Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”—Chuck Close, painter
For visual artists like Chuck Close and Ruan Hoffman and writers like Philip Roth, “inspiration” is a problematic word. To hear them tell it, the creative process requires unwavering Stoicism. But there’s something about their condemnations of “inspiration” that border on the extreme. None of them stop for a smoke? Go for a run? Toss a rubber ball like Paul Simon? Ever?
While there is certainly no substitute for hard work, we’ve all been there before: after all the research, the organizing of facts or references, maybe even after a substantial outline, we suddenly find ourselves stumped by an opening sentence or transition paragraph, by a visual metaphor or a headline to go with that great graphic.
What’s going on when we hit a wall and, in spite of our best efforts, are at an impasse?
The fascinating New Yorker profile of pickpocket Apollo Robbins opens with a story of Robbins meeting with magician Penn Jillette in Las Vegas. Jillette, who said he ranked pickpockets “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” had tried several times to goad Robbins into showing what he could do.
“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.” Author Adam Green continues:
Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped the pen from his shirt and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale….
Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.
In his popular TED talk (over 14 million views), Apollo Robbins discusses “the art of misdirection” that allows him to work in such close quarters. “When we think of misdirection, we often think of it as ‘looking to the side’ when often it’s the things that are right in front of us that are the hardest things to see. The things you look at every day.”
Penn Jillette and his partner, Teller, have done a late-night TV show segment in which they demonstrate misdirection—with a chicken. As Jillette explains:
There’s a term, misdirection, that’s used by laypeople a lot—a magical term, a term of art. And the way laypeople use it is wrong. Laypeople often use it as a synonym for distraction. Like, “Hey! Look over there,” and then you do something sneaky here and then they look back and the trick is done. That doesn’t fool anyone. The way we use misdirection is a “curating of attention,” giving the audience a story they can tell themselves that lets them not really know they were distracted.
It’s a hyper-focus on a certain spot where you tell yourself you are going to see just how this trick is done. You’re not about to look away.
In the same way, in the life of anyone engaged in a creative endeavor—graphic artist, filmmaker, copywriter, sculptor—we can find ourselves the unwitting participants in a magic trick I’ll call The Vanishing Great Idea.
You’ve prepared yourself in a hundred different ways. You may have even sketched out an initial idea. Then, “POOF!” It’s gone. Vanished. Wait a minute: was “it” ever there in the first place? I thought it was right THERE.
Part of the challenge, of course, is that counterintuitively—like the magic trick—we’re afraid to look away. Penn Jillette has that great phrase “curating of attention.” How might we curate our own attention to let the magic happen?
The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”—Agatha Christie
Taking a Fresh (Non-Judgmental) Look
When I polled our team at c|change about their ideas for breaking through a creative impasse, I was impressed with the range of activities they engaged in
Two c|change designers, Emily Tumen and Blair Toney, offered the same solution that apparently works for a lot (nearly 3/4!) of people: stepping away from the work and taking a shower. They even provided a link to research that posits WHY 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. (It may have something to do with “[t]he relaxing, solitary and non-judgmental shower environment.”)
[Brief aside: I once worked for a penurious agency owner who, noting the monetary potential of this creative undertaking, coached the whole company to BILL the client for any ideas we might have thought up in the shower!]
Senior Account Manager Carla Czesak related another strategy that may share that “relaxing, solitary and non-judgmental environment”:
The greatest way to feel inspired has to do with feeling connected and grounded. And when I’m off-balance, getting back there is always possible with nature—both in the woods and the ocean. Talking a walk on a trail, and seeing, hearing, smelling new scents, and the quiet unexpected. In Chicago it’s a bit more challenging to do that; you have to plan around it a little bit more, but it’s something that is always accessible and free. I love that!
Adrian Gershom, our Vice President of Marketing & Digital Strategy, finds that stillness in meditation and offered a link to Shunryu Suzuki’s concept of Beginner’s Mind:
Meditation is a great way for me to get inspiration and to open my mind in new and different ways… One of the central things that I think should be considered here is really that most ANY activity that does not involve a computer or mobile device. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every waking hour with content and stimulation and I think that it’s leading to a serious deficit in terms of the unoccupied time that allows our minds to be the most creative that they can be.
