Help me open myself to the Muse
May 3, 2011 7:28 PM   Subscribe

How do I recapture the type of inspiration and creative energy I had when I was younger? And how do I balance paid creative work with personal?

I currently do paid creative work (quite happily) and get to do fun, creative stuff all the time. I have no real complaints or issues with that side of things, but I've got a block on my personal artistic side.

Somewhere along the line it's gotten harder and harder for me to access and experience the kinds of creative inspirations that seemed to be happening to me (or occurring to me) all the time when I was younger (I just turned 31 if that matters). I didn't always take advantage of them then, but I'm trying to now.

What are some specific strategies I can use to better balance personal artwork and commercial work, and how can I recapture some of my youthful inspirations? How did you?
posted by hamandcheese to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Thing is, great poets and rock stars - and mathematicians - usually do their best work when young. Wordsworth was the exception, not the rule. There are some things like gymnastics you can do at 15 but you can't do at 31. If you're getting paid to do "creative" work then it's inevitably going to suck up some of your energy and if that's diminishing anyway you might have to accept it - at least you're putting food on the table without having to dig ditches all day. That said, a specific strategy could be embarking a project which is completely different from what you do for a living. Builders always have front gardens full of bricks, as finishing off the patio is the last thing they feel like doing on a Saturday, but they may well have a wonderful collection of tropical fish. Most creative work is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration anyway so maybe you need to resign yourself to siege tactics to climb the next mountain, rather than the lightweight alpine approach you could wing as a fresh faced youngster. Dylan had to get divorced to write 'Blood on the Tracks' but I hope you don't have to go that far.
posted by joannemullen at 8:04 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe great ideas seemed to be occuring to you all the time because you were inexperienced and thus had lower standards.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 8:08 PM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Recent studies indicate that creativity tends to follow an inverted U curve, with the peak occurring between the ages of 25 an 50. So, though creativity may decline with age, you, just barely into your thirties, likely have many creative years ahead of you!

And that's not all--apparently creativity in poetry and some sciences occurs at a younger age than creativity in novelists, or in philosophy, history or biology. It's been postulated that when you have a discipline that is firmly defined, you understand it quickly and can then go on to innovate early. The more ambiguous the field, the older a person is likely to be before they have mastered the craft and started getting jiggy with it. ;)

Okay, so that's the science so far. And I don't know just what your artistic field is from your question. But the good news is that, no matter what your age or area of expertise, if you change it up a little you can spark that creativity again!

I think this is why you often see folks here recommending books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (which I have to get out of my closet and get to work on myself!). But doing anything that's out of your routine, seems to me, has to have an effect. Think about this: when you were younger, you probably had a much less structured routine when it came to your creative endeavors. Now, you are working regularly and maybe you are in a bit of a rut.

So consider taking on a new hobby, or travelling on your off days, or even taking a class in an creative pursuit that is NOT your strength, and see how that works out for you.
posted by misha at 8:47 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

I recaptured my youthful inspirations by losing my job.

No, seriously.

Look -- you're never going to be as think-outside-the-box creative as you were when you were younger. Accept that. Move on. So the trick here is to be better than before -- to take advantage of inspiration that you wouldn't have when you were younger. To be smarter about it. To be more targeted, more dedicated, to utilize the positive aspects of your age and use them to your advantage. When I was younger, I was aimless. I worked on a dozen projects at once. Now? Now I focus, I am specific, I am precise. I treat it like a job, because that's what it's become. I work harder at it than anyone else does.

Also, I don't buy that "Poets and rock stars are only good when they're young!" bullcrap. There are a million reasons why those occupations are the province of the young, and 'creative age' is a very small part.
posted by incessant at 10:01 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I think about my also much more prolific periods, I realize these times coincided with not having to work, seconding incessant on that point. I had more time on my hands and fewer distractions back then. I also had much longer timelines to realize my goals ("oh, I'll go to school and do that later, or after I graduate I'll worry about that")...something that I personally have not been able to recapture since becoming self-sufficent--I'm spending nearly all my energy on professional ambition. Maybe you're doing something similar?
posted by smirkette at 10:09 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please file the following under, "Do as I say, not as I do," because I also suffer from the same problem you're describing. Some days are better than others.

The short answer is that you will never return to the mode of thinking or creativity that you had as a younger person. The mental changes we experience, I believe, are as much a part of the physiological aging process as puberty or getting gray hair.

However, the perspective you gain as you get older is valuable. The way creativity manifests itself changes. The tricky part is learning how to accept these changes and become adept at piloting your new frame of mind.

I have found that, when I was younger, ideas seemed to emerge from my imagination, sort of like dreams. They came from play. Nowadays, the ideas only become exciting once I've worked them over in some kind of external, physical medium. They come from work.

These days I puke out a very unformed concept on paper. It's not inspiring in itself, and it didn't come in a flash of brilliance or a flight of imagination. It's kind of a dull, lumpy idea. But once it's out, I can start carving away at it, making many iterations of it, and seeing where the variations of the creative process take the idea.

