Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reintroducing the Rock Songwriter's Deck

A year ago this blog introduced The Rock Songwriter's Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song.

There are many different ways to write a song, and trying different approaches is the fastest way to get fresher and more interesting results from your songwriting process. The Deck isn't a catalog; it's a cookbook. Try some of the recipes that we've posted thus far, and you will at least challenge your creative skills and learn something about your unique creative source.

We have eleven cards left to deal out in this weekly series, and it will resume tomorrow with the Three of Diamonds.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Inspiration is perishable

Inspiration is like fresh produce. It's best if you get to it as soon as possible. If you put it aside for three days, it might not be worth anything by the time you get back to it.

If your schedule is perpetually jammed, so that you never have time to follow up on inspiration, you're missing out on the best things in your life. Working hard all the time will not make you successful, but inspiration will. Make room in your life for it. And when it shows up, be ready.

"Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work." — Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Collect things that inspire you

Often, one inspiration leads to another one. If you want a life full of inspiration, you can start with any inspirations you have, no matter how small they are.

One thing that's easy to do is to collect things that inspire you, that is, things that help you feel a positive sense of hope and possibility. These might be quotations, pictures, and examples of creative works that you admire and want to imitate.

If you fill your visual environment with things that inspire you, and hide away all the things that don't inspire you, you'll be living in a more inspiring world. This will not just make you feel better about things; you'll also have more brilliant new ideas.

Some of us were taught to be rationalistic and pragmatic about functional things. Take pencils, for example. It doesn't matter what color a pencil is on the outside, as long as it has black graphite on the inside. But style can be just as important as function, in the world of inspiration. If yellow pencils make you feel like you're in some dreary elementary school, and if metallic red pencils make you feel more alive, then you can afford to throw out your yellow pencils and buy some shiny pencils that will inspire you.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A team with a dream

Inspiration is usually something that a single person carries. It's hard to explain the substance of an inspiration to someone else so that they can truly share it. At best, if you have a proven track record of successful inspirations, you might find that people will to follow your lead even though they can't exactly see where you're going.

But there are rare cases when a team of people share an inspiration and work together on it. If you are in such a team, don't take it for granted. These teams don't come together very often and usually don't last very long. Working together on an inspiration puts a lot of extra tension on relationships. Even with good people who have the best of intentions, it may take a lot of care and diplomacy to keep the team together and keep the project on track. If your team blows up and the project falls apart, try not to judge your teammates too harshly.

On the other hand, if you have a team that works together smoothly and handles ups and downs over a period of years, you have a powerful advantage in the world. Keep that team together!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Addicted to inspiration?

Inspiration is a natural high. I like to say that inspiration is "safe and effective if you use it as directed for its intended purpose," as an occasional performance enhancement for creative work. As a drug-like experience, inspiration is naturally self-limiting. It remains unpredictable and beyond your control.

But some people manage to gain some control over their inspiration and use it to get intense highs regularly. Used this way, inspiration is a dangerous drug, and it can lead into a self-destructive spiral.

It's sobering to look at "Are you an addict?" questionnaires and see how many addictive behaviors apply to artists in the throes of their work. A big creative project can knock your life out of balance, and it's good to bring those phases to a close as soon as you can and take the time to re-balance your personal life. Don't go straight from one huge project to the next.

If you find yourself saying "I couldn't live without my creative work," but your "work" occurs only during episodes of intense inspiration, then your creative life is in a very unhealthy state.
The best way to keep it clean: Be committed to your art through the highs and lows, not just through the highs. For example, work on your art (at least a little bit) every day, whether you feel inspired or not.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inspiration beats "design by committee"

In every area of human activity, the best new things are created by individuals and small groups of people guided by inspiration. And most of the other less-exciting new things are created by larger groups of people through a systematic design process, driven by perfectly reasonable values and methods, such as logic, analysis, market research, and consensus.

Its intentions are good. Its processes are perfectly reasonable. Requirements are gathered, standards are defined, plans are put in place, and quality is checked and controlled.

There's no rational explanation for why systematic design performs so poorly by comparison to inspiration. You might even say it's an indictment of rationality itself. With such a thoroughly systematic process, it's hard to imagine how failure is even a possibility.

For whatever reason, systematic design, even when bolstered by enormous budgets and other structural advantages, struggles to create anything new of real value. It continues to be embarrassed by the better results of inspired newcomers, outsiders who often don't even seem to know what they are doing, but who come up with something better nonetheless.

