Sometimes, in creating something, you receive something akin to divine inspiration, a Muse with a capital M, the kind of brilliant idea roused by what the Greeks considered goddesses. Sometimes it comes as a “lightbulb moment;” others it appears as a sort of artistic fervor that has the power to grip a person and steer them so completely it’s like the idea has a life of its own. These moments can be freeing (or simply relieving, as you approach a midnight deadline). But they’re fleeting, infrequent, and unreliable. You can’t sit around waiting for magic singing idea fairies to toss a best-selling novel or hit song on your head.
Until the day that somehow happens, you have to work your butt off. Much of art is actually craft, in that creative processes often have more to do with tenacity than genius. Great things, like award-winning photography collections and the brilliant poems forty-odd people will ever read, come with effort. I wrote recently about how making things both sucks and brings joy. Well, this is the suck part: pushing yourself to the end of your project, even when everything inside you is screaming oh no this is terrible please don’t do it season five of Scandal is on Netflix now that would be so much better than this please stoooop.
Eventually you’re just going to have to pull up your big-person pants and power through. But until you get to that point, you can try a few things to get yourself in the right frame of mind.
Control your surroundings
Sometimes you can’t do this. But when you do have some autonomy over your environment, make it one you’ll enjoy working in. Clean loose papers off your desk; line up your supplies; light a nice candle; play some low-key music or white noise, if that helps you; or limit all sound, if that’s what you like. Set yourself up with water and a snack so you don’t forget to drink anything and end up with a killer dehydration headache, as I’m prone to do. Even if you’re in a library or other public setting, you can lay out your supplies and stream some Chopin through your headphones.
The minimalist artist Agnes Martin took an intense approach to controlling her creative environment, writing that both physical surroundings and frame of mind contribute to a “respect” for a work.
“You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of everyone else,must be maintained and forwarded … No disrespect, carelessness or ego [and] selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented.”
While this might not be the best approach for everyone, Martin makes a case for being conscious of one’s environment, simply for the effect it has on us: “An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise … It is an untroubled state of mind.”
Turn off background noise (no matter how good you think you are at multitasking, you can’t write an awesome paper while half-watching Catfish). Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Don’t get on the internet; don’t take a “short Hulu break;” don’t stop to text every thirty seconds. These interruptions, however brief, quickly drain valuable time and make you lose your focus.
Just imagine your baby boomer relatives wagging their fingers and criticizing your generation’s collective addiction to technology. Works like a charm!
Make a plan
Before you start your project, have a serious brainstorming session. Doodle, scribble, sketch, draw arrows everywhere, or make bulleted lists: unraveling your ideas in a chaotic jumble will let your thoughts tumble out, rather than be suppressed by a rigid format. Organize these into a casual outline—unless an instructor requires you turn one in, this can be a series of scrawled half-sentences in a notebook or a few rambling paragraphs in a Google Doc. I often start out a piece with several loose ideas, which I’ll tack at the beginning of the document in tentative order. As I’m writing and brainstorming, I always get ideas for what to write next, so I add these thoughts to the list.
This isn’t applicable just for writing. Part of my collage process includes cutting out dozens of shapes and textures, then combining them in different ways. If you’re composing a song or piece, you can use the same brainstorming concepts and note what you could potentially include. Don’t spend too much time constructing the concepts yet. Just get them jotted down so you can flesh them out later.
Read or listen to something good beforehand! It’s always uplifting and sometimes directly influential. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Shakespearean sonnet or indie love song; engaging with something someone else has made might help your own work.
This step often makes a huge difference in my writing. For me, reading a really great journalism piece or a few pages of a book helps get me in the creative zone and gives me ideas for how to write my piece. I don’t do it every time I write or draw, but it’s helpful if I’m feeling unfocused, or if I’m facing writer’s block at a certain part. I’ll write more in the future about finding good ideas from other people’s art and implementing them in your own without plagiarizing; until then, try noticing what works and what doesn’t in a piece, and use these as inspirations in your work.
If you don’t care to draw ideas from another person’s art, simply reading/looking at/listening to it can help you focus and get rid of distractions. If your mind is on other things, you can concentrate on consuming first, which is usually a bit easier than creating.
Set a goal
Enter your creative session with an objective in mind. For quick projects, you can aim to finish in one sitting. But for longer, more involved pieces, like a research paper or abstract portrait, carve the project into manageable pieces. Say “I’ll write three pages” or “I’ll paint the whole background today.” Then hold yourself to it. You’re more likely to keep working if you have a target to hit, and more likely to feel accomplished afterward.
Switch it up
After typing away at your computer, switch to a spiral notebook and gel pen. After craning your neck at your desk, lie down in bed on your phone. A change of scenery can help a lot when you get tired or cranky.
Let yourself feel good about what you’ve done so far. Take a snack (read: chocolate) break halfway to your big goal. After finishing your entire English paper, or the first three pages, relax with a social media session or that episode of Scandal. I wouldn’t recommend sitting down with Netflix partway through; it’s likely that you’ll lose your focus and drive to finish. But don’t be afraid to unwind, guilt-free, when you’re done.
It’s the most important and the hardest thing to do, because when it comes down to it, there are no tricks you can pull out of your sleeve. When nothing is working and you’ve already set up the perfect environment and unplugged and switched it up and up and up, you just have to keep plugging away until something comes out.
Persevering is really the only step you must follow. The rest is just potentially helpful advice. You don’t have to set up your space before you start. You don’t have to eat a candy bar every time you hit word count (because you shouldn’t have to Pavlov yourself into obesity to get stuff done). These ideas can help you push yourself through and maybe make the process easier, but they are no replacement for work. Ultimately, every one of these cute tactics will fail you, and it will be your persistence that leads you to the end.
Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.
So keep typing and backspacing, sketching and crumpling, noodling and scribbling. Don’t stop.