It's plodding and demoralizing. It makes me miserable. However, it's the way things have to get done for me now. Ultimately I am reduced to two choices:

1. Reject this process. Refuse to accept it in its banality. Seek after some kind of rejuvenation or redemption of the way things used to be (really, a doomed quixotic search for the Fountain of Youth). Or, perhaps, give up on personal creative work altogether because the means are no longer worth the ends.

2. Accept this process. Accepting the pain, sweat, odor and flies of what amounts to shoveling a hundredweight of manure into your vegetable garden. Then weeding and watering those metaphorical plants, watching some of them get eaten by bugs and rabbits. Then watching sad, misshapen little tomatoes start to come in. But every once in a while, you get a really big, beautiful, perfect tomato, and you eat it for dinner, and the satisfaction it gives you is beyond estimation...even though you didn't actually MAKE it, really. God made it, Nature made it, the Universe made it. And yet, it would not have been possible if you had not done all that work.

My father once had me look at a one-dollar bill. On the reverse is a Masonic pyramid, with the eye of God hovering over it within the capstone. My father said that in any work we do in life, we can only build up to a certain point ourselves; the capstone must come down from God. Work diligently, and you build high enough for that capstone to descend.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:15 AM on May 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a bid for accepting where you're at now. I had a very similar experience -- a few years ago I felt profound disappointment that I didn't blaze with ideas and awareness like I had in my earlier years. So one day I ran across an old journal from that time period, and I was very excited -- perhaps I would be able to identify what the crucial difference was, what I was doing then that I couldn't seem to do anymore.

Well when I actually read it, I was a little horrified. Because it seems that the magical ingredient back then was mental illness; I had a lot of personal problems, which I tended to romanticize at the time, but in retrospect I feel like I really dodged a bullet there by growing up and away from those problems. About two thirds of that brilliant energy I'd been envying had been rooted in desperation and insecurity.

That was a big moment for me, coming to terms with the fact that I am actually a better artist now that I don't have my crazybrains anymore. I have focus, I can trust that my curiosity in subjects comes from a genuinely interested place, and while my flame might not blaze quite as high (nor all night long) it is a steady glow.
posted by hermitosis at 7:03 AM on May 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I started to mark best answers, but realized I'd have to tag them all. Thank you very much. All of this has been insightful.
posted by hamandcheese at 7:20 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
— Leonard Cohen
posted by Zozo at 7:54 AM on May 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I clicked on your question because I largely have the same one. I do creative work for a living and feel that over the years it's been very hard to find that spark I used to get which would set me off on some long blaze of genius work. These days I find myself telling myself that if I'm going to do anything challenging I need at least 4 hours uninterrupted to get into the groove. And that never happens.

In reading your question and the responses here however, I do have some feedback based on my personal experiences.

Inspiration seems to arise from asking good questions. When I'm taking on a new project, I tend to get the most interested in it when I get to know the client and draw out of them what their goals and desires are for the project. I develop a personal interest in seeing success for them. In that process I ask them and myself many questions that lead to flushing out ideas for the creative aspects of the work. I develop a vision in my head of what the finished product will be like. And I tend to get excited about it.

Focus and discipline are necessary habits to cultivate to keep the fire of inspiration burning. When inspired and on a productive creative track, it's possible to produce excellent creative work quickly. But it's important to not get side tracked. It seems to especially be a problem with ubiquitous Internet access to answer every whimsical question that may pop to mind while working. Looking for ideas I personally will often go out surfing the net and find my personal feeling of interest in the project dropping slowly as the thousands of other interesting things bombarding me start to take hold in my mind. I could be trying to find a royalty free image of a pig and twenty minutes later be reading an article on a new wind power generator design. When I was younger my options for such distraction were highly limited by my work environment. Now I'm free to do anything I want. So self discipline has become a highly important component of maintaining the creative process.

I agree with some here who suggest that some of it may be perception. I know that my work now is leaps and bounds better than 10 years ago. But I still feel like much of it is below the standards that I currently strive for. That can feel like regression, when in fact it's just the bar getting higher.

Stress can be another factor. Creative work seems to best manifest itself when the mind is clear enough for the topic in question to dominate all areas of it for the time of the work. Stress about other things in life can build up as we take on more responsibilities and collect more baggage. When young it was easier to be more fully present. As adults we may have formed mental habits of allowing many things to be going on in our minds at once. In this way stress can destroy focus and extinguish the flame of inspiration.

My recommendations for you and for myself are to take the time to learn about what is behind the creative work you are about to embark on. Get interested in becoming a part of the bigger picture of the work. Then each time before you start work on whatever project it is, take a moment to review that bigger picture and daydream a little to fill your mind with the details until you feel excited about starting.

Stay on track by intentionally reminding yourself often that while you are working, it's more productive to avoid dealing with outside stresses. Most of those things will in fact be better served by you doing better work. For now they just need to be quiet in your mind. When you think that you need to seek input for the work, be very specific with yourself on what you are looking for before you stop the creative part of the work to do the research so that you can quickly toss aside the many distractions that will show up as you open yourself to the outside world.