Maybe inspiration itself is biased against Goliath and loves a spunky underdog. Maybe the irrational, unpredictable nature of inspiration leaves no place for it in an established, successful, mainstream enterprise.

Whatever the explanation, you should know this: If you're in touch with inspiration, you have a strategic competitive advantage. The most powerful people in the world are afraid of you. Even if you seem to face long odds, don't sell yourself short. Real inspiration is rarer than you think. Make the most of it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The world wants to help you

In yesterday's post, I explained why you don't need to be paranoid about your inspirations. In fact, the truth is approximately the opposite: If people know that you are driven by inspiration to accomplish a specific goal, many of them will feel inspired to help you.

It's not so much that they like and support your goal. It's really just that people like to see someone who is genuinely inspired about something.

It's similar to the way people like to see that someone is genuinely in love. There is something uplifting about being in the vicinity of someone who is in love or in the throes of inspiration — even if they feel that you are naive and unlikely to succeed. They love to see that you haven't given up on something that's important to you.

If you can make it clear to people what you hope to accomplish, and if they can see that you are sincerely driven by inspiration, and not trying to sell them something or trick them, people will do surprising things to help you accomplish your goal. Even if they don't understand why your goal is important to you, or even if they disagree with it, people will be moved by your sincere efforts and will do what they can to help you succeed.

So if your inspiration seems impossibly big, ask yourself what kind of help might bring it back into the realm of possibility. There is a whole world, jaded by manipulation and fakery, that still wants to believe in magic and love and authentic inspiration.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Don't get paranoid about your idea

People who are struck by inspiration sometimes become secretive and paranoid. They think that people everywhere are trying to steal their great idea.

In practice, there is no shortage of ideas in the world, and remember this: only you can see the gleaming halo that surrounds your specific idea.

Even if you wanted to give your idea away, it's not a sure thing that anyone else would see the value in it.

It's a good idea to keep your inspirations private anyway, as I explained yesterday. But unless your previous ideas have consistently made hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not likely that spies are hiding in the ductwork trying to nab your new idea.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Inspiration is a personal thing

When you are inspired by an exciting new idea, don't be surprised if other people don't get it. You might explain your new idea in detail to your family and friends, and feel puzzled and disappointed that they don't share your enthusiasm. At best, they might humor you or offer a general expression of support.

The fact is, they don't see what you see. Inspiration is a vision of a possibility, and it's rare when you can explain the possibility to others and get them to share your excitement.

Artists are generally advised to keep the details of their exciting inspirations private, at least during the early stages of a project. It's discouraging enough that people won't understand what you find so exciting about an idea. But there are some people who will actively try to undermine your self-confidence and convince you to give up on your idea and abandon your project. These might be people who resent the amount of time that you devote to your creative life, or people who envy the level of vitality and enthusiasm that your artistic pursuits bring you.

In particular, people who once were artists themselves, and who had their personal dreams crushed, will feel an urge to crush your enthusiasms in turn.

Don't give them the chance to pour cold water on your ideas. Keep your inspirations private, or share them only with people that you know you can trust.

When your idea is fully formed, then you can go ahead and show it to other people to get their reaction. Then, people will have a chance to see what you saw — because you can actually show it to them. They still could love it or hate it, but at least they'll be reacting to your creation, not reacting to their preconceptions of you as an artist.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Where to find inspiration

Where do you find inspiration? This is one of the most-asked questions about inspiration, and if you've been following this blog, you probably realize by now that it's not even the right question to ask.

First, you don't find inspiration. Inspiration finds you.

Second, it's not about what place you're in, or what you're looking at. Inspiration is not an object that you discover. Inspiration is a way of seeing — a way of seeing what's not there but should be there. Inspiration is a state of mind, a willingness to discover something new that doesn't exist yet, but could exist in the future through your own creative actions.

If you have that state of mind, it doesn't matter where you are. You can find inspiration anywhere.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How to cultivate inspiration

One of the themes of this month is that inspiration is capricious and uncontrollable. But this doesn't mean that you have no power at all over inspiration. In fact, new inspirations tend to be closely related to things that you've been paying close attention to, things that you've been studying intently, and things that are very important to you.

If you want inspiration to help you out in any particular area, then the thing to do is saturate your mind with information and unanswered questions from that area. Work with it, study it, struggle with it, write about it, dream about it.

