For years I have been interested in the nature of creativity. Being an artist, I felt it was important to understand as much about it as possible so that I could be as effective in my creative life as I could be, to learn how to harness this facet of our being most effectively. It was this curiosity that led me to observe my own state of mind while being creative. This led me to observe how each hemisphere in the brain worked in tandem to help bring about the elusive state of inspiration. I observed what states seemed to aid the most in being creative. I found out about all kinds of tricks for getting your whole brain in on the act. All of this was useful, but there seemed to be something still deeper, more fundamental in all of this. After all, most artists I knew tended to treat inspiration as though it was some elusive force, not unlike sighting a Yeti. We never were sure when we would see or encounter it, but we were always glad when we did! While I know that such a comparison seems a little silly, it has a real kernel of truth. We just don’t have a firm grasp on what this state of being is about. If we did, we would live inside a constant state of inspiration. But most of us don’t. Most of the time, we are in this constant state of seeking the elusive Yeti. I know because I am an artist. I am also an educator, and the truly great opportunity I have been afforded in my teaching has been that of being able to observe my own students in their own process of seeking this elusive state. There are a lot of ways that we can help make it more possible for us to find this state of mind and artists know a lot of them because we are all on the same hunt. But what is so interesting is that when you look deeper into this you can see how some of us don’t have a problem with being inspired. When you read the words of many famous artists they often speak of how the most natural artists are children. Why is that? It is simple. It is the lack of fear. Children have no reason to feel fear or apprehension in using this most natural state of being. They are not full of the things that trip them up or hang them up in various ways as regards the creative state. Both love and the creative require the suspension of fear in order for both to flow freely in our experience.
The one thing about fear is that it is the antithesis of love. Love cannot exist very well within the bounds of the fearful. It just can’t. When we are afraid, our most natural of states get tangled, tied up. Our brains shut down, our physiology also reflects this in subtle and overt ways. But when we start talking about love, most people feel a little lost how it has anything to do with creativity. It shows. We have in our lives chosen to cordon love off into very limited ranges of expression and experience. Love, though, is more than just what we experience. Admit it; when I mentioned love, you thought probably about how you feel about someone. I know that I often do this same thing. Love is how we feel FOR something. But what if love is more than that, what if love itself is a far more expansive a thing that enters into every single corner of our experience in myriad ways? Don’t we have a love of a hobby? Don’t we have a love for the things that we value, even a ring or a piece of jewelry? We say we love the bracelet we are wearing. And yet, we stand back and admit to ourselves that that isn’t really love. That is more like an intense like. Right? But I ask you, why cant it be love? Why can’t the intensity of our like spill over into being love? Why cant our own feelings, our own natural state of being, be allowed to feel and express this very powerful of states? Maybe we think that by saying we love the bracelet we are wearing somehow makes us shallow, that we should reserve love for the more important things? I take you back to our child of four who is sitting at the table, painting wildly, unafraid of creating bold and colorful marks. She is caught up in her act of creating because it makes her feel great. Is it possible that the mere act of creating is a form of love? That we feel love when we do the things that connect us to ourselves? And what does love do with others to whom we care the most about? Doesn’t it do much the same thing? Sure, making a mark on the page is not the same love that we feel when we are making a mark on someone’s heart. That much is certain. But what if our experience of love has been so limited that it keeps us from following our instincts and keeps us from feeling free enough to open to this experience within ourselves? Isn’t creating an act of self love? Is it that we feel so unworthy of this most important part of love that we hesitate to show it to ourselves?
