12 Most Surprising Places for Artists to Find Inspiration
The source of artistic inspiration is ultimately mysterious and unknowable. Keith Richards described the feeling of a song idea coming to him as if it were a U.F.O. about to collide with his brain: “Incoming!” Tom Petty once described the same process as “dealing in magic.”
As creators, even when we think we know what we’re writing, dancing, filming, or singing about, there is something about the act of creation that lies beyond our grasp. Indeed, the way that an artist’s original inspiration (itself sometimes unknowable) is translated into a finished artistic statement is a process that happens somewhere beyond the realm of the rational.
Still, there are places artists can look for inspiration and, with open eyes and receptivity, hope to find something unexpected and provocative. From cave paintings to Greek epics to the Beatles and Banksy, artists have always drawn inspiration from wells of feeling that never run dry. As a songwriter, I constantly find ideas in the following places:
1. Reality television
People on reality television programs are paid to say as many provocative, pithy, memorable, and fantasy-laden things as possible. See where these pumped-up, putting-it-all-on-the-line, ultra-dramatic, self-performing and big dreaming people might lead you. Think of them as the basis characters in a drama of your own devising, then change and complicate them. Imagine what they’re like off-camera, what they’re showing, what they’re hiding, what they’re inventing, and what’s at stake for them.
Like reality TV shows, sports are another condensed and dramatic version of existence — “life without the boring parts”. Obviously I’m not the first person to notice that sports, with their rapid ups and downs, their rewards and disappointments, their races against the clock, their rages and their grace, their emotional loyalties, suggest many metaphors for love and for life. Also reality TV stars, athletes are boldly drawn yet enigmatic figures. And in a cliché-ridden sports culture in which everyone gives 110% and both teams played hard, finding new words and metaphors to describe the deep feelings in sports presents a worthwhile challenge.
3. The way people talk standing in line and/or on their cellphones
Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved just watching people. People are amazing. They are not unlike creatures in a zoo: if you are around them for long enough as they just go about their daily business, they will do something to shock or delight you. People on cellphones are even less protective of their personal lives, and their foibles and obsessions, than the average person, and will spill it all out for you. I have gotten many good lines for songs just from listening to people talking. It’s an exercise in linguistic diversity. Everyone uses words differently. Listen up. You might also think about how you come off to others who might overhear you talking, and what the way you present yourself in public reveals or hides.
Clichés are the cat’s meow and the bee’s knees for artists. Using clichés thoughtlessly may be a sign of lazy thinking, but deploying them strategically can yield rich and suggestive rewards. Clichés convey long-acknowledged truths (truths that may be challenged or reversed), they ring deep (that’s how they became clichés), and they are instantly recognizable. Think about what it means to let sleeping dogs lie or get taken for a ride or go around the block once or twice. Imagine a story in which these clichés literally come to life. Switch a cliché up to turn it into a statement that is even truer to you than the original. (Listen to some Wilco songs for examples of how this is done).
Following politics always inspires me to write songs because it gets me so worked up at all the double-speak and unkeepable promises and insulting assumptions and perennial hopes. It’s not unlike love, relationships, and other dilemmas in its ability to confuse, provoke, and inspire intense feelings. The language of politics is especially fertile territory for decoding words and thinking about motives, intentions, and target audiences. Poets, take note.
6. Foreign languages
Learning a foreign language opens up new ways of seeing the world and framing things. Remember: reality doesn’t occur in your native language. Look at it through a different, more difficult, phrase. Simplify your thoughts by condensing your grammar. Just as switching to an instrument I’m not too familiar with forces me to write simpler songs, thinking about foreign languages helps me to keep words simple, and even gives me ideas for alternate phrasings. And like making art, thinking in a foreign language puts your mind into a fresh new zone. Learn new rules and idiomatic expressions. Bust outta your native box. Translate.
See number 3, but remove words from the equation. Animals make you guess their feelings. It’s emotional work, not unlike trying to read a person. Animals also make me think about how movement conveys emotion (or how we read emotions into movements). And talk about unknowable — there’s so much we don’t know about animals, and can only wonder at and dream about. Suggested viewing: Planet Earth, the ever-changing scene outside your window. Don’t forget about the bugs.
Taste and smell can inform our imaginations in ways that stretch our abilities to categorize and describe. Try conceptualizing a taste or a smell without referring to other things in the world (no “woody” or “smoky” — no metaphors). Think about pure taste, pure sensation.
People often describe new technologies as “magical.” Tap into that awareness and fascination. What does a “magical” sensation feel like? Why have our lives become so intertwined with computers and phones? There must be a compelling reason. Hit on what’s compelling. What makes Facebook such a unique experience? What makes Twitter so stimulating to our brains? What the hell is going on when two computers communicate with each other? Of course, there’s an answer to that question. Imagine another one.
10. How-to guides
Pick up a “how to do something” guide. Apply its instructions to something completely different. Follow its instructions in your art and see what happens. Or try to do a completely new activity or skill based on the guide and draw inspiration from the struggles and joys of learning.
This theme is as old as The Odyssey, but its meaning and relevance have changed over the centuries. Do you have a home? What makes your home comforting or uncomfortable? What’s your ideal home? How do you feel when you’re at home? Is the concept of “home” meaningful to you?
12. Your ever-changing self
Another old theme, but one you can customize infinitely. Keep a journal and think about how your expectations, affections, and ideals have changed or not over the last few decades, years, weeks, or months. The source of the change that most moves you is something worth tapping into. Don’t be afraid. Your inspiration is even closer than right in front of you: it’s inside of you.
Modern life presents new and under-explored territory from which both artists and other creative individuals may draw inspiration.
Where does your unexpected inspiration come from?
Featured image courtesy of Kevin Krejci licensed via Creative Commons.