Art is Work, Inspiration is Bullshit

August 21, 2010

I had an argument the other day with a writer friend of mine. At the time, she hadn’t written a word in months. When I asked her why, she said she was uninspired.

It blew my mind that a simple lack of inspiration would be enough to stop someone doing what they do best. Then it occurred to me that even artists can look down on the creative process, thinking that it’s not worth their time and effort to see through – to work at it – if they don’t feel like it.

To me, the acceptance of this logic puts the artistic process on par with a pastime like videogames or waterparks. The simple notion that if you’re not in the mood, then it’s not worth doing, is a very dangerous slope for an artist to stand on.

Happy Mother's Day

Art is Work
I was a Jazz musician for the entirety of my adolescence, into adulthood, playing professionally until my 30s. My training as a musician informs everything I do as a director, actor, producer, writer, editor, and any other jobs I take on.

In Jazz, the learning process is never-ending. No matter what level you’re at, there’s always a mentor you’re trying to extract knowledge from, or some new melodic/harmonic trend to wrap your ears around and try to find a voice in. Like other artistic genres, the community you inhabit influences the direction of your work (with or against the trends), and ultimately determines the merit of your contribution, either as a leader or side-man.

The process of learning Jazz is basically learning a new language. The style of Jazz you play is a specific dialect of that language. Then you need to learn to be a poet in the chosen dialect of that language. It’s a big undertaking, because you’re attempting to develop both as a technician, as well as an artist.

A version of this process is true for any artform. The refinement of skills involved, both in technical competence and in aesthetic awareness (to say nothing of taste), require a lifetime commitment to the craft.

Inspiration is Fleeting, Work is Forever
When I was 18, I had a mentor – a virtuosic saxaphonist – named Hal Melia. I was having a bad night on the gig, and he told me: “how the audience feels when you play, has nothing to do with how you feel at the time.” It took me about 20 years to figure out what that meant, and I still have to remind myself. He was saying, “show up and play your ass off, and then go home and forget about it,” because my inspiration has nothing to do with theirs, and vice versa.

The notion that we should be so precious about every artistic choice we make is like running a marathon in leg irons. Whether you think your idea is total genius, or just OK, chances are you’re going to hate it in five years anyway, so what’s the point of agonizing over it? Inspiration is nice when it happens, but you don’t need it to do your work. And art is work, whether you enjoy it or not.

Pick a direction and see it through. The solution is in the doing. Sometimes you’ll feel great about it, other times you won’t, and it really doesn’t matter either way, because it’s not for you to judge.

Most of us who have jobs likely treat those jobs as commitments, not as pastimes. We need the paycheck so we do what we are contracted to do until we quit or get fired. Its not a choice. The doughnuts must get made, whether or not we are inspired to do so.

Even if you are a freak-of-nature-super-genius-virtuoso, attacking your creative endeavors with that same bootstrapping pragmatism is paramount to your evolution, and ultimately your success, as an artist. Developing your work is an enormous task and a huge responsibility – and there is no assistant manager looking over your shoulder to make sure you clock in on time.

Your work is what you leave behind. It’s worth more than any furniture you could own, than any vacation you can take, than any money you can make. And it’s entirely up to you to see it through until you are dead.



  1. Thanks for inspiring me to carry on. 🙂

  2. Good post. Inspiration only get you so far in anything. Eventually, all works become, well, work. The hardest thing about any endeavor is finishing it, but it’s the finished products that get seen and heard. So get to it, unless you don’t care if it gets finished. In which case, why should we?

  3. AMEN! That is an awesome post. I couldn’t agree with you more. Not only is inspiration secondary to the work, if you show up and do the work, it can inspire inspiration. The most important thing is showing up. Thank you for this great and well-written piece!

  4. I often find myself “uninspired” part-way through the research process, especially at the manuscript prep stage when I’ve exhausted all thoughts about the project. But, you are exactly right–if I were to just move on to the next project, I’d never publish, never share my results, and thus never leave anything behind for posterity.

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