Nine Prerequisites for Inspiration

by Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje 2006

published 2007 in Arcana II, musicians on music, edited by John Zorn

This text is based on notes written for a an interdisciplinary seminar at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, for which I contributed to a talk on inspiration. I was most inclined to say something on the subject of inspiration in general, rather than talk about my own more or less inspired work. If inspiration is something universal, this should be possible. That could be an inspiring challenge, I thought.
As creative people in all fields will experience, there is no limit to what can give inspiration: it can be anything from works of art to ordinary everyday life. Another point is that what inspires is often both irrational and illogical, it frequently develops from an indirect form with no evident connection between the inspiring impulse and the end product. One is not always even aware of having been inspired by something until the work is finished, and one often ends up with something quite different to what appeared to be the original idea. This was indeed the case for the speech I was to give. The solution I arrived at was to approach the issue from a slightly different angle to that from which I started. The question I asked myself was: What are the conditions necessary for me to be inspired? From this line of inquiry I came up with Nine Prerequisites for Inspiration in which I believe many will be able to recognize things from their own experience, whatever their field of activity.

“Life belongs to the living, and those who live must be prepared for change.” J.W. von Goethe (1749-1832)

1. Freedom

Freedom is the most important prerequisite for inspiration. By that I mean freedom of expression and of movement, and freedom to think for oneself. And people must have the right to use their own freedom as they wish, to be on top of it, to own their freedom. This postulates a democratic society in which power belongs to the people. This is not to say that lack of freedom cannot inspire: most artists have felt the sudden release of inspiration following an oppressive period in their life. Suppression has provided a kind of political inspiration to artists like Shostakovich, Gubaidulina, Kandinsky, Oscar Wilde etc. Olivier Messiaen wrote one of his most beautiful works and one of my favourite pieces ever: ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, in a concentration camp. But I think it is important to underline the fact that in cases like these inspiration arises not because of but in spite of oppression. I would argue that the fragility and irrationality of inspiration demands individual freedom.

2. Space and time

Inspiration is not a constant quantity, on hand to be harvested in abundance. To survive the brutality of reality it needs to be cultivated and cared for, like other fragile plants. To make space and time for inspiration is to give it a chance. Ideally, with all the time in the world, one can enter this magical space, spend some time there and see what happens. But one has to avoid being too eager to get results. Forced inspiration does not lead to any creative fulfillment.

3. Childlike curiosity and the ability to think divergently

A generally curious attitude to life is essential for an inspired existence. There is no contradiction between retaining a childlike or childish curiosity whilst simultaneously acquiring and cultivating knowledge. Curiosity is inspiration’s best friend. One has to bring it along, both when searching for certain knowledge and when encountering the unforeseen – such as placing familiar objects in new contexts. Drop the well-known patterns tied up with unnecessary politeness and prejudice. It can be a good idea to simply start breaking some rules or routines – what about going to a concert or buying a ticket for something you know absolutely nothing about?

Inspiration comes most easily to those who unconsciously and naturally combine curiosity with divergent thinking. Inspiration thrives in the encounter between childlike playfulness and adult knowledge; knowledge laid down by way of experience in so-called cognitive schemes. Someone who can easily and playfully move around between these banks of knowledge will be able to discover new connections and possibilities. This is what happens in an inspired moment. Things originally arranged into strict mental schemes acquire new functions when new connections are made, giving previously unsuspected possibilities and results. E=mc2. If you are prepared to see life in a new way in terms of ideas, inspiration will lend magic to the new connections – and new knowledge is laid down. It is important to be the owner, not only of your own freedom, but also of your own knowledge.

4. Flow and inner motivation

This is the most abstract and difficult paragraph to say something sensible about. If I start by saying that inspiration appears in different dimensions, I am referring to the multi-layered functions of the mind, how nothing in life is ever experienced linearly, how it never can be.

A very characteristic and often very cliché-filled way of describing how inspiration works is by comparing it to being ‘struck by a flash’ or having an ‘illuminated moment’. It is often characterized as a brief sense of recognition in relation to something that has not yet taken shape, whether it be a specific idea for an entire work or for a component part of something. The feeling is abstract and yet very specific. Another way to describe how inspiration functions is to show the existence of a very intimate dimension in which there is room to get involved in a more active dialogue with inspiration. This dimension exists in what we can call the gestation period between an idea arising, in the form of something amorphous or abstract, and its delivery into the world as a work or a chosen framework – as for instance a framework for improvisation. It has, unlike the ‘illuminated moment’, a time span that allows us to carry on a dialogue with inspiration and alternately store ideas in the subconscious for them to grow beyond our prejudiced control. A third, though by no means final approach, is to look at inspiration on a more global, general level, where several different kinds of influence affect the creative process over a longer period. The inspiration working here is of a more random kind and of a vaguer character. It is not easily traceable either when it happens or in retrospect.

