Inspiration rarely happens when we strain at it, when we dig and poke and fight. My first professional playwriting commission happened when I was 25, which seems absurdly young now. It came about immediately after I wrote a play to perform with another actor, a choreographer and a jazz trio. (I realise this sounds like the set up for a joke: an actor, a choreographer and a jazz trio walk into a bar… ) After the performance, a director commissioned me to write another play. I did that. It was fine. And then the same director commissioned a second play, for the State Theatre Company. He planned it for a national tour. It would be one of the lead productions for the company.
As soon as I signed the contract, I froze.
I stayed up all night, for many nights, trying to write the play.
I wrestled with it, I fought with it, and I worried at it. And then I put more hours in. When nothing was working, I tried harder. I set office hours, then set longer office hours. I wrote late into the night, then woke up at 5am and carried on writing. Nothing worked.
Eventually, the director released me from the contract, which is a fancy way of saying he didn’t like what I was writing any more than I did.
All I remember about getting the notice of termination of the contract is the sharp spike of relief.
It was an early lesson, though not an easy one: you can’t fight your way to ideas.
I’ve learned more and more, and observed it to be true, that inspiration comes with ease. It should feel easy. It might feel tremulous, nervous (excitement often does), or it might feel calm and right. But it shouldn’t feel like a fight.
Great things happen when you look away from the object of your inspiration, when you stop looking directly at it. Like dreaming, we can let ideas and thoughts bubble up and reveal themselves to us when we are relaxed and calm.
So today, a rest day, I prescribe a day of pottering. Get your hands in the soil – re-pot some plants, or gently pull some weeds. Or sift through your books. Engage in some soft and gentle activity. A 2009 study at the University of Sydney demonstrated a surge in creative thinking after students took a break on a problem-solving task and engaged in a different activity with ‘loose focus’ (for instance, generating names, or doodling, or rearranging furniture).
This kind of rest isn’t separate from work. It isn’t optional and it certainly isn’t lazy. It’s a necessary part of the great cycle of creativity.
So, a different kind of rest today after your writing prompt. Find a gentle activity, unconnected to your writing; an activity which gives you pleasure. Absorb yourself in it. Absorption in a pleasurable task lets your creative brain off the hook. It can put its little brain-feet up (bear with me here) and take a rest. And when your brain gets a rest day, magic can happen.
Today’s prompt is…
Rain in the city