Voltaire called it “divine flatulence”, Faulkner claimed never to have seen it for himself, Updike believed it arrived as a package at your doorstep, and Jack London advised going after it with a club. Inspiration has been a highly sought commodity for the artist since, well, the beginning. The ancients believed muses were responsible for doling it out which explained why it could be so elusive and even finicky, leaving the poor mortal feeling like some magic life-giving tonic was being held just outside his grasp. And so, over time, we artists have spent mountains of time and money searching the globe (or at least the internet) in the frenzied pursuit of the powerful elixir.
My own office looks as it an inspiration piñata had exploded all over it – there are stacks of books by my favorite authors filled with highlighted passages for easy reference, the walls are plastered with framed poems and colorful art and plaques touting famous quotes all designed to dispense an inspiring word at a glance. I keep a journal of inspirational phrases close by for easy access, and if they aren’t quite getting the job done, all I have to do is pull up Facebook or Twitter to give me an instant inspiration fix when I’m jonesing.
That’s why this week it occurred to me, I am an inspiration addict. And the problem with addiction is that it warps your mind into believing that what you need to survive is somewhere outside of yourself, something to be grasped or purchased or fought for. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that it is a bad thing to be inspired by a book or movie or someone else’s words from time to time. But when it becomes a fulltime pursuit, an insatiable appetite, a grasping dependence on “the other” to make you whole, that’s when it is time to take a step back and just breathe.
In fact, the word “inspire” comes from the Latin word inspirare which can be broken down to “in -- in + spirare -- to breathe.” That’s right – to inspire literally means to breathe in. That’s why it is called inspire, not outspire. If you think about it, we would never depend on someone else to breathe for us! We have all the breath we need in our very own lungs. True, sometimes illness necessitates external breathing help, whether from tubes or inhalers, but by and large we are designed to breathe from deep within our own selves. And so too, I believe, we are meant to take the time to get quiet with ourselves on a regular basis, to allow the inspiration to bubble up from the spring at the center of each of our hearts. To listen to that still small voice that the bible describes as the voice of God.
I know there are times when the well feels dry, when the cup seems empty and we are so desperate and thirsty that we search high and low for someone or something out there to fill us up. I have experienced it recently myself after the death of my beloved pet and a heartbreaking miscarriage. I found writing to be a chore and my creativity felt completely tapped out. Panicked, I began reading three of my favorite books at the same time, I listened to backlogs of sermons, flipped through my archives of Oprah magazines and watched more Ted Talks than I can count…but instead of quenching my thirst for inspiration, the words seemed more like so many grains of sand than water.
Tired and numb to the colors splashed all over my walls, I tossed my books aside and flopped into my armchair. My dog took it as an invitation to jump into my lap, so I acquiesced and we sat there, for the better part of an hour, just breathing. I closed my eyes and felt my breath and that’s when the thought came to me -- when the well runs dry, sometimes you just need to dig a little deeper to discover what you needed was there all along, just under the surface. I believe there is a call placed within each of our hearts, but when we focus all of our attention on listening to everyone else’s voice, we sometimes fail to hear our own.
So instead of going after the mirages in the desert, those false promises of water just beyond your reach… hunker down, dig deep, and discover what it is that you want to say. Stop looking for outspiration -- breathe and find your inspiration. Be your own muse.