Today was a somewhat rainy day. The type of weather that brings out that kind of particular melancholy that leads me to the thought, “Today is a great day to play some piano.”
I’m not a good piano player by any stretch of the imagination. I’m more of a guitarist that happens to “strum” the ivories on occasion. Think of John Lennon’s “Imagine” being the absolute farthest reach of my skills and you’ve got the picture.
I just “knew” I could sit down and write a song. Songwriting is one of my hobbies, and I’ll admit the muse doesn’t strike me often in that regard, but I felt like I had “one in the chamber” today. I quickly finished off my lunch and headed for the basement of the Community Arts Center, with a Post-It note pad in my hand and forty-five minutes left of lunch hour still ticking away – plenty of time.
I turned on a digital piano. Played a few chords… changed the tone from the default grand piano to an electric piano…nope…a jazz organ…nope…a marimba…nope…. I finally settled on something that sounded like a cello and played a few more chords before I decided I wasn’t in a digital piano kind of mood. I scooted over to a real piano and played what few chords I have in my piano repertory… still nothing. Then I attempted humming a few words to a simple progression, trying not to sing out too loud. When you’re only “strumming” a piano, the last thing you want to do is get caught by someone who thinks that you know what you’re doing. They might want to listen or even worse, they might have requests… but, I wasn’t there to play piano. I was there to write a SONG. I tried scribbling on the Post-It note with a free pen from one of those cash advance/payday loans companies… nope. Apparently free pens aren’t good pens, I thought as the pen gouged into the paper, but left no ink.
Why couldn’t I get anything to happen? My spirit was willing. I knew I had a great idea lurking just beneath the surface, but somehow it slipped away. Although I didn’t get a song, I did scrawl out a simple bassline and I got an idea for this blog – Inspiration.
As artists, how often do we approach our craft with all the confidence in the world that something absolutely amazing will happen, only to fall completely flat? We spread our arms wide to embrace the muse, only to find that, to use a variation on a now common phrase, “she’s just not that into you.”
The problem is that artists, like athletes, can get out of shape. If you’ve ever ran a 5K, 10K, or a marathon, you know that there is an intense level of training involved. You can’t just decide to run a marathon and start training by running the full 26.2 miles. You work your way up to it, day by day and mile by mile. If you slack off on your training, you have to work your way back up to the intensity where you left off. If you haven’t run in three years, you’ll be surprised to find that your body is not as cooperative as it once was.
Inspiration is the same way. If you haven’t been regularly creating and honing your art, you will find difficulty in the creative process. If you’re out of shape creatively, finding the perfect subject matter will end up being a frustrating mess. The new ideas that once came so easily will find ways of somehow seeping through the cracks.
Chuck Close, one of America’s leading contemporary artists – famous for his larger than life portraits, once said –
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
Chuck has a condition known as prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness”- he simply cannot recognize faces. His giant portraits help him to better identify his subjects and friends. Close also suffered a seizure in 1988 that left him in a state of paralysis, but he completely revamped his style to overcome his limitations and still manages to make some of the world’s most incredible art. Given this example, I find myself wondering, “What’s my excuse?”
I need to stop waiting for inspiration. I need to get inside the artwork and plow forward, and inspiration will no doubt follow. Too often, we fall back on excuses – too tired… too poor…too old…etc and we never reach our potential. We want to “run marathons” and “cross the finish line” in terms of our art, but we don’t want to stay fit and train to be able to accomplish our goals.
Put in your time. Hone your craft. Even though you can’t make a masterpiece every time you visit your studio, a bad day making art is better than a good day waiting for it.
This article originally appeared in the August Artists ONLY, an enewsletter full of calls to artists, exhibit opportunities and inspiration for professional and aspirint artists. Click here to receive Artists ONLY in your inbox!