(Can’t Live) With or Without… Inspiration?

It’s easy to get sucked down the ‘rabbit hole of inspiration’, as Bri and Katie of Designlovefest note, gathering more and more inspiring examples and never making anything of our own.

I have mixed feelings about seeking inspiration.

On one hand, I worry that I’m taking in too much content, losing my originality in the onslaught of media I digest every day. Last month, I put myself on a mild media diet, slimming down my RSS feed to a few essentials. I find myself missing that easy dose of inspiration, and desperately looking for something to read or look at I’m addicted to junk food for the brain.

On the other hand, how can we create without responding to something? Creations are our interpretations and commentary on the world. No one works in absolute isolation. There is no escaping the influence, positive, negative, or neutral, of your environment and your community. Our thoughts are guided and shaped by what we experience and what we need to respond to.

And yet, we need not respond to another person’s creation. There are different types of inspiration.

Just like there are primary and secondary historical sources, there are primary and secondary sources of inspiration.

Primary inspiration is your first-hand experience. Real life. The real world.

Secondary inspiration is other’s creations based on or inspired by reality. Art, design, writing, music – any other interpretation of the real world.

The Value of Primary Inspiration

Primary inspiration is slower, harder, than secondary inspiration. Nothing has been filtered or interpreted for you; the possible ways you could respond to your experiences are limitless.

I can go for a hike and be visually inspired by the color of the light through maple leaves, or by the frenetic fighting of two squirrels, or by the geometry of tree trunks against a snowy field.

Or I might find a metaphor for living styles in the different behaviors of hikers, or I might reflect on the interconnectedness of body and mind, or I might find symmetry in animal and human lives. Or millions of other responses to the direct, immersive stimulation of true experience.

The Risks of Secondary Inspiration

The internet makes consuming secondary inspiration effortless. In an hour on Pinterest, the work of hundreds of artists, representing thousands of hours of creation, is revealed and hidden with a half second scroll of my mouse. And there is always more, more, more. We cannot keep up with all the content being created; Strega Nona’s pot is never empty. Content is cheap. Watching is easy; making is hard.

The internet has made accessible a vast supply of secondary inspiration, created by artists and craftspeople of all skill levels. In the face of such overwhelming secondary inspiration, how can we preserve the originality of our work?

The Value of Secondary Inspiration

Or does secondary inspiration keep our work relevant, keep our creations part of the conversation? As Howard Jacobson discovered, what you wanted to create last month can lose its potency with time. Our interests and understandings shift as we experience new things. What seemed important last year can feel outdated, irrelevant, or banal considering what the community has produced since the idea spawned.

Does secondary inspiration force us into more and more challenging interpretations and creations as we continue a dialogue with other creators? Copies and knock-offs are the artistic equivalent of “What she said”; to be original, we must move beyond what has been created. And to move the conversation forward, we must know what has been said, what has been made already.

I wouldn’t have written this article if I hadn’t stumbled across Jacobson’s Fast Company article or Designlovefest’s query. And my interpretation might be different if I weren’t reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, which focuses on the need for art to connect people.

Finding Inspiration in All Things, Original and Interpreted

Both primary and secondary inspiration have value in a maker’s toolkit. A vast arsenal of direct experience maintains our creativity, though we have to work harder to sift through the chaos of unfiltered experience to interpret it in our creations. Our personal experiences give us the tools to respond to other creatives and continue the conversation that we find through secondary inspiration. And too, we can learn from other artists as we create our own works inspired by direct experience.

As in all things, moderation and balance is key.

What do you think – is secondary inspiration valuable, or does it limit our creations to derivatives?

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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