All these dimensions exist in parallel, infiltrating each other and affecting the final result. Like children, all ideas are unique and require different upbringings, and equivalently different methods. The trick is to let your ideas flow freely between these levels, and be able to limit yourself or go in deeper where necessary. Choices should, as far as possible, be made on the firm basis of an inner motivation, which means one must be fully conscious of the danger of letting the creative flow be directed by outer demands, others’ expectations, hopes of success and other motivations from the outside which we are often all too willing to meet and give way to. Inner motivation ensures continued contact with the original idea, even after the necessary choices have been made.

5. Maximalism and anarchy

As I mentioned before, it is impossible to predict exactly what may provide inspiration. This includes a wonderful feeling of freedom – for those who dare: at the starting point, everything is permitted – and anything may be relevant, so don’t clear your attic out – either mentally nor physically! Collect items you fancy and that for different reasons attract your attention. Remember also to collect and study things that seem for the moment to be meaningless or irrelevant. The twists and turns of the creative process may lead you back to an important encounter with something that at first seemed quite neutral, or even something that made you feel repelled or exasperated. In his “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” the designer Bruce Mau writes that one should not tidy one’s desk: “You never know what can come in useful.” Of course this also applies, in a metaphorical sense, to the mind. When we speak of inspiration it is usually in terms of the dimension in which inspiration gives rise to an idea as if in a moment of enlightenment. To prevent this moment from suffocating amongst our own and other people’s limitations and prejudices we have to strive to attain an inner anarchy.

Motivating forces from outside are a constant threat that may easily lead to the artist choosing to limit his or her options prematurely, leading to a subsequent restriction of artistic freedom. But at the point where the work begins to move in a clear direction, where some parameters must be defined, or for instance in the context of improvisation where a definite, limiting choice has to be made, the artist is granted the ability to mentally ‘clear the desk’ in one accomplished, virtuoso swipe. The onward flow is a continuous process of storing information, repeating what you already have in a series of new contexts, getting new impulses, storing the new information etc. In this way the creative dialectic that arises in the wake of an inspired moment can be exploited.

6. Tools

It is not easy to say what comes first – is it the search for a method of dealing with an idea that creates the tool or is it the tool that determines the method? In many cases it is both, perhaps even both at the same time. Nevertheless, everyone who works at translating abstract ideas into reality undoubtedly needs to get hold of tools that can help in best possible ways. There is no fixed recipe for this, but artists and other creative people are bound to develop flexible, adjustable tools of their own to suit their individual needs. Occasionally tools of this kind are incorporated into an academic method or become objects of research, even in classroom situations. Examples of well-known tools in the history of music are the schools of Bach, Palestrina and Messiaen.

7. Collaboration

The question of how to deal with inspiration, how to tackle an idea, has as many answers as there are ideas. By including curiosity and openness in your own choices, you are better equipped to be able to learn when encountering other people’s choices. The choices of others may be a new and invaluable source of inspiration in a creative process. By collaborating with people who operate in other fields one is constantly learning how to see the world in new ways. Creative people need to be in touch not only with themselves but also with the world and with what is happening around them in order to have anything to say at all. In 1999 I wrote a Manifesto, where, among many other things, I stated: “Music has to be in rhythm with the times. Composers and performers have a duty to keep themselves up-to-date in every way possible, and not just inside their own professional field.” It is not just a matter of being inspired, but also of giving inspiration.

An individual’s evaluation of quality will always be subjective, but it must not be repressed to the extent that the sum total of choices made brings the work down to an impersonal, average level or a lowest common denominator. When it comes to collaboration, the sum of the parts is not a logical sum such as 1 + 1 = 2. What if 1 + 1 = a horse or a smell? Everything is possible. A person working alone tends to create his or her own arguments for and against the choices made. When meeting others, given that the project in question involves close collaboration, it may be hard to appreciate your collaborators’ choices, especially if you have been confronted with the same choices but decided on another solution. For that reason artists often find it easier to appreciate forms of expression that are remote from their own decision-making than those that lie close to their own specialized fields. If openness in the encounter with closely related fields of activity poses a greater challenge, it isn’t less valuable in terms of learning from it.

8. Ambivalence

Never be cocksure. Everything has more to it than meets the eye. That explains why there are always discussions and conflicting attitudes to what is relevant in art, or for the ‘Work’. There is a whole academic tradition based on this, more or less relevant to those who are actually engaged in creating something. In artistic collaboration processes there is often disagreement about both methods and aims. This is a good thing. But regardless of what creative choices are made, it is important to keep as much as possible of the fragile ambivalence from the starting point of an idea still present throughout the work. One-dimensional art is seldom very rewarding. But beware of letting the ambivalence block every source of creative energy. After all, you have to start somewhere.

9. Patience

Inspiration cannot be coerced, nor can it be ensured by means of routines and tools alone. In the long run only one thing counts: patience. And from time to time the best thing you can do is simply to put the whole thing aside and relax. Did you say a bath, Archimedes?

photos by Maja S. K. Ratkje
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