There's no guarantee of how long you'll wait for inspiration and what exact form it will take, but it will eventually show up.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Inspiration is irrational

Inspiration was involved in creating some of the best things ever created. But there are many examples to show us that the value of these things was not appreciated at the time of their creation, except by the person involved in creating them, a person possessed by inspiration.

When inspiration tells you to create something, there usually is no good logical explanation for the value of what you're creating — or, if there is, it's just that you're a good salesman, and you've made a convincing rationalization for the value of your work-in-progress.

And not all inspired works turn out to be big hits. Not all of them find a place in history books. As the creative artist seized by inspiration, you have no way of knowing if your work will be valuable or not. Inspiration undermined your objective judgment. And there's no one else who can tell you, because no one else fully understands the vision that you see. There simply is no rational way to tell whether you're on a fool's errand or creating a timeless masterpiece.

If people say you're crazy, and that your work is misguided, there's no way to prove them wrong. The best you can do is complete your work, and hope that other people recognize it as something uniquely valuable.

This great level of uncertainty is one of the things that makes the creative life feel stressful and lonely. At times like these, it's good to be connected with a community of artists who understand what it's like to be driven by inspiration, and who can offer encouragement and support.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Inspiration is specific

Inspiration is very particular — not about everything, but about some specific detail. Even if you can't put into words what an inspiration is looking for, you definitely know whether you've gotten it right or not.

This sense of clarity is one of the things that makes inspiration so valuable to creative artists. Creating something new involves stepping into a daunting realm of infinite possibilities. With so many options, how do you decide what to create? Inspiration narrows the field of possibilities. By insisting on some specifics and making those items the centerpiece of the project, inspiration makes the artist's decision-making process more manageable.

I've repeatedly compared inspiration to love, and the comparison holds here as well. When you fall in love, it's with one specific person. Everything about that person is exalted, and there's no point in asking you to consider some other person instead. Perhaps inspiration could be described as "falling in love with something that doesn't even exist yet."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Stay on this road

Inspiration is kind of like a temperamental friend. If you ignore inspiration, it feels neglected and wanders away. But if you grab onto it too earnestly, you might make it uncomfortable and drive it away.

With practice you can find a middle ground, appropriately engaged with inspiration. You can stay close without stepping on it.

With a little practice, you'll see that this is not a desperate balancing act, not at all like walking a tightrope. It's more like staying on a road while you're driving. You're not crashing through the guardrail on the right, nor are you tumbling into the ditch on the left. It's really not hard, as long as you just pay a little bit of attention and keep your hands on the steering wheel.

You can learn to roll with inspiration for mile after mile. It's a great way to travel!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The missing key to success

Book after book tells you how to be successful. First you get a clear idea of what your goal is. Then you get a mental picture of the goal. You see as if it's already complete, in vivid detail, and with an emotional tone of excitement. Then you muster a state of confidence, brush aside all distractions, and work relentlessly until your goal is achieved.

This advice is somewhat accurate, but it's completely unhelpful! These success authors have gotten things completely backwards! What they're describing is a state of inspiration. People who act from inspiration are more confident and more effective than other people. They have clear goals, they get more done with less effort, and naturally they are more successful in life.

This misguided success formula comes from authors who have carefully studied the most successful people they can find. It's no surprise that the most successful people are all driven by inspiration. But it doesn't help you at all to have a success plan that begins, "Step 1: be inspired." You can't willfully enter a state of inspiration — or if you could, you would already be very busy and successful, and you wouldn't be reading a self-help book!

If you've heard this success formula before and tried unsuccessfully to follow it, don't feel bad. No one can! But there is something you can do: Learn to recognize when inspiration is at hand, and make the most of it every time, for as long as it lasts.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don't wait for inspiration

You don't get to pick what inspires you. Inspiration is rarely interested in the things that you feel you have to do. It's always something else, something that's not on your list.

If you find yourself just killing time, waiting for inspiration to join you so you can get started, you might as well give up. Inspiration never shows up when you're specifically looking for it. It's like the watched pot that never boils.

But if you just go ahead and start working on the things you have to do, you might find inspiration quietly joining you. It just sneaks in while you're not looking.

So don't wait for inspiration. For all you know, inspiration might be waiting for you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Inside every impossible dream...

Exciting new inspirations sometimes present themselves in forms that are literally impossible.

You don't have to set out to do the impossible, and you don't have to reject the inspiration either. Have faith that every inspiration comes to you for a good reason.

