Being present to your creative spirit
Or: showing up for your work
We’ve all1 experienced them, those lovely, lovely creative ideas that spring forth fully formed like Athena born from the head of Zeus, bursting into life with an irresistible fire that forces us to show up, that makes us create, that puts us into our chairs as if something larger than us has placed its hand upon us and is steering us onto the correct course.
That’s creativity, we tell ourselves, that’s inspiration. And when an idea doesn’t possess us in this way, when it is perhaps quiet and shy and small, or enormous and beautiful but too big to express all at once, when something is more challenging or reticent or unclear, it can be easy to wander down that path of thinking, I’m not inspired enough. I didn’t wake up this morning with a fire in my head. It’s not “real” inspiration if I have to work for it. If I have to show up for it.
Those fully-formed Athena ideas are wonderful, and they’re what every creative person longs for, at least as far as I can tell. We all want to be transported by our work, and when we’re not, we start getting peevish, even about questions like “Where does your inspiration come from?” “I don’t know,” we start to reply cantankerously, “but I sure wish it would show up more often. If I could control this crap, I’d be rich by now!”
There’s a famous Picasso quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” I don’t know if this is strictly true (lots of my ideas start parading into my head when I’m in the bath or trying to go to sleep), but there seems to be a fundamental truth in that, if you want to be a working creative person, you have to stop waiting for the muse to show up and dazzle you with her brilliance. You have to start showing up for her.
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The fully-formed Athena ideas are intoxicating, but they can also be a fake-out. Even something that seems perfect and fully formed has to actually take shape. In passing through our human minds, hearts and hands, it deviates from the original (“perfect”) idea.2 It wanders into the muck and gets lost. It leaps headlong off cliffs into shark-infested waters. It goes on long sabbaticals and it shows back up when we least expect it, demanding to be made into form.
Each idea we have is different, but each must pass through us. Ideas need fertile soil, good dirt. They need to be a little bit messy and a lot demanding and also decidedly chaotic. Like a plant, each idea grows differently; each comes into flower in its own season and rhythm. Some of those rhythms will reveal themselves to us; others require our patient attention, nurturance, and devotion. We cannot rush through this process, and we cannot bypass an idea’s growing season—or our own. Ideas need to be birthed, and before they can be birthed, like anything else, they have a gestation or germination period.
Sometimes it isn’t that an idea is reticent or stubborn or capricious or anything like that—it’s that we’re too busy. We’re not making the space, giving our work the light of our attention. We know an idea, or ideas, are waiting. It feels like we’ll burst if we don’t get to them, but we’re just too busy. Who has the time? Then when we finally do show up, we’re impatient. We need the inspiration, pronto! There’s other work to do, dinner to make, a house to clean, people to care for, always, always more to be done. It can be so easy to say never mind and walk away when the creativity doesn’t come quickly.
One thing I’ve trained myself to do (obviously, imperfectly) is to pay attention to my own transitions. Sometimes I can sit down and start writing or painting. But often I need a minute, or several, to reorient myself to the inner sway of my creative work and voice. To scratch my head and go, “What do I have to say?” For me, a meditation or prayer practice serve as the best transition. With them, I am able to release whatever else is on my mind (sometimes; usually), and listen inside for the murmur of, well, maybe it’s my muse, or my inner creative river.
I don’t always feel inspired when I show up to write. Often, lately, I haven’t had time to show up at all, so when I do, I really have to rely on transition practices. I have to consciously say, It’s okay to take this time and enter into the flow. It’s okay not to be doing everything else. It’s all right to be making something without reward, or expectation of praise, or for any external reason, but just because I can. Just because it’s there, and I want it to exist in the world.
Everything shifted for me, years ago now, when I started showing up for my work, rather than expecting it to show up for me. We have a different relationship now: a partnership. Today, for example, I showed up and simply asked, What do you want to say? I didn’t have a masterplan. No kithara-strumming muse floated onto my shoulder. I just knew that I wanted to do it. I needed to. So I sat down and held my prayer beads and then I asked that question.
And you’re reading the answer.
I know there can be something disingenuous about speaking from the “we” voice. When I say “we all,” I am speaking from the limited realm of my personal experience with the kind of people I know. So, I’m sure some of you have different experiences.
I swear I didn’t mean to make this sound like a huge takeoff on Plato!