I came across another enlightening post by the wonderful artist Robert Genn. He’s a Canadian painter with an incredible talent for observation that I find very inspiring. You can check out his website here, along with his posts that he updates with questions and thoughts he gets from readers.
In his article I read today, he talks about what it takes to fire the spark of creativity. Some people are born with a natural creative bent, with a talent towards the fantastic, but for others it’s more challenging. Genn proposes that this talent needn’t be something you’re born with, that it can be learned. I definitely agree.
He suggests in his post that the fire we feel when we create is something that can be drawn out, provoked in a word. The secret to this lies simply in observation. You can’t fuel your imagination on an empty mind, so to speak. The mind needs input to create, it craves it. “Knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