You must just have to tell that inspiration to stop playing games with you and take off its disguise. Or you might have to take a hammer and crack open its shell. If you stick with it, you'll find that inside every impossible dream is a worthwhile — and workable — goal.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Write it down

When a brilliant new idea hits you, it's so clear, vivid, and powerful that you can't believe that you will ever forget it.

One day later, you might be scratching your head, saying, "I remember I had a great idea... but what was it?"

Memory is fickle, and this is especially true when you're dealing with different states of consciousness such as the expanded consciousness that accompanies inspiration. Get your idea written down, sketched, recorded, as soon as possible, in as much detail as you can manage.

It's still possible that you'll look at your notes a day later and say "I don't even remember why I thought this was such a great idea." But if the idea passes the 24-hour test, and still looks worthwhile the next day, you'll be glad you took the trouble to capture those details while they were fresh in your mind.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Planning in layers

How can you plan a project when inspiration plays a key role in it? Inspiration is famously fickle; it could vanish without warning at any point.

Usually a project starts strong, and it's tempting to plan that you'll simply keep going with the same amount of momentum. For example, "I wrote 2000 words today! I'll just keep that up every day, and I'll have a first draft of my novel by the end of the summer!" That's an optimistic plan, not a realistic plan.

But don't be hard on yourself if this optimistic-planning pitfall snags you. Blame the nature of inspiration: it distorts our judgment and makes us unrealistically optimistic.

It's better to plan pessimistically, and always allow for the possibility that your progress will drag to a halt along the way.

If you must make a plan, keep your focus on short timeframes, prioritize ruthlessly, and be as flexible as possible about the size of the project.

Plan every week (or every day) as if it could be the end of the project, and always look for things that you can bring to completion. It's better if you have something potentially usable if you decide to pull the plug on the project.

For example, suppose you are struck by an idea for a 24-song album, one song for every major and minor key, linking each of the keys to one of the 24 hours in a day. It's a pretty cool concept, but the fact that it's tied to a specific level of effort should make you cautious from the start. If you decide to go ahead with this ambitious project, you should plan for the likely possibility that you won't finish it.

Don't start your 24-song album by recording 24 drum tracks, because if the project ends at that point, you don't have anything to show for your work. Instead, start by recording all the tracks for "Midnight." Then, if the project ends, you at least have one finished song that could be reused in some other project.

The worst trouble you can get into is to make a commitment with a deadline, a commitment that depends on inspiration helping you out. Unfortunately, some of us can't seem to get anything finished without a deadline. But is anything really worth worth the stress of facing a deadline under that much uncertainty? It's so much simpler if you get the critical inspiration-dependent work done first, and have only routine cleanup left to do before you set a deadline.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Getting carried away

Does this ever happen to you?

You get an exciting idea for a new song. And by the end of the evening, the idea has somehow gotten bigger. It now encompasses an entire album and a thematically linked concert tour. And a series of T-shirts. And an interactive web site.

This kind of thing can happen with hot new ideas. They grow rapidly as they collect new possibilities. We call this process "getting carried away." It's almost as though the idea has abducted you and taken you away from your life. Now you've forgetten every plan you had yesterday, and your entire future is filled up with bigger and bigger versions of this exciting idea.
It's okay to get excited about your new ideas. There's nothing wrong with thinking through all the different formats that the idea could take, and writing down every potential followup that you can think of. It's always good to gather ideas and become aware of new possibilities. If this song turns out to be a hit, you'll have plenty of ideas to draw on for how to follow it up.

But you have to take this process lightly. Remember that a rapid rise is usually followed by a rapid fall, and the new idea might not look as bright and shiny tomorrow. A rule of thumb is, don't go registering any domain names until the next day. Don't start buying supplies and signing up for training classes while the idea is in its initial flush of excitement.

Capture your ideas, but try to get yourself out of the realm of planning and into the realm of action as quickly as you can. In other words, if you find yourself writing character sketches for the fourth book in the series, put those notes aside and actually start writing chapter 1 of the first book.

Under the influence of inspiration, plans have a way of getting bigger and bigger. But always remember, as we discussed yesterday, that inspiration also has a way of disappearing before its project is finished. So, after you "think big," try hard to "plan small." Keep your plans, projects, and commitments as small as you can manage.

Start with questions like these: What's the smaller and simpler way to follow through on this idea? What is the low-budget version of this project? How can I get this done with less time and effort? If I had limit this initiative to what I can actually get done today, is there anything of value that I could create by the end of the day?