As for the responses about age: It's not how many years you have behind you. It's not your biological abilities having changed. As we age, we tend to get better at whatever we do with the most energy. Unless you can keep your interest up about your work, you will lose energy for it. It's important to stay "fresh" in whatever you do if you intend to grow instead of stagnate. Most adults don't try to stay fresh and instead find patterns where they stagnate in their work. That's why most adults work in jobs where advancement is more a matter of years served instead of improvement in work. Most adults also don't enjoy their work all that much.

For further reading, there are many good resources out there. One that comes to mind is "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore.

Good luck. Your "good question" has certainly inspired me and kept me focused on creating this answer. :-)
posted by davathar at 8:23 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something that occurred to me when I was experiencing a similar frustration was my overall relative access to materials. In my younger, poorer, and pre-internet days, I was severely limited in the materials I had available to me for doing my own art (typically wire-based and unwelded metal sculpture). I couldn't afford the "right" tools to do what I wanted to do, and whatever materials I could score were dear enough that they had to be used to the absolute best of their ability both because they were usually more difficult to acquire. Waste was more of an issue.

What tipped the scale for me was a PBS documentary called Yank Tanks: the Stranded American Cars of Cuba, which covered the inspired techniques that the owners of such autos use to keep them running absent access to proper replacement parts. I was particularly inspired (and only a little horrified) to see one man with a backyard setup for casting replacement brake pads for his car.

For me, at least, having access to the right tools and being able to afford materials makes my ability to work easier, but it can also take away from my own creativity. The solutions I used to come up with out of necessity strike me as being far more exciting and inspired than the ones I come up with when things are easy.
posted by Graygorey at 10:03 AM on May 4, 2011

Best answer: Write things down! I discovered that once I started keeping a notebook with me and jotting down all of my wild inspirations as they pop up, I had a lot more of them. My theory is that it's a combination of noticing them more, and opening up free cycles for my brain - if I'm not revisiting old ideas just to keep from forgetting them before I move on them, it has the room to keep generating new ideas.
posted by polymath at 3:47 PM on May 4, 2011

Dear Proper Meal, i may write this while having an unfair advantage over you,(I am actually quite young), but as I am so to speak an insider regarding youth, i hope i can be useful to you.
One thing which distinguishes youth from "the dreaded years before my midlife-crisis and my well deserved shiny-silver Porsche" is that inspirations are throwing themselves at you in form of masses of different people, education besides remembering formula for your next much feared and hated test, and a change of environment(college dorms,beds of girls you don't even remember their names of), so I am telling you: to get new inspiration you need impressions you can base on(this is actually a very banal thing, but sometimes when you are overspecialized it is easy to forget the BASICS). As you are now an proper adult as well as a proper meal please don't do this sightseeing of bedrooms ,okay ? Rather, as you now are probably much better at socializing besides getting wasted together, i would recommend to you, to have long sophisticated talks with interesting and fascinating people. But i beg of you, plese don't get hang on small talk with a glass of red wine,rather get heated conversations with a gulp of whiskey or the likes(But don't get overboard, you should be able to remember your talks). Also a good idea would probably be to use your well-deserved money for traveling(choose the biggest culture shock available!), don't stay in climated hotel rooms, get outa there! You should also use this opportunity to refill you energy and take a deep breath, as especially creative people -who have most often no 8-16 o'clock work day- who like their work very much often just overwork themselves(there is only so much fire beneth your ass until you burn out).Also helpful would be to laugh a bit more, you are now probably too tense(as opposed to youth when you are too dense).Think of it :The Joker who would oh so often ask:"Why so serious?" was very creative in ways of killing his victims, wasn't he? (Please don't become a second Joker!)
All this is to emulate the environment of your past, but now lets speak about the second half which defines a human at every single moment:Your way too see things and how to react to them:In your childhood and early youth you were probably a lot less tamer.One thing that happens to humans as they grow older, is that they become dead-set on/in certain ways.You don't have the time too waste your time always with "weird" thoughts and so you erect STOP!-signs in your head,but the problem is the "river" of your creativness/your thoughts can't flow as he should if he is straightened and there are so much unnaturals dams.So if you have sometime weird ideas,rather then condemning them at point blank, look if you could make something out of them.To present things in new innovative ways , to look at them from fresh viewpoints is one of the virtues of an artist.

But be aware, there are reasons why adults can't just act as big childs again.For example one my biggest problems is having so much ideas, i can't keep a hold of them and as there are so much of them keep throwing themselves at me like in storm of bullets , i don't have the time to work one of it out properly.But as you have probably much more expertise with life I think you could combine the best of both worlds (childhood,early youth:finding raw gems,adulthood:polishing especially nice raw gems to make them shine like never before!).

P.S. : This journal thing is utter genius.Collect them, stop repeating all of them over and over and then take one and do your magic (Silly me! Honest and good work!)
posted by TheWalkingQuestionMark at 4:46 PM on May 11, 2011

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