I have discovered that the act of being inspired carries with it all of the same characteristics that go with falling in love. When we fall in love and when we fall into being inspired, the effects are the same. I have observed that becoming inspired is itself a very intimate act. As a result, we often tend to want to be alone. Sometimes, sitting in a coffee shop, we are surrounded by people as we madly scribble away, but in that moment, we have most often blocked out the din of voices and the movement of people so that we feel alone, solitary. This is an intimate place. We do not like people invading our space with their attention. We need a special focus that involves letting ourselves go. We fall into inspiration the same way that we fall into love. In the same way we are seduced by our feelings of love, so too do we allow ourselves to fall into a seductive space of the senses when we create art of any kind. A child who is at play does not like it when he or she is being watched by adults. How many of us have observed how a child’s play will come to a stop when they are aware that others are watching them? This is because the act of play, which engages the imagination, is the same as the creative state. The creative state is itself much like love, if not a broader expression of what love is in us. In all of the same situations, we need to be alone, we need to engage our imaginations, we allow ourselves to fall into it, and to do this we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. In both cases, it is the same. We also need to feel unafraid in both cases, which most often means being alone, but also being in a place where we feel comfortable. For some of my students (and myself), the best ideas come most often when they are doing something that makes them feel comfortable and safe enough to come out of their shells. One student did her best creative work in the shower. Another would take off to be alone, completely alone, without even paper or pencil. She had to go for a walk, clear her head. Another found that his ideas came when he was in the car driving for long periods. Others like to be in a public place, but with their music playing in their earphones. A number of them simply needed to be alone. I have noticed that when I give a new assignment in Sculpture class a number of students ask me if they can leave so they can go find inspiration. In the beginning I resisted this until I learned that many of them were getting better ideas when they were able to just follow their most natural inclinations. One student would explain, “I just can’t force it, Mr. Stafford, I just have to go let it find me!” The same is so with love. Both are incredibly intimate acts sometimes. Having said this, there are plenty of people who are not self conscious and who can create at the drop of a hat. Some people actually feed off of the presence of people as though the extra attention is like more energy being brought into the arena. It is true we are all different, but there remains in my observation that on balance, most people approach inspiration in similar ways.
The act of creating is itself a freeing act. We feel more expansive, and we feel that all is right with the world. We have a special lilt to our step. We are in grace. All is well in the world, right? Falling in love has all the same characteristics of this same state. We have a lilt in our step, a glimmer in our eye. Everything is golden. But take that away, take the experience of the creative away, or the person whom we love, and everything becomes dark and shadowed. Creativity, like love, frees us, allows us to move and become something….more.
I have found that most people like art but do not themselves feel creative. They say that all they can do is draw stick figures. And this is the crux of both love and the creative. We shut down when we feel we are not good enough. If we feel like we are not beautiful enough to another person, it shuts us down. When we feel we are not talented enough, we do the same thing when trying to be creative. In each case, walls are built of one sort or another. This is not good, you see, because it stops the flow of this vital force that runs through our lives and makes it all the more richer. I have taken this observation and applied it to my teaching. I have found that the more I remove the hurdles to the creative and make people feel more safe, they become much more creative. They become more enthusiastic. They feel supported, more free, less hindered by the “what if’s” in the world. The people who have the hardest time with the creative are the ones who insist on worrying about something, such as how their work is going to turn out. The difference between them and our child painting madly at the table is that the child does not worry about how it will turn out. It is the suspension of outcomes that allows us to be fully present in the moment. Love, like the creative, cannot be experienced through the past or the future, but only in the present. While we may look back wistfully at a past love or a past creative experience, it is never like what we experience in the moment. You cannot create something in the past, only in the present. But like creativity, love can strike terror in our hearts if we are afraid to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. It is the same in both.
We have to learn to be fearless, we have to open to love the same way we open to the creative. Both require the same state of being vulnerable and suspension of expectation in order for the experience to bloom in the most natural of ways. This is why, so often, as an artist is painting or creating, they don’t always know exactly what is going to come next. It isn’t that they don’t know how they want it turn turn out, or that they are being aimless in their work, it is that in order to do this certain parts of the mind really do have to be shut off. Love, like the creative, is not a rational process. It is nonlinear, irrational, and this is where we tap both sides of our brains and awareness. Art like love cannot come about through a sheer force of will. It is more like a flower that must open in the presence of the sun. We do not pry its petals open. We let it open. We allow. Without this quality, everything is forced. 80% of the ideas that my students come up with that are forced, they tend to abandon in the end for the simple fact that they have not truly plumbed their likes or desires. The work, when forced, is never as enjoyable as the work that is allowed to flow. When we flow, we are allowed deeper access into ourselves. Love, like creating, is not entirely rational because we are not ourselves just rational beings. Many artists, like those who fall into love, often revel in mystery. It is the mystery that pulls them forward. This is not rational, you see.