For example, maybe the book you just dreamed up could be boiled down to a single blog post. Maybe instead of hiring an orchestra for your new piece of music, you can use synthesizers. Maybe instead of traveling the country to speak about your new insight, you can post an online video.

It's exciting to have big goals and to attach yourself to big ambitions. It's not so exciting when you're bogged down in an enormous project that seems impossible to finish.

When inspiration is leading a project, see if you can plan your work in layers, starting small but with room to grow. I'll have more on this strategy tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When inspiration runs out before the project is finished

So you were struck by inspiration, and you ran with it. Now your brilliant vampires-vs.-space aliens novel is half finished. Or you've wrapped up Act One of your clever computer-enhanced stage musical.

And then one day you sit down to work and find that your inspiration has vanished. Nothing you write seems good anymore. You can't even clearly remember why you thought this project seemed like such a great idea.

Inspiration has run out on you. It was there for a while, helping you get a huge amount of work done, but then it abruptly got bored and left. And now you're expected to finish this big project all by yourself?
Unfortunately, my experience has been that this always happens. Inspiration abandons you, or at least its brightness dims as the weeks go by. Inspiration will never carry you all the way through a big project. So what do you do when you find yourself left holding the bag?

You could just abandon the project. Don't be ashamed of admitting that a creative project failed. But if four big projects in a row fail in exactly the same way, then you really ought to try a different strategy.

You might be able to take some of the pieces you've completed and see what you can salvage for another purpose. Maybe you can turn your unfinished stage musical into a concept album. Maybe a big chunk of your novel can be reshaped into a short story.

You can take the professional approach (as discussed in yesterday's blog post) and just press ahead and finish the job. If you've already sold your project, you have no other choice. You can take heart in knowing that, even if your work isn't as good as you'd hoped, it's probably not as bad as it seems right now. But if you have to do this all the time, pushing things to completion without inspiration, your creative life will be a dreary experience. You might find yourself thinking, "I should have kept that retail job! It was more fun than this, and it paid better too!"

If the work you've done so far is good and you feel particularly stuck, you can hire a seasoned professional to help you get the work done. If there's a lot of money at stake -- if the theater is already rented and rehearsals start in two weeks -- this is the only responsible thing to do. Of course, it's tough on your ego to admit that you needed to bring in someone else to rescue your own creative project.

But the real long-term solution is to avoid getting caught in this situation in the first place. That is, plan your projects strategically, knowing that inspiration could abandon you at any point. I'll discuss this further tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If you can't create without inspiration, then you have no control over your creative life

Imagine you're in a funk-rock band whose drummer often fails to show up for rehearsals and gigs. That would be an intolerable situation, because all the bands' efforts come to nothing if the drummer isn't there to perform.

Though it might be painful for the band to admit it, you'd actually be better off rehearsing and performing without the drummer. Sadly, that probably means doing a different, less propulsive style of music. In the music world, professional doesn't mean "louder and flashier," it means that you showed up on time and did what you said you were going to do.

In much the same way, if your creative work depends on inspiration showing up, you're in trouble. Inspiration is not a reliable partner. Sure, you've done some amazing things when inspiration showed up, but you should also have some way to work even when inspiration is nowhere to be found.

It's easier to do this if you don't try to compete with your own best work. Just aim to create something simple that convincingly fills its space. As a songwriter, you can always put stock chord progressions together with standard beats and craft some competent rhyming couplets. You can tinker with the results and patch up any weak spots. And if the song still fails, you can throw it out and start over as many times as you need to.

You don't need inspiration to practice your songwriting craft. Sure, your results will be more modest and the work will move more slowly without the help of inspiration. It doesn't mean you've failed as an artist. It means that you're a professional, and you're showing up and doing the gig no matter what.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's like getting a bribe

Supposedly, in bygone days, record company men gave disk jockeys sacks full of cash along with their new released records. It was a simple request: free up some air time so you can play our new song on the radio. You could play some other song and get nothing out of it, or you can play our song and get a big bag full of cash.

Inspiration approaches you just like that record company man. It says, "You're a creative artist, and I need something created. Whatever you were planning to do today, just put that aside and create my thing instead."

Inspiration won't pay you in cash, but it has some pretty powerful leverage: a direct line to your brain's pleasure center. It's a deal that few can refuse.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What is the formula for genuine inspiration?

