How does creative inspiration happen?

I’m currently reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams. I’ve been a fan of the strip for many years, but I also like Adams’s pragmatic worldview and humorous approach to the standard “how to succeed” advice book. I am also a sucker for self-improvement books if I feel they have something to offer.

One of his unconventional theories is that goals are for losers (he prefers systems), and that passion is bullshit (as it relates to success). He also believes in matching mental state to energy for maximizing your productivity

These are all approaches I take myself in getting things done, and am very much a believer of being aware of when, where, and how I get productive and feel creative. I don’t really believe in writers block or in making excuses for not being productive in my creative or professional life. I’ve been a professional writer for almost 20 years now and face deadlines every day. I can’t say I have writers block, and I have to deliver without fail, and on time, every time, every day. To do this, and to create anything on a regular basis, requires an understanding and practice of certain personal management techniques, especially as they relate to time and space.

Adams says of matching mental state to activity:

“One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task. For example, when I first wake up, my brain is relaxed and creative. The thought of writing a comic is fun, and it’s relatively easy because my brain is in exactly the right mode for that task. I know from experience that trying to be creative in the mid afternoon is a waste of time. By 2:00 P.M. all I can do is regurgitate the ideas I’ve seen elsewhere. At 6:00 A.M. I’m a creator, and by 2:00 P.M. I’m a copier. Everyone is different, but you’ll discover that most writers work either early in the morning or past midnight. That’s when the creative writing juices flow most easily… Keep in mind you might want to make adjustments to your daily patterns over time.” 

Adams knows enough about his personal energy to know when to be creative, when to work, when to exercise, and when to do more mindless tasks like drawing and paying bills. This made me think of my own systems and preferences as it relates to my own creativity and productivity, which I’ve been blogging about regularly since I started this website. One area I hadn’t really thought about, though, was inspiration. 

How I feel when a good riff pops into my head, but I'm nowhere near a guitar.

How I feel when a good riff pops into my head, but I'm nowhere near a guitar.

When and where does inspiration happen?

One recent weekend morning after breakfast, on a beautiful, cool, sunny morning, I was outside watching my kids play in their kiddie pool out back. I decided it would be a nice time to bring my acoustic guitar out for a strum.

Almost as soon as I started playing, a new riff just came out that I knew would result in a really good song (…not ego talking, as this is not always the case.)

This is what’s known as having a flash of inspiration. 

Now, that’s not to say that songs get channeled from my brain into my fingers from start to finish. Rather, they come to me in flashes, bits and pieces I have to then apply thinking and craftsmanship to turn it into an actual song. That takes more time, of course, but without that initial spark of inspiration, there’d be no beginning.

Inspiration is a magical thing I never take for granted as an artist. It doesn’t matter who you are: our ability to create is what makes humanity such an amazing creature. Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be, we are conduits to some higher power that I honestly don’t think science will ever fully be able to dissect. 

Now that I’m blogging more about the creative process, I started to think analyze this situation with the new song a bit more. 

How did this flash this morning happen? How did it happen? Why did it happen? 

A closer look at some of the answers to these questions was revealing for me, and might help you with your own creative work.

The scenario I replayed above—with the riff coming to me on a lazy weekend morning—was fairly typically for me. I had already identified that this window as a time when I wasn’t tired from a full day at the office, so I can really just enjoy playing for its own sake. It’s also a nice time for me to wake up my mind and fingers and get in touch with music. I’ve found that a number of good songs—or at least riffs, as it more commonly happens—tend to tumble out of me on weekend mornings.

Here are some other situations where I feel at peace and inspired:

  • Flying — I used to be afraid of flying until I asked people who traveled often why they weren’t afraid anymore. One successful person I knew said “I have no control over when I’m gonna go, so I don’t worry about it.” It seemed very logical to me, so after that, I kinda wasn’t so afraid of flying anymore. That hurdle overcome, I could enjoy being high above and far away from my day-to-day, freeing my thoughts, which made me reflect on the larger themes, goals, and connections in my life. This sort of mental space is conducive to inspiration, at least for me. 

  • Traveling — There’s something about seeing new things, eating different food, and encountering new people that resets my mindset. Some of my best writing (fiction, music, song lyrics) is done when I’m comfortable, but physically and mentally out of my usual daily grind. I think this is why I love nice hotels and even airports so much. If I have a pen, notebook, earbuds, and/or laptop, it’s like coffeehouse/creative time on steroids. 

  • Art museums — I love Japanese art and more progressive (if not modern) art, with my favorite museums being mostly in LA (LACMA, HAMMER, the Broad), and the Tate Modern in London. I advise you go before 11 A.M. to any museum, before the crowds come. Then you can enjoy the art, the quiet, and let the internal metal creative juices just flow. Not the best place for capturing your ideas, per se, but fantastic for getting inspired and in the zone.

  • Walking my dog — My beloved dog William passed away last year. Aside from the companionship and joy I got from spending time with him, my daily walks were when some of my best ideas happened. There’s something about the pace, repetition, and silence of walking that turns my mind into an open canvas, where ideas, riffs, and sometimes whole melodies pop into my head. And to capture these ideas, there’s no better app than Apple’s free Voice Memos app for iPhone (apparently Taylor Swift’s a fan as well).

So why does inspiration happen?

So far I’ve broken down some of the “when” and “how” inspiration happens for me. The tough part to figure out is why.

Obvi, I’m a creative person. I need to create like I need to breathe. I’m immensely grateful to be blessed with seemingly magical flashes of inspiration that oftentimes represent the front end of the process. 

That said, I make very little money from my art. In fact, I’ve been operating at a loss for as long I can remember. I’ve talked about how one has to be a little nuts to go through the sheer amount of willpower, time, energy, and sacrifices one has to make to create anything worthwhile.

So why create at all? Why not just go into real estate full-time, or focus on crazy entrepreneurial projects and moneymaking schemes like Scott Adams did before Dilbert, and still does today? 

This answer is probably different for everyone. I think for me, even though the Muse goes dark from time to time—and it regularly causes me untold amounts of time, energy, money, frustration, pain, and heartache—I’d never want it to stop completely. Because then I wouldn’t have that joy of creativity, and bringing something true and beautiful, to the world, and sharing it with others in the process.

But enough about me… What inspires your creativity? When does it happen? How does it happen? Are you able to replicate some of these circumstances to make it happen at will? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.