In my work in glass I have taken this idea and used glass as a vehicle for allowing people to tap the joy of being able to create something beautiful that they themselves believe they are incapable of doing. Glass is a perfect material for this because it is….well…..beautiful. I tell people who come into the studio feeling apprehensive about whether they will be able to make something beautiful that the nature of glass is such that you could dribble it on the floor and it would look amazing. And it does. I once told this to a group who came in this past winter and one of the kids wound up dribbling hot glass on the floor. At the time, she felt like she had failed, as though she was somehow doing something wrong. I had, though, just moments before explained that you could do just what she had done and it would look great. When she got done, she wound up picking up the pieces of glass, now hardened, off the floor and was amazed by how interesting it looked. She took her “mistake” home with her, she liked it so much! My experience with making things with a material that is so hard to get “wrong” has done something for people, which is that it opens the portals of enthusiasm and excitement. They loosen up and are amazed at what it is they are creating. THIS is where it all begins. What might take a person years to achieve by learning how to go from stick figure to perfect portrait in chalk I can achieve in minutes. That is because the act of being creative is not about perfect portraits, but about loving what it is that you do. When you do this, when you allow yourself the freedom to be this way, you naturally open up the cognitive portals in your own being so that inspiration flows.
The other side to all of this is that love naturally has a healing effect on us. When we open up and allow ourselves to be loved, we feel different. We unwind, we become more relaxed, happy, and at peace. We do the exact same thing when we are in a state of inspiration. This state encourages us to try the seeming impossible. Suddenly the world resolves into radiant possibility. We are enthused, we work harder, we lose track of time, we enter “the zone” in the same way that we enter a timeless zone when we are with people that we love. How many of us have observed how quickly time seems to pass when we are with that someone whom we love? Always, there is never enough time. And the same is true for being creative. Time quite literally changes. Some people even tell of how a moment seems to expand outward into a kind of eternity. And yet, once we exit it, we feel as though time has suddenly accelerated and we wish we could enter that timeless space again. This is just what artists seek in inspiration. More than having an idea in mind what they will make, they tend to be far more interested in how the state makes them feel. They know that when they can just feel into it, they are golden. It does not matter what they make because the moment allows for endless possibilities. They know that anything is possible. They are not worried what they will make because fear is no longer present. They simply give themselves over to the moment.
The creative shares so much in common with love. When we love, we create. When we create, we are also in love. It is the same. Both frees us, both heals us. This is perhaps why we use art as a form of therapy. Just as love helps us to plumb our deepest feelings, so too does art help us plumb our feelings as well. I think that our experience with the creative has simply become too limited sometimes and so doing, it tends to cordon off those parts of ourselves that we feel funny about expressing. But all of this is a form of love, and love is something that is a pretty vast thing when it comes to human experience. Love is more than something that we feel for something and it is something that we are.
Supporting Good Creative Habits
So how can you boost your creative love quotient? There are a great number of brain tricks that you can employ that will help to kick start your right brain into motion. One of these is using your left hand with a simple exercise, such as rolling a coin through all of your fingers without dropping it. It is believed that by using the motor cortex in your right brain, which is used to control the left side of your body, that you are stimulating the right brain, which is most often seen as being involved in holistic reasoning, seeing, and most often artistic experience.
Find Your Zone
Find your comfort zone. Does being alone help you to discover your inspired moment, or does being with people, but slightly aloof help? Knowing what works best for you is a big first step towards how to boost your creativity. Then once you have realized this, follow it. For some, listening to music and just drawing and playing with ideas without any aim helps to get into a more creative state.
Sometimes just looking at art of all kinds can help you get ideas. The goal is not to copy artists work, but to find pieces that serve to inspire you. Sometimes sites that have a lot of different art can be good ways to view a broad buffet of ideas. For as crazy as it seems, Ebay can actually help a lot because instead of just one kind of art, you have a broad array. Some sites you might find helpful are listed below
Design Observer mostly graphic arts, but it has a broad range of objects dealing with good design that might just get your juices flowing.