The food companies have heard about a growing segment of consumers who prefer the honest flavor of real food. Somewhere, a flavoring department is being asked to recreate that "honest, real food" flavor so the company can mass-manufacture "real-food style products" with cheaper ingredients.

In other industries, they're trying to reverse-engineer and isolate genuine inspiration so it can be automatically included as a feature of their new products.

Of course, there is no formula for inspiration, just as there is no "real food" flavor essence that comes in a bottle. But that won't stop them from trying. Just watch.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


One description of inspiration is "believing in something that doesn't yet exist." This, unfortunately, is very close to one definition of crazy.

Is it crazy to put so much energy into an unproven, never-before-seen possibility? Sure, sometimes it is — but the world would be a much poorer place if everyone ignored their inspirations in favor of being fully grounded in reality.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Inspiration does not bend to your will

Inspiration will come along and tell you what to do. You can say yes or no — but don't even bother trying to haggle with it.

Suppose you are struck with a terrific idea for a song about rabbits entering a dance competition. You might be tempted to say, "That's great! Thanks for inspiring me! But I'm trying to write songs for my very serious death metal band, so let's just change 'dancing rabbits' to 'marauding werewolves.'"

You've tried this. You know it doesn't work. Inspiration's energy quickly evaporates if you try to redirect it to some other purpose. Inspiration doesn't care about your practical needs. It doesn't understand the importance of advancing your creative career -- even though your career success will actually make you better able to serve the whims of inspiration. Frankly, inspiration is selfish and short-sighted and not a team player!

But there's no point in complaining, and you're not going to be able to change the way inspiration works. So just take the few minutes to write down the idea for the dancing rabbit song, and then set it aside and get back to the very serious songwriting that you need to do.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If you make inspiration feel welcome, it will visit you more often

All of us dream every night, even though most of us remember our dreams only occasionally, and some people never remember any of their dreams. Similarly, inspiration is potentially available to all of us every day, but most of us remain uninspired most of the time.

There is a well-established technique for remembering more of your dreams. If you pay attention to your dreams, treat them as something important, and write down the dreams you remember, you will soon remember more dreams in more vivid detail. Even people who don't remember their dreams can get this process started by starting a dream journal and writing down any fleeting images or emotional tones that they wake up with, just on the chance that those impressions might be from a dream.

Just by paying attention to your dreams and treating them as important, you can quickly increase the number of dreams you remember.

If you want to have more inspiration in your life, one way to do it is to keep an inspiration journal. Make note of anything that even vaguely smells like inspiration. Write down ideas that tickle your fancy. Record any thoughts that start with "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

It's important to understand that writing down an idea is not a commitment to follow through on it. There will always be too many ideas and too little time. And it's just as important not to send away any inspiration just because it isn't practical.

For example, if after seeing the movie "Up" you think "Wouldn't it be cool if a rock band's tour bus were carried from city to city by helium balloons?" don't dismiss that thought because the engineering is impractical and your band isn't ready to tour anyway. You don't have to invent a new flying machine -- just acknowledge the inspiration in some way, perhaps by drawing a little sketch of the flying bus in your journal.

If you accept and acknowledge every bit of inspiration that comes your way, you will soon be visited by more inspirations, bigger and better ones, and some of them will be practical ideas that help solve your specific problems.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Inspiration makes you a genius

Inspiration doesn't just waltz through the door and hand you a shiny new idea. It also makes you smarter, quicker, better motivated, and more talented. (And, very likely, sexier!)

By giving you a clear and specific goal to focus on, inspiration clears away the thicket of indecision that often bogs down down creative work. It also puts you into a different state of consciousness, a thinking style with a slower pace and broader base. This enables you to take in more information, keep track of more details, and tackle complex, multi-dimensional problems with ease.

How does inspiration do this? Mainly by shoving aside all other worries and concerns that might occupy your thoughts. Inspiration also helps clear your schedule, by reducing the urgency of other activities (like eating and sleeping, for example).

With a singular focus, enhanced self-confidence, extra brainpower, and long hours of uninterrupted work, it's no wonder that you get top-quality results under the influence of inspiration.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ask the jukebox to explain inspiration

When you try to understand the relatively uncommon, often misunderstood experience of inspiration, your best reference point is the nearly universal, well-explored experience of love.

Since roughly half of all rock songs are about love, our universal jukebox has collected a great deal of wisdom on the subject. When you have a question about inspiration, for example, "Why is it so hard to find inspiration?" just change the word "inspiration" to "love": "Why is it so hard to find love?" Then you're ready to take your question to the jukebox. When an answer emerges, just translate the word "love" back to "inspiration."

