Songwriter Boo Hewerdine once told me a story about Richard Thompson and his approach to songwriting. Apparently he would write constantly, regardless of the quality of the work, just so that he was ready when inspiration came. He called it “keeping the shop open”. You never know when inspiration might walk through the door.
My own writing and songwriting has become like a daily practice. Much of what I create may never make it further than a chaotic half idea, but I’m keeping the shop open for when inspiration strikes.
Once, having hit a very dark seam, I was telling my own therapist of my struggle. I wanted him to know that I worried I couldn’t be of help and support to my own clients because I had so little in my own tank. He looked at me, smiled, and said,
In those weeks which followed I noticed a tension between a physical and emotional exhaustion combined with an emotional openness which seemed to give me rare insight in my work. Over time it became obvious that it was indeed the case that a willingness to experience my own difficult emotion was a route to levels of inspiration, insight and empathy it isn’t always so easy to tap into.
The desperation to move away from discomfort to something more peaceful is at odds with what it is to be inspired, because insight is often found where it’s most frightening to look.
My own experience has taught me two important lessons about inspiration.
Firstly it isn’t enough to wait for inspiration to fall upon you. I used to write posts or songs only when I had an idea bursting out of me, but, for most of us, these times are relatively rare, and so you end up with a small body of work easily skimmed from the surface of your existence without ever really accessing the depth of your own capability.
Second, inspiration feeds on extreme emotion, and while it is easy to bask in the comfort of joy it is incredibly hard to accept deep discomfort and even harder to use it productively but, when you can, the shift can be seismic. Creating something from pain is a wonderful way of giving it meaning.
When you feel uninspired it is not an absence outside of you, not a lacking of something which will arrive if you are patient. Only by working with exactly what you have in the moment can you expect inspiration to come. Sometimes that means hard work when you feel like resting. Sometimes it means feeling something you don’t want to feel but, in the end, if the shop is closed, nobody comes.