ArtBabble is a cloud-based site for video and is called the youtube of the arts.
ArtNet is a site of over 450 artists, writers, sculptors, painters, animators, and hacker artists from around the world.
deviantart is a site where artists display and sell their works. This is a broad range of two-dimensional work
thisiscollosal this is one of my personal favorites for the interesting and creative takes on the visual that it provides. It is fun and engaging and well managed.
Artcylopedia a list of links to museum collections of art through the ages. A rich source for everything historically art.
Blackbird an outreach program of Virginia Commonwealth University, this resource presents literary and artistic works by a broad range of emerging artists as well as established ones.
This is just a taste of what is out there and might help you when you are feeling a need to get inspired. Sometimes just having someone elses work that maps out their own inspired moments can help get the gears turning.
Believe it or not, breathing has long played a central role in our feeling centered, balanced, and calm. When someone is upset, what do we tell them to do to calm themselves down? “Just breathe!” we say! I would take it one step further and explain that if you take a little more time with breath work, you can discover how amazingly calming it can be. for example, if you slow your breathing down and make it longer and deeper and do at least seven breaths in a row like this, counting seven seconds to breathe in, seven seconds to hold the breath and seven second to breathe out, you will develop a very nice slow rhythm to your breathing that will also signal to your mind that its time to relax. You will notice that people who fall asleep do not have fast breath, but slow, even labored breathing. If you can match your breathing to that same pace, you will find that your body is experiencing a very calm state where all the troubles you had a few minutes previously are suddenly gone! One other breathing method I will share with you is one I often give to students who are really keyed up and it tends to work very well. It is an alternating nostril form of breathing. It forces you to slow down your breath, but I swear, it really can make you feel much better! What you do is you hold one nostril closed while you make four full slow breaths in and out through one nostril only. You then alternate to the other nostril and do the same four breaths and repeat this four times. It is also helpful if you can focus on your breathing so you aren’t thinking about other things.
The kind of music you listen to, the kind of rhythms and melodies can actually help support certain brain states. Aboriginal cultures have long used certain rhythms to help induce certain states of reflection. I have found that music that is rhythmic, and repetitive helps me to zone out into the creative while remaining tethered to the now. It seems that when I can listen to music that is not telling me a story or that is engaging my verbal centers too much, it can lead me to move into the zone. Different music will have different effects. Sometimes, too, I need no music while at other times having something of the right style is just what the doctor ordered. I once created an entire body of work while listening to David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel. For some reason, and for a set period of time, only this music “did it” for me. I once knew an artist in graduate school whose studio was directly above my own, who listened to the same song over and over in order to do his work for his thesis show. For him, it was Prince’s “I would Die For You.” This seemed to get him into an energetic state and got his juices moving. It had to, he listened to it for months for hours each session! For as much as it sometimes annoyed me to hear this song on an infinite loop, I also “got” why it was he listened to it. It was what got him into his own zone. I used to listen to Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno, which is a piece that is hardly even music, but a supportive soundscape that is reflective and great for drawing. It is quite nearly background noise. But sometimes, no music is the ticket, you just need to feel it out.
Honestly, I am putting this here only because it has helped me. I don’t know if it will help you or not, but here is a try. I have found very specific works by Walt Whitman to be incredibly inspiring. Leaves of Grass is sheer miracle. He could turn a phrase in a timeless manner. Whitman is as alive today in my life as he was back during his own life. Oddly, I find his other work about the civil war to be dreary stuff. Whitman leaves me in a zone when I read the right stuff. And who knows, maybe Whitman is like Prince was to my painter colleague who listened to the same song over and over. But clearly, not just any writing will do it for me. I need something that will push me over into realms of mystery, wonder, and even awe.
These are just a few sources for aiding in supporting your creative state. In the end, though, you need to find what does it for you, observe how you feel when you do certain things and then make them part of a method that will work for you.