The creative process: work ethic vs. inspiration

“I don’t want to write, it’s too hard,” says practically every American child sitting at the kitchen table with homework spread out past bedtime.

That was the first thought I had when considering the value of a hard work ethic versus inspiration in the life of the creative for this blog. I know, I just used creative as a noun, that’s what us creative people in the professional world are typically called. If we were creating art for art’s sake we would be known as artists. Regardless, creativity requires a lot of hard work no matter the medium, discipline, and audience; it all comes from the same place. Some days it flows, everything is happy and the end result is clearly in sight. Other days you’re punching holes into the walls, dropping your head in your hands and, on occasion, throwing your whole body through walls. A book I recently read by Blaine Hogan, Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process, captures this struggle:

This is the creative process. For the most part it’s just plain old, unsexy work. It is slogging in front of the computer, canvas, or blank piece of paper, hammering out words and images in hopes of better days. And then, all of a sudden, a flash of brilliance. A phrase comes to mind and your heart is full. (Hogan, Locations 878-880)

We all hope it’s a flash of brilliance that strikes, and I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic. The simple fact is that it’s a subjective thought that I’m spending my words on right now. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m procrastinating as I think this topic through and type it. I had a vision to tackle the polarizing topic that’s eating everyone’s brains and I’m falling flat on execution. I know, hyperbole and superfluous. Pushing myself back on topic now.

Vision is easy. Ideas are even easier. It’s execution that separates the amateurs from the pros. (Hogan, Location 111)

Okay, okay, I’m not an amateur. Pulling myself together now.

So creativity is hard work and I’m all over the place tonight in conveying this. If you know a creative person, maybe you are one, you are no doubt aware of stories about a great project that looked like it would fly by because the energy and excitement was all there. Only it didn’t. It dragged on, ten times longer than planned, sometimes one hundred times longer. The project was over budget, understaffed, late to press, drives crashed, feelings hurt, frustrations vented, enemies made, supplies snapped in half and thrown out the studio windows … yes this happens to all of us. This is what hard work looks like to a creative, driven by passion and fueled by caffeine. A volatile condition, yet effective, usually.

“But what about inspiration?” you ask.

Inspiration is fleeting. It appears, it disappears. Some of it sticks, some of it slithers down your back and drops to the floor never to be heard from again. That is its nature. Accept it and move forward. When it strikes, be ready to record it with the understanding that its execution is never going to occur quickly and without pain.

Pain is the essence of hard work, ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me. Back breaking hard work was once a thing, it still is for some, and in the creative world, it’s more psychological than physical. It’s a daytime nightmare you cannot wake from. It’s also a daydream you can lose yourself in. Inspiration will do that to you, though, take you to another world. Which is great, because we all need great ideas, but we need grounding too – a hard work ethic.

Artists by nature are never satisfied. I heard that once while in art school and took it as gospel, so I continue to tell everyone that without citing studies. Not quite. It does, however, describe myself and every other creative I know. That level of dissatisfaction translates to self-editing, scrapping work and starting over, and other laborious steps backwards amidst a slow motion tumble forward. Hours, if not days or weeks, are lost to this tragic phase called revision. All of that lost time equates to lost creative labor that may never see the light outside of a garbage can. The creative, or artist, drags boulders up icy mountainsides to achieve the goal, spraining ankles and breaking bones along the way. And when he or she reaches the peak, spirit-breaking mental exhaustion gives way to bigger and better things.

And then inspiration kicks you in the face and you are so wired you can’t sit still. You type or paint or sculpt or whatever frenetically, making mistakes along the way without caring. Editing/revising/modifying doesn’t matter, love your first draft, the only draft, it’s perfect in every way! You keep going and going and going till you burn out. You crash harder than a thousand foot free fall on the ocean surface. But you have it, your first draft, your only draft, your gift of the gods enlightening the world through your voice. Don’t dare alter it, it is perfect in every way, that first draft. Except it’s not.

Hard work returns quickly with ferocity. The revision or whatever you do is critical if you are serious about creating not just good, but great art. It’s a vicious cycle, eventually finding a conclusion due to external forces like client deadlines or collecting a paycheck before your bills are due.

It’s chaos, it’s struggle, it’s enlightenment through mental anguish. When it’s all done and you gaze at your work, it will have separated itself from you. Unrecognizable, it’s an extension of who you were during those moments of creation and what you do. But it’s not you, it is its own holistic being. Your creation. You immediately forget the pain and embrace it. And then you deal with client revisions and approvals and finally collect a check sixty days later.

Creative work is rewarding on a level separate from anything monetary, but it’s not for the thinned-skin. As you might have determined by now after reading this offbeat meditation, there is no winner. Inspiration and  work ethic compliment each other, they improve each other’s capabilities and well-being. To be successful, you need both.

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