A few years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture to music students at the University of Liverpool. I found this prospect a little intimidating as I’m not a formally trained musician or expert, and had my doubts as to whether I had any business, any appropriate credentials talking to these students. They could probably teach me a few things, I reckoned. (And they did).
So I was nervous about it but my pal at the university assured me that as someone out there actively scraping out a living on the road playing my music I was more qualified than many, and that these students would be eager to pick my brain.
Once the talk was underway I felt welcomed and my songs and stories were appreciated. But when it came to a Q&A session at the end I was taken aback. I expected business questions about DIY gig bookings or maybe mechanical questions about how to wire a piezo mic (or more about how I once had to chase down Orange Perrier because David Bowie asked for it). But I was surprised that practically ALL the questions were instead variations on this: “Where do you get an idea for a song?” or “How do you write something original or come up with anything new?”
or “Where do you find inspiration?”
These are tricky questions that I also ask myself, repeatedly. Because inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from the same place twice.
Leonard Cohen put it best in his often-quoted line:
“If I knew where inspiration came from I would go there more often.”
Nonetheless I came up with a few suggestions, things I’ve learned that I return to myself when I feel stuck.
So here you go, six suggestions for summoning your muse or turning on your creative spirit:
1. Just put pen to paper, get your fingers in the clay, or on the guitar fretboard.
Get that Tabasco sauce into that whipped cream.
There’s a kind of chicken-and-egg thing that happens with creating. The hardest thing is often just getting started on something. You have to take a plunge, just get in there. Once rolling, you can change course if you need. You don’t need a fully formed idea to start experimenting. Most of my instruments and songs grow from seeds that almost always become things only vaguely resembling what I was thinking about trying to make in the first place.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut
(this advice, I’m pretty sure, was not intended for political leaders)
2. Don’t be afraid of a bad idea.
You can always throw it out and try something new. Many of my more successful instruments include pieces pulled off previously scrapped projects that just didn’t work out. The Hornicator horn was such a find. I was excited by a vision I had to make this antique Gramophone horn a part of my first drum machine when I was about half way through building it. But, disappointingly, it just didn’t work in that context. I resurrected this vision, however, for my more recent drum machine Mother Superior, which has a (different) horn that suits her (and the original concept) much better. Meanwhile, that original horn became the Hornicator. It worked out better as the beginning of something all its own.
3. Sit around in the dark.
I’ve often reflected on something I read that David Lynch had said around the time he was making his first movie, “Eraserhead.” He said making a film has as much to do with sitting around in the dark smoking cigarettes as it does actually physically working on it. I think he’s off the cigarettes these days, but I’d make an educated guess that he still sits around in the dark as needed. You need to ruminate. The eggs of ideas often need to be incubated for a while before they are ready to hatch. (Try not to confuse this one with procrastination).
4. Get out of the house.
If sitting in the dark isn’t doing it for you, the best chance you may have of coming up with something new and worthwhile is by enriching your varied tapestry of impressions, preferably gleaned from wandering in the wider world. Absorb what moves and resonates with you. Then filter these through – and mate them with – your own experiences. Because no one else has direct access to the filter of yourself, it is your best chance of coming up with something uniquely your own. Certainly your only chance of coming up with something personal. Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million influences. Visits to museums and parks almost always make me want to make things. (Try not to confuse this one with procrastination either).
5. Remember that the most impressive things are usually made out of many small building blocks.
One of my own biggest frustrations is becoming overwhelmed by the quantity and scale of my own goals. We can paralyze ourselves by biting off more than we can chew. Especially these days when we’re typically trying to be and do so many things. For example, I’ve often found myself feeling challenged by the fact that, in music, there’s always the Next Album that will need to be coming in from the future. But an album is typically made up of songs, and each song is made up of smaller collections of elements: words, melodies, textures, sounds, ideas, inspirations. Sometimes the smallest elements are the most crucial, and sometimes you don’t realize that what appears to be a trivial, playful experiment, ‘dumb idea’, or diversion this afternoon is what grows into one of the foundational pillars of a larger project. Or even its crowning jewel. On good days I recognize that the happiness that comes from discovering and uncovering even what only might turn out to be one of these small building blocks is more meaningful and satisfying than the completion of the Big Project itself.
6. Get off line and tend to your roller coaster.
For my sixth tip I have to go back to the end of the Uni lecture, and beyond it into the past a ways. Some good discussion followed the Q&A, the whole thing was a good experience, and I’ve done a few more of these sorts of things since. But there was something that nagged at me for quite a while after that first one, that I had to chew on until I figured out what it was. I realized that I may be a lot more lucky than I’ve appreciated, having been a kid in times before the internet was as all-pervasive as it is these days.
Growing up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Denver was boring. We had to create our own worlds and imagine our own adventures. Of course there were books and movies, which I loved and absorbed as much as I could, but we weren’t perpetually saturated via multiple glowing screens. I recall often complaining to my mother, “I’m bored.” Usually, the problem was solved by her placing a few sheets of paper and some drawing utensils in front of me.
I remember certain special occasions would load up the imagination with ammunition for later. Like going to Lakeside Amusement Park and riding the old wooden roller coaster, and then pretending I was a roller coaster operator for days afterwards. First you were the operator: “Keep your hands inside the car at all times!” You’d pull the lever and the train of cars would start to roll, and then suddenly you were the passenger, running up and down the neighborhood lawns, jumping fences, screaming and waving your arms all over the place. Then you’d ride it again, and again. You got the other neighborhood kids in there too and you all went. Maybe the track would break and there’d be a major pile-up. And so on. And you’d have to rush to collect some other kids from down the block for repairs and ambulances.
We were collectively exercising and stretching our imaginations to fill a void. This void was not always appreciated at the time, but I see its value now, and it’s one of those cases where in retrospect, you find value in something you didn’t have.
When I now occasionally visit the neighborhood in which all this took place, this thing is missing. I’ve been told there are still children there, but apparently none of them are flying around the streets in imaginary roller coasters, and it feels like a ghost town.
Also, it wasn’t long ago that when you came up with an idea, it wasn’t possible to Google it right away only to be discouraged by what appear to be a thousand versions of the same idea out there already. Your idea had the chance to grow and perhaps turn into something else even more unique without suffering a premature burial.
New technologies have been game changers and enabled us to interact, share what we’re doing and improve ourselves and our situations in so many ways. There are certainly inspirational things to be found on line. But a balance is necessary. We need room to breathe and to dream and to play. Give yourself some dream-time, some staring-at-the-ceiling time. This is definitely the hardest one for me to apply regularly enough myself, so I’ll leave you here. There’s a roller coaster out front that appears to be emitting smoke and I’d better go tend to it.
Thanks for reading. As always, please feel free to comment below, interact and share if you like.
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