This jukebox trick won't necessarily give you a clear answer to your question, but you'll at least get a clearer idea of what the question means.

Perhaps you've been "looking for inspiration/ in all the wrong places." We all know "inspiration takes time/ and it's hard to find." Maybe searching is pointless, and the best you can do is be prepared for when "inspiration comes walking in."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inspiration vs. "perspiration"

"Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration," my first writing teacher told me.

It's a catchy slogan. It even rhymes! Never mind that writing doesn't require enough physical effort to actually break into a sweat. Never mind the exact numbers; I've heard other people cite the key ratio as 5%/95% and 1%/99%.

There is an important message at the heart of this slogan: creative work is a form of work. If you want to create something, to accomplish something, you have to be willing to do some work. It brings to mind another slogan, one that also happens to rhyme: "No pain, no gain."

Yes, creative work involves work. When we put it that way, it seems obviously true; how could anyone ever imagine it to be otherwise? But people do.

The thing is, "I want to be a writer!" (or songwriter, artist, whatever) is usually prompted by early experiences with inspiration. Somehow, something got created, with scarcely any effort involved. It was a magical and highly meaningful experience. Who wouldn't want a life filled with moments like that?

Writing teachers get impatient with students who haven't done their homework because they are "waiting for inspiration." And students are dismayed to find that they have to learn to write on cue, without any assistance from inspiration.

Alas, a creative career mostly involves hard work, and you don't get carried much of the way by inspiration. Indeed, we could dismiss inspiration entirely, as some kind of freakish psychological phenomenon, if it weren't for these facts:
  • Artists do their best work when following inspiration.
  • Most of the best things in the world are created by way of inspiration.
  • The results of inspired work seem to make life better for everybody.
Inspiration is not just a substitute for personal effort after all. Work is necessary, and inspiration is also necessary. And coordinating work and inspiration, making them dance gracefully together, is the way to produce your best creative output. This is a skill that, just as with any other skill, you can learn through practice.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This is the August of Inspiration

Yes, August is the Month of Inspiration here at Unruly Beast! The whole month will be devoted to poking around at this mysterious subject.

Inspiration is a critical part of life for many creative artists, but it's not an easy subject to talk about. We can catalog all the chords you'll ever use in rocks songs, and define the chords' functions and relationships — but when it comes to inspiration, there are no diagrams, no tables, no clear-cut answers. Inspiration is one of those big, fuzzy subjects, like God and Love and the Meaning of Life.

What is inspiration, exactly? It's not even easy to define. Sometimes inspiration takes the form of an idea. It pops into your head, it leaps off the paper while you're writing, or it jumps up and down in front of your face as a sudden answer to a question that you might or might not have been asking.

In whatever way it makes its appearance, inspiration is more than just an idea. It's possible to fill pages with new ideas and not come across any inspiration. If inspiration is an idea, it's an idea that comes attached to a payload. This is an idea that enters with force and momentum and certainty. It imposes itself and demands to be expressed.

Inspiration sometimes appears as a vision. You suddenly see a complete and detailed mental picture of something. It's something that doesn't yet exist, but the vision somehow compels you to bring it into existence.

Following through on an inspiration can be exhilarating. Artists often describe these moments as the most profound and meaningful experiences in their lives. But inspiration can just as easily lead to frustration, heartbreak, and despair. If you catch a vision of a great possibility, but don't have the right skills and techniques to bring it to reality, the failure hurts. Failed artists are suicide risks in just the same way as scorned lovers. This is powerful stuff. If it were a product, the FDA would have to consider pulling it off the market.

Love makes fools of us all, it is said. Falling in love is almost a universal experience, and its foolish results decorate our literature, movies, and newspapers. Inspiration makes fools of just some of us, while most others seem to be immune to its particular indignity. Because it's a less-common experience, an artist grappling with inspiration's irrational nature can sometimes feel very alone. This is why it's good for artist to be in touch with other artists, to have a support network of others who understand the emotions and challenges that come with creative work.

Of course, inspiration comes in many sizes, shapes, and flavors, and it's not always an epic life-shaking experience. You can learn to cultivate inspiration, to make it a bigger presence in your life and your work, and to handle it successfully without getting burned. That's the subject of August of Inspiration here at Unruly Beast.