Anyone with the smallest creative bent has had that moment when an IDEA kidnaps your focus. And I do mean IDEA. Not a measly little idea that makes you think, “That would be cool,” but a Russian dominatrix IDEA that grabs you by the balls and demands fulfillment now and on her terms. Metaphorically, speaking. The point is you will do it, and you will do it now.
This is when the artist becomes the slave to the art, and it’s not the type of moment that happens conveniently behind closed doors when you ask politely for inspiration. No, IDEAS come from outside stimulus. Whether it’s a Youtube video of a band, a comment from your boss, or a passing action by a stranger, something about the turn of phrase or thought catalyzes a reaction in the brain and gives birth to a cerebral traffic cop, re-routing priorities and upsetting any plans or schedules. This could be a brief delay or an entire detour that you cannot escape without consequences.
Let’s say you’re in the weekly office meeting, and in your boss’s prepared comments, some offhand remark flips the IDEA switch. Suddenly, you’re designing in your mind: colors, shapes, sounds, and textures. You’re adding layers: shaping, melding, removing, and shifting until a rough model glows in your mind with context and materials, notes and lyrics, shadows and light. Your body may still be in the meeting, your eyes open, but your awareness and your sight are so completely internal that only when that rough draft is done, the IDEA sated, are you again aware of the reality around you.
Shit, he’s still talking. How much did I miss? How long did that take?
It’s no wonder much of society thinks that artists are ditzy and flighty. So often, we can’t even have a conversation without getting lost in our own minds. Even those with artistic bents who’ve had occasional IDEAS consider the frequency of artists’ side trips self-indulgent and weak-willed. But when you have dedicated yourself to an art, when that is your career and your focus, IDEAS are the moments you live for. They are the treasure you struggle to find buried in yourself as you work and sweat in your home. They’re the dropped coins on the street that hunger has trained you to look for or the forgotten child that you shelter from the world.
IDEAS are an artist’s career. Focusing on one in conversation is like excusing yourself for a business call. Ignoring one is like a retail clerk ignoring a customer to talk to a friend. You can’t guarantee when another customer will come or that another one will come at all. It may be rude, but it’s both the business we’ve chosen and a result of how we’ve trained our minds to see.
Unfortunately, stepping out for a moment (mentally) is still easier for most people to understand and accept than the second, stronger kind of IDEA. This isn’t the brief delay where you seem to space out for a minute and then come back. No, this kind of IDEA is even more consuming and cannot be appeased by a rough draft or few moments of thought. It must be explored now, created now.
My first experience with this strength of inspiration came in my Junior year of high school. My English teacher drifted off-topic and told us a personal story that touched a chord in me and fired a need to create that I had never experienced before. It was a poem. It hadn’t been written yet – it didn’t exist in any way, shape, or form – but I knew it was a poem. I had to write it. It wasn’t something I could ignore or put off, I had to write it then. Like a compulsion or spell, it pulled at me and commanded I obey, or I knew the poem would be gone forever.
I wrote through that class and the next and the next. I forced myself to write class notes on one side, as quickly as possible, while the poem took form on the other. Even then, I don’t think I really heard or understood what anyone said to me, it passed through a part of my brain and on to the paper even as the rest of my mind shaped and sculpted words and lines to appease the fever that held me.
When the last line finally sat on the page, that terrible pressure disappeared like a rough storm at sea finally releasing a battered ship. Disoriented, dazed, the crew recovers and slowly starts putting the ship to rights, returning to normal life. My classmates may have thought I was drugged or ditzy, I don’t know. I only remember feeling drained as I emerged from my mind and took in the world again. Maybe an exorcism is a better example, and the spirit possessing me finally fled. The stories of séances where the ghost takes over the host’s hand and writes until his/her story has been communicated to the world certainly rings with the feeling of that compulsion.
Not that I blame IDEAS on ghosts.
But that compulsion to create shows the strength of this kind of inspiration. Ignoring one can be painful both in resisting the compulsion (think of an addict resisting their drug of choice) and in trying to recreate it later, at a more convenient time. For those who cherish the art inside us, trying to breathe fire into embers of what was (you swear!) a really good idea and being unable to rekindle it to equal flame is another pain and grief.
So the next time you see someone staring off into space or scribbling on a napkin and muttering, know that you are watching an IDEA attack and pay your respects to the artist in its thrall.