You got to get behind the mule
In the morning and plow…
— Tom Waits
A friend told me the other day that her daughter was complaining that none of her teachers or classes in school inspired her. My friend and I were both a little bemused; we couldn’t recall that we ever thought we were supposed to be inspired in school.
Inspiration is overrated, anyway.
Any creative person will tell you that if you wait around to be inspired, you’re not going to get a whole lot of work done. Oh, inspiration can strike — and when it does it’s a glorious feeling. Trouble is, it tends to last long enough to get you started, but not long enough to help you finish. At some point, you just have to get behind the mule and plow.
Inspiration is to creativity a lot like what infatuation is to love. Feels great; doesn’t last — and you can’t rely on it in the long run.
Trouble is, we’re bombarded day in and day out with social and cultural messages crafted to make us think that we’re supposed to be living in a state of constant inspiration. Buy this product, take this class, use this app and you’ll be inspired to great things. You’ll be “living your best life.” When, in spite of it all, we don’t feel inspired, we feel like there’s something wrong with us. Why is everybody else so inspired and “living their best life” and I’m stuck here behind this damn mule?
It’s not hard to see how the gap between our “best life” expectations and aspirations and our often-uninspiring reality can be downright harmful. Despite living amid the greatest plentitude and material ease, comfort, and convenience in human history, rates of depression and suicide are alarming, especially among young people who one might expect to be in the prime of life.
Could the “inspiration gap” be a factor?
Maybe we should stop chasing inspiration and instead seek something else: Satisfaction, perhaps? There can be a lot of satisfaction in looking back at that field you plowed today.
A friend of mine hits the gym three times a week. It’s safe to say she’s never once felt inspired by the prospect. In fact, she often spends the morning almost sick with dread of what she’s going to put herself through. But she does it — she works hard and she comes back from her ordeal feeling a great deal of satisfaction. It’s a triumph of discipline, not of inspiration — a quality we tend to underrate these days.
Steve Earle, one of America’s great songwriters, described the difference between his two mentors, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, comparing them to the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg:
“One [was] not particularly disciplined, didn’t live very long, didn’t work that much, the last few years of his life, and then Allen and Guy were incredibly disciplined and left huge bodies of work,” Earle says. “Guy had cancer the last 10 years of his life, and he still worked till the very end. … And I learned from him that these things that artists do, they call them disciplines for a reason.”
And there’s a strange — and somewhat ironic — phenomenon that occurs when we discipline ourselves to just get down to the work: Inspiration grows out of the process. It’s a slow burn, not the lighting flash of pure inspiration — the song that comes complete to us in our dreams. That lightning flash comes rarely, if ever, and is a gift beyond our control. That slow burn is a fire we can build and tend for ourselves. It’s got staying power.
It’s not glamorous, and it probably won’t impress anyone on Instagram, but there’s satisfaction to be found out there in the field. And maybe that’s better for us than inspiration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go hitch up the mule.