I’m afraid the word “inspiration” has may have turned into “compare myself to everyone else I see on social media” lately. Sometimes my students tell me they were looking for inspiration and then they show me things they’ve worked on that didn’t turn out like they looked on Instagram. This gives me pause for several reasons, the least of which is what “looking for inspiration” actually means.
What, exactly, is inspiration? As usual, I went straight to a dictionary definition as a baseline. However, what I discovered is that not everyone defines inspiration the same way. Dictionary.com unfortunately defines the word with the word (“an inspiring or animating action or influence”), so I’m immediately going to toss that out. That’s not technically a definition. However, Google’s English dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages, defines inspiration as follows:
- the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. “Helen had one of her flashes of inspiration.”
- a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea. “Then I had an inspiration.”
This makes more sense than seeing inspiration simply as a state of being inspired, which is meaningless without that base definition. This tells us that inspiration is internal rather than external—it comes from within. It also makes me realize how the word is often used to mean something closer to “gathering ideas from other places or people.” This somewhat different meaning is probably acceptable in most camps. I suppose we could all agree that sometimes sifting through images and looking at things around us can mentally stimulate us to feel or do something.
Where it starts to get sketchy is when someone says they’re feeling uninspired, which means “lacking imagination or originality, or (of a person) not filled with excitement,” according to Google’s English dictionary definition. I don’t think any of us lacks imagination or originality. Every one of us is unique to the core, and what comes from each of us will never come from someone else exactly the same way.
I think we can all relate to not being filled with excitement. Within the context of that definition, loading the dishwasher or doing laundry leaves me utterly uninspired. There is nothing exciting about stinky clothes or stuck-on food bits. But when we talk about our creative selves, we should probably be careful about how we use that word, because I think a lot of us use it to mean that we don’t think we have any good ideas right now. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes I feel bereft of truly exciting creative ideas, but the fact is that every single one of us is original and has an imagination.
Let’s talk about what we can do with our originality and imaginations.
If we’re thinking about what inspiration really is, what mentally stimulates you creatively? What makes you feel excited enough to do something with an idea? How do you come up with your ideas? If you don’t think you have any ideas (or good ones, at least) and you’re in a place where you feel stuck creatively, what do you do to get out of that rut?
Here’s something we can all do to keep ourselves open and receptive to things that can become exciting ideas. It’s a sensory exercise I learned when I was training to be an actor. We used it for characterization at the time, but it applies equally to inspiration because both are based on…wait for it…our imaginations! It’s very simple and uses all five senses.
Go through each of your five senses and list or think of at least one thing for each: something you see, something you hear, something you feel, something you smell, and something you taste. Here are some examples of what you might list:
See: a tree, your fingers, a pet, your coffee mug
Hear: traffic, birds chirping, electronic equipment, laughter
Feel: wet rain, a warm room, a cool breeze, soft fabric
Smell: perfume, a book, a leather bag, road tar
Taste: Starbucks, popcorn, onions from your sandwich, toothpaste
Think about whether any of these things remind you of something else or if they bring something specific to mind…an image, a color, maybe a memory or a situation.
Here’s the fun part: now interpret what you’ve discovered. It can mean anything you want it to mean.
I did this exercise as I wrote this post, and here’s what my interpretation was. I saw an ice dye bag on my desk, heard the air conditioner and my dog snoring, felt my cold feet, smelled old paper, and tasted my everything bagel. This instantly took me back to college, where I walked everywhere because I had no car. I carried the same tie-dye looking backpack my entire five years (don’t judge, because I earned two bachelor’s degrees) and always got breakfast before class. The old paper, huffing HVAC and snoring dog reminded me of the awful block course I had to sit through before I student taught. The room was always hot, the professor was ancient and beyond boring, and half the class was usually asleep within the first 15 minutes. My interpretation of this is a level of sameness—the backpack, the breakfast, the walking, the block course, always the same—which could represent repetition, maybe? I’m thinking about either a repeating pattern or a repetitive task, or both. This immediately makes me want to keep knitting on a shawl I have in progress because it’s a simple, repetitive stitch pattern. There’s my inspiration!
The trick (and the hard part) to this exercise is to not filter and not edit. If you have too much running around in your brain, try doing a quick breathing exercise first to clear your mind. Whatever shows up immediately is “right” and totally yours. Try to keep it simple and grab the first things that pop into your head. It’s meant to be spontaneous and to foster curiosity and exploration. You can do it as often as you would like, because sometimes adding to your sensory lists can result in more interesting interpretations. Have fun with it and feel free to post comments about what you discover.
We all have inspiration within us. It doesn’t come from the outside.
We are each unique, original, and imaginative. We can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the world around us for creative connections. The more we can tap into ourselves for fun, creative ideas instead of scrolling through endless feeds, the better we all be and feel. Try the exercise and see if it inspires you to pick up a project or try something new. My best to all of you in discovering your inspiration for today!