For me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing… People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments.”– Bob Dylan
A Handbook of Creative Ideas
Copywriter Joe Gustav referenced a book by Questlove, drummer for The Roots.
The advice that stuck with me the most is help on getting started (which is where I encounter the most writer’s block). The short of it is, do something tangential that gets rid of whatever else is swirling around your brain space and puts you in the right mindset to create. He reorganizes his (immense) record collection when he wants to write new songs—by color, by theme, chronologically by when he first heard them, whatever the flavor of the day is.
If I’m stuck, my equivalent (at least at work) is to reorder my Spotify playlists, or rename them, or find a new theme. It helps take my mind off deadlines or anything else nagging at the periphery and come with a clearer head to new tasks.
Once I’ve gotten started, my favorite advice to keep going is from Ernest Hemingway: “Always stop when you are going good and know what’s going to happen next.”
Do What You’re Not Good At
One of our favorite strategies for transcending a creative block came from Adam Tock, a c|change Digital Designer. As he tells it:
Art has always come fairly easy to me but when I DO hit an artist block, I like to pick up a guitar and write music.
I like to write music for two reasons:
- It’s a creative outlet not within design’s realm.
- I’m really bad at it.
Though it’s frustrating to persevere through something I’m not necessarily good at, I appreciate the humbling experience. It forces me to change up my approach and always seek new ways to achieve a “listenable” song. I can whip out a respectable illustration in an hour or so. A complete song, however, takes me weeks. That’s weeks of trial and error, disappointment, and calluses.
Surprisingly often, the answer I sought when hitting my initial artist block was answered while my mind was engulfed in music. Redirecting my thinking to an unrelated (yet creative) task is usually all it takes to light the right fire.
One of the things I like about Adam’s quote is its honest humility. One of the greatest impediments to any creative endeavor is Ego—and I’m pretty sure the lightness with which he approaches his music is also what makes him such a great designer.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”—Author Anaïs Nin
What Makes You Curious?
Working with creative people who can quickly identify and access ways to move through a creative problem is inspiring in itself. All of those responses came within hours of my sending out the question.
This year, at c|change, we’ve been exploring the concept of Curiosity, and what each of those approaches requires is an openness to something new. Curiosity requires that courage Anaïs Nin writes of. And perhaps the question to ask before stepping away from any creative endeavor is: what is making me curious? Where is the mystery here?
Of course, once we’re reinvigorated, recalibrated, and reoriented, there is the sitting down and doing the hard work.
Inspiration at the Edge of Brain Science
Brain imaging and other technologies have opened up new avenues of exploration for how the brain works—and how human beings create.
A recent article in Scientific American explored current research that creative professionals can more easily access certain areas of the brain associated with “distal imagination” – “distal” being “away from the center of the body” (i.e., the more distal the thinking the further away from ourselves we are able to imagine.) To put it in more scientific terms:
By using the dorsomedial part of what scientists refer to as the brain’s “default network,” creative people can stretch their imagination to more distant futures, places, perspectives and hypothetical realities. The default network consists of a group of interconnected brain regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the angular gyrus and the hippocampus. These brain areas talk to each other when we daydream, recall memories or think about the intentions of others. Previous literature suggests that they may also play a role in envisioning the future.
The article goes on to describe an experiment done testing a random group of participants, a second group of individuals who had demonstrated “some sort of expertise in creativity—writers, actors, directors and visual artists, who had received awards in their fields,” and finally a third group of “equally successful finance, legal and medical professionals.”
Not only did the researchers find that the second group outperformed in written responses of how vividly they could imagine certain situations, but brain scans with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that only the second group “engaged the dorsomedial default network when imagining events further in the future.”
The fascinating implications of this research are that, like professional athletes who develop and train a certain muscle group to outperform others, individuals can develop their imagination and creative thinking through hard work—and yes, maybe even a little inspiration.