Does creativity spring from Muses, discipline or serendipity?
Collage by Susanne Yuu
Some of us feel it in the shower. Others get it in dreams or while exercising. Author J. K. Rowling took hers to a coffee shop where she wrote the first Harry Potter book.
Inspiration—that "Aha! I’ve got it" moment—seems to come out of nowhere. But does it really? What exactly is inspiration and how do we go about getting some?
Pumped for an inspiration primer, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Professor and Chair of Philosophy Eliot Deutsch explains that the idea of inspiration in the context of aesthetics and artistic creativity is no longer understood in the Platonic-like notion that one is taken hold of by some external divine power and produces great works of art as a result. In keeping with East Asian and South Asian traditions, each in their own way, it was thought that artistic creativity involves a kind of disciplined spontaneity resulting from extensive training in a particular practice, such as painting or music.
"The belief that one is suddenly inspired to write a symphony or an epic poem is no longer in fashion," Deutsch says. Current thinking holds that "inspiration" is a creative process that requires technical skill, deep feeling and both conscious and unconscious mental determination.
And preparation. "Musicians spend years rehearsing, running scales and learning their instruments," says Richard Lee, associate professor of music at UH Hilo. "It’s through that process that they’re building the basis for inspiration, which is released in the moment of creation and performance."
Donald Womack, composer and acting chair of Mānoa’s music department, puts it this way: "We tend to think that inspiration is somehow magical. I think it’s more a matter of putting in the perspiration so the idea finally presents itself in an understandable way. It’s like the idea is out there all along but it’s too blurry, disconnected or hidden and you can’t quite see it. The moment we call inspiration is when you suddenly understand what was there before."
Inspiration comes from some of the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times, says David Behlke, assistant professor of art at Kapiʻolani Community College and director of the campus’s Koa Gallery.
Behlke recalls a summer trip home during his college days and "being inspired in the middle of the night in my mother’s kitchen to paint a self portrait on the spot." For him, inspiration often arrives in the form of doodles while he’s on the phone or in a meeting. "I have to pay attention (to the phone call or meeting speaker) just enough to keep my conscious mind off the drawing," he confides.
Lee finds inspiration in the inspired works of other musicians and feels it flowing when he’s improvising in the confines of a studio. Debra Drexler, Mānoa associate professor of art and art history, also creates a separate workspace that allows her to declutter her mind so inspiration can do its thing. Music is part of the process-"everything from jazz and blues to rock, U2 and the Beatles, depending on what I’m in the mood for and the kind of work I’m doing," she says.
The initial inspiration for Gaugan Zombie—a complex art installation that includes massive paintings, woodcarvings, fictional writing and a thatched hut—came to Drexler in a dream in 1998. Since then, she says, "I rework and add new ideas each time it shows" at art centers nationwide.
Behlke keeps a dream journal. He also relies on "a little voice that talks to me when I’m making art. It tells me what colors to put where." Womack finds that endorphins from exercise put him in the inspired-creative driver’s seat.
For MidWeek editor and East-West Center Fellow Don Chapman, it can be as simple as a shower. Chapman needed a headline for a cover story on former UH athletes in the military. "I had tried a few and none worked," he says. "Then on deadline day, getting ready for work, my head far from headlines, stepping out of the shower, the idea popped into my head: Hawaiʻi’s True Rainbow Warriors."
Current events can’t help but influence the creative process, notes Womack, whose composition "After"—performed by the Honolulu Symphony in concert with Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa’s "Cantata Tengai"—memorialized the grief and honored the victims of the Ehime Maru ship sinking tragedy.
"The motivation of wanting to do something about it started the process," says Womack, "but the inspiration came along when I got those ʻok-I-know-what-to-do-next’ moments."
After six months spent deciding on the character of the piece and its instrumentation, Womack still had not written the music. Sitting in his office one day grading papers, he heard a student outside play a few notes on a clarinet. "That sounds like a shakuhachi," he thought, jotting down the notes. The resulting Japanese bamboo flute solo became a major part of the composition.
What about those of us who aren’t artists, musicians or writers by profession. Is inspiration beyond our reach? Emphatically no, says Lee. "In any field—plumber, carpenter, auto repair, housekeeper, whatever—there has to be a vision of some kind to do problem solving. We’re all unconsciously seeking solutions to problems even while doing everyday tasks.
"I think people are inspired constantly by their surroundings," suggests Chapman. "The process of solving problems is the same one artists go through; it’s just that artists focus on it as a fundamental part of their craft. My friend races cars. He does things as a mechanic or behind the wheel that are creative and inspired but he’s not thinking about it that way. He’s just trying to make the car go faster."
There are different kinds of inspiration, Chapman adds, and inspiration doesn’t always involve artistic creation or problem solving. "You can be inspired by someone’s example. I have a friend who’s fighting cancer, and I’m inspired by his strength. Inspiration might lead you to try to be a better person or to emulate someone."
The literal meaning of inspiration is breathing in and out, respiration, explains Mānoa Professor of English Frank Stewart, a poet and editor of the literary journal, Mānoa. "So inspiration has to do with mortality—to take life in and let it out, but in a way that has value to others. That’s why we can be inspired by a teacher, community leader, athlete, artist, performer or heroic act.
"There’s something about true inspiration that’s selfless, and therefore it’s the giving of a gift. That’s why it’s important to everyone. Inspiring people are role models. They act, create, sing, speak or risk their lives for all of us who can’t do it as articulately, joyfully, mournfully or passionately as we would like to."
When it comes to inspiration, little is certain. It treats us all differently, arriving when we’re ready. You can’t pluck it from the air like fruit from a tree or download it at will like a file from the Internet. But, to paraphrase the message of the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, if you’ve done your homework and tuned your internal antennae to the right frequency, it will come.