted to spend time on non-inspiring activities. It’s OK if I’m sloppy at it!
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this...
Have you found effective ways to bring more inspiration into your life? Please share your experience and suggestions in the comments. I still have room on my page to add more ideas :)
Have you struggled with balancing your daily obligations and your unpaid creative endeavors? If you managed to resolve it in some way, what worked for you? It would be wonderful if we were all able to compare notes, and try out new things.
Wishing you lots of inspiration,