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I had a conversation recently with someone about artistic inspiration. Both of us artists and photographers, he wondered whether some people were simply inspired more often than others. It’s a good question, though the obvious answer is that some people probably do get more frequent bursts of inspiration than others. But how often someone is inspired isn’t really the important question. Or, even really a relevant one.

How often are you inspired? Is it about once a week? Once a month? Ever?

When we try to answer this question, our perception is most likely clouded. We usually only remember our inspiration at times that we’ve actually done something with it. “I felt inspired by a recipe for Dorito Dust and so I went and made some”. It’s hard to forget that inspiration; I had it, and I did something with it.

This is important. That might be the only time you remember being inspired that week, but it is not the only time you were inspired.

Noticing Inspiration

Inspiration isn’t a binary experience. Its amplitude varies. While inspiration hits you all the time, it’s not always ample enough to get you to do anything about it. On your way to work, you take a different route and notice some really interesting architecture, but as only fleeting inspiration, it hardly even warrants the action to write it down.

On the other hand, as the amplitude of your inspiration increases, so does the likelihood that you’re going to do something with it. Creative expression costs energy, and you need a lot of inspiration to make it worth it. If you’ve ever found yourself at the fortunate crossroads of surplus energy, a great idea, and the theoretical means to carry it out, then you know just the experience I’m talking about.

The Energy to Act

The sporadic appearance of inspiration makes it seem elusive. But really, what is elusive is the energy to act on lower levels of inspiration. So where does the energy to act come from? The same place the energy to run a marathon comes from: gradual training over a long period of time.

Inspiration happens all the time. But just like your heart beats all the time hardly means that it can take anything you throw at it. If you plan on sitting on a couch 24 hours a day, your heart might explode if you try to complete a triathlon. You need to work that muscle gradually. The energy to act on inspiration isn’t altogether different. If you have a lot of energy and a lot of inspiration, it’s easy to take advantage of it. But since that’s not the case, you need to first work on increasing your energy before you can worry about the amplitude of your inspiration.

Disciplined Creativity

Unless we’re developing our energy to act, we won’t have enough energy to respond to low-level inspiration and it won’t ever expand to high level motivation.

So how do you work this muscle? Discipline. It sounds so unromantic. Maybe even totally against the “wistful nature” of artistic expression. But it’s not. Introducing discipline to your creativity doesn’t mean being sterile, cold or calculated in all of your creative decisions. It means always planning, and respecting the space to be creative.

Apply discipline to the designation of time and space to act creatively. For example, you could be disciplined to simply hold your camera for 15 minutes every day. Every day. Or you could be disciplined to write in a journal every day. You could be disciplined to look at images that are meant to inspire you every day. You could do nothing but sit there for 10 minutes thinking about how you can’t think of anything inspiring–just do it on purpose, every day.

You’re creating space with this discipline, for inspiration to appear.

It’s a discipline that is effective because it relies on real numbers. You are inspired every day, but you have no space to put the inspiration. No energy reserved for it. To be inspired and have nowhere to direct it means that to act on that inspiration requires not just the energy to be creative, but the energy to create the space to be creative. It’s an uphill battle.

But, by applying discipline to the creation of creative space every day, you remove a big energy barrier to acting on the lower levels. It may take some time to adjust, you may spend the first weeks of your discipline feeling like you’re not very inspired during those times. But soon, you’ll start to direct your little thoughts throughout the day into those few disciplined moments.

Discipline Isn’t The Whole Story

The rest of the story is experience.

If you make a disciplined effort to create space every day for inspiration to work its way out of you–you really do it on purpose–you will eventually start to fill that space with inspired creativity that used to just drift off. Although I’m sure there are exceptions, I don’t think there are enough of them to doubt. But what will that inspiration produce?

Inspiration is the mind pulling otherwise disconnected strings of thought, consciousness and feeling together. That’s my working definition anyway.

To increase your chances of feeling dynamic and thought provoking inspiration, you need to feed your mind a diet of different experiences. You need to shoot in a different way. You need to go to different places. You need to talk to different people. You need to break your own habits. By creating new experiences for yourself, you also create a web of thoughts and feelings that support inspiration you’ll want to act on within the creative space you’ve made for yourself.

Updated Feb 21, 2016 for word related weirdnesses.