An artist had better not wait to be inspired before beginning to work, since inspiration typically only comes to artists who are willing to work when not inspired. Tchaikovsky put it this way: “I’m inspired about every fifth day, but I only get that fifth day if I show up the other four days.” This is one of the great truths about the creative process, that if you sit on your hands waiting for inspiration you will likely still be sitting there next month or next year. That being the case, how can you stay motivated on all those days when you aren’t feeling inspired? Here are 5 Tips:
1. Create and maintain an art practice. If you get in the habit of showing up every day to your art, come heck or high water, then you have completely solved the problem of a lack of motivation on those uninspired days. Yes, of course, you may skip days, as you have other life purposes, duties, and reasons for being: but don’t skip many. If you let three or four days pass, six months may vanish.
2. Remember that work in the service of meaning may not feel meaningful. Meaning is a certain sort of psychological experience that we crave. But to get that feeling—to get that fleeting feeling of meaningfulness from the painting, novel or sonata we’re working on—we must work, even if the work is tedious, even if we doubt ourselves, even if the work is taxing. A week of drudgery may get you only a split second of meaning—but you wouldn’t have gotten that split second otherwise.
3. Possess a tactic or two for getting inspired. What inspires you? Certain music? The works of a certain artist? Certain quotations? For me, if I dip into the notebooks of Camus I find myself drifting off to a place that promotes rich writing. What works for you? Make a list of “the ways I know to get inspired,” keep that list handy, and make use of it when the dull days begin to mount up.
4. Hold “inspiration” as a reward and not a gift. Mental models matter. If you hold the creative process one way, as something outside of you that you are searching for, waiting for, or aching for, you will let long stretches of time slip away. If you hold the creative process as more like cultivating a garden, where toil and mystery meet, then you will water and weed that garden and some amazing flowers will appear. Hold inspiration as something you earn.
5. Remember that the fifth day is coming. Remember how process works: that inspiration is real but that it must be earned by paying attention to the work at hand, by being with the work, by not saying things like “I must have no talent” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.” What you want to say instead is, “Process.” Let that rich, powerful word remind you that the creative process is exactly as it is: the way to wonderful, occasional inspiration.
That inspiration is only an occasional guest means that not everything we do will feel inspired or look inspired. We may make a few dull paintings for every lively one: so be it. We may spend a month unhappy that our creations look so dull: so be it. There’s a reason that every great artist’s work has a varied impact on us: some of it is more successful and some of it is less successful, some of it is more inspired and some of it is less inspired. Every artist must live with that reality, you and me included.