Inspiring Inspiration

Writer’s block. Drawing a blank. Creative stagnation. If you’re a creative person, you’ve probably felt it at one time or another. Working on a project or in a job that requires constant new ideas and drive to complete them often  sounds great until I realize just how much inspiration is required to keep up.

People have typically always considered me to be a very creative person and I feel lucky to have grown up with one parent gifted in fine arts and another who is a skilled musician. Both were constantly supporting my desire to be creative, even when I made a change from attending a typical university to go to art school.

I don’t remember feeling very hard pressed for inspiration as a kid or through school. Ideas seemed to come easily while making videos or sketching or writing (really bad) poetry, and it wasn’t until I found myself in a job as an adult that I really began to struggle with trying to balance having a job and being creative.

The funny thing is that I was working in design in the fashion industry and most people would probably consider the work of a fashion designer to be creative, right? I had trouble trying to align inspiration with the rigorous, fast-paced schedule of the companies I was working for and ultimately didn’t feel much creative fulfillment.

The more I worked, the more my creativity seemed to be totally tapped out. I wasn’t doing projects at home, not even drawing anymore, and the more depressed I felt the more frustrated I became. The constant pool of inspiration I had been able to draw from previously seemed completely gone and I couldn’t help but wonder why or where it had gone.

Increased creativity is often said to be connected to those with mental illness, though we still don’t quite know how or why. It doesn’t surprise me because living with bipolar disorder has allowed me to experience extreme mental states like mania and psychosis where it has felt as though I have ideas faster than I can recognize them. Many of these ideas seem to take root like small seeds that quickly grow on their own until they’ve created a jungle of fiction around me.

I know I am not the only one to have seen this jungle and said, “ah ha! That’s where the pool of inspiration must be!” In severe moments of frustration at not being able to produce things creatively at the rate at which I have wanted to I have found myself grabbing a machete and traipsing into that jungle like Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth.

It can feel easy to believe that this is the one and only source of true inspiration when I am not used to having to work for it. After all, who would want to work for something they can get for free, right?

As I have gotten older I’ve come to believe that my mental illness isn’t the one and only source of inspiration. I’ve been able to create things while stable, even while depressed, so my idea that mania is a prerequisite for creativity has become somewhat antiquated.

What got me thinking about this topic was writing. I started this blog five years ago and, surprise surprise, I was in a pretty elevated state heading somewhere near mania at the time. I could sit down and write post after post, but as time wore on I found myself having to work for that inspiration that came so easily at first.

I had a goal to keep writing, and the biggest change I made was to shift my mindset from being someone who let creative ideas flow into me to someone who actively pursued things that interested me. Lo and behold, the more I scientific articles I read, the more people I talked to, the more blogs I read, the more I had to say.

I always wondered why people would say, “if you want to be a writer, read a lot of books.” The more I read and the more I write, the more true I find that statement to be. When it comes to my mind I’ve been ignorant about the fact that to get something out, to produce something, I need to take something in first.

Now that I recognize it, the concept makes perfect sense to me. When I was younger I drew inspiration from being in school. Constantly learning new things about history or art, talking to people and hearing new points of view; if you think about it school itself is a breeding ground for inspiration, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Beyond that, what is my mental illness but a constantly changing experience informing my senses in new ways all the time? In a sense, bipolar disorder has informed me emotionally the way reading has informed me in a literary way; it has been a platform for me to absorb something new without realizing it.

It seems totally reasonable that becoming more stable might make one feel less creative  when we consider how easy it can be to lean on the unprompted ideas sparked by mental illness for inspiration instead of taking up other hobbies or interests that might produce similar results.

Needless to say, I think it is really important to teach ourselves where to look for inspiration and how to capture it without having to rely on something that can otherwise be detrimental to our lives. I truly believe that creativity does not require an element of self-destruction. Sometimes it might take a little more effort to initiate that creativity with activities and engaging our senses, but imagine the things we can learn and pass on along the way!

Inspiration can come from anything, anywhere, any time. For me, finding it is about putting myself in a position to experience something new, whether that is experiencing something emotionally, visually, physically, or mentally, etc. Paying attention (being mindful) to what I am experiencing is key to getting something useful out of it, but I don’t go in with any expectations. Sometimes it takes me a few days to let something stew for inspiration to pop up, sometimes it happens right away. It is all about the mind making new connections.

Here are a few ideas for ways to help inspire inspiration:

  • Watch something new
    • Youtube
    • Movies
    • Television shows
    • Plays or musicals
    • Comedy
  • Listen to something new
    • Music
    • Audiobooks
    • Street noise
    • Sounds in nature/wildlife
  • Read something new
    • Books
    • Magazines
    • Blogs
    • Web Articles
  • Learn something new
    • take a class or workshop
    • Youtube how-to videos
    • watch how someone does their job
    • volunteer
  • Experience something new
    • Attend a sporting event
    • Meet new people
    • Join a club or group
    • Try out a gym
  • Be somewhere new
    • In nature
    • In the city
    • Travel
    • Take a new route home
  • Create something new
    • try a new hobby like pottery or knitting or photography
    • try a new medium like watercolor, charcoal, ink
    • allow yourself the freedom to make “mistakes”
    • try writing or drawing prompts
    • try a new genre for writing like mystery, romance, or non-fiction

One of the benefits of experiencing mental illness in my lifetime is that even in periods where I am stable, I am able to draw on that experience. Sometimes, like with this blog for example, I might not be having an episode and there is no intense emotion to fuel a subject for my writing. I’ve come to actually enjoy those periods because it allows me to write about my mental health in a different way, I can shift my perspective to think about topics like creativity when I might normally be too engaged with feeling depressed or manic to consider them.

Ultimately I’ve reached the point where I am happy to be learning how to inspire inspiration for myself without having to rely on my own unpredictable behavior. The most helpful elements for me have involved making an effort to step outside my comfort zone (and be open minded about it) and chasing what interests me. While it is true that “chasing what interests me” might be making my boyfriend a little crazy right now (because what interests me is South Korean pop music videos) there is little substitute for the feeling of feeling a new idea take root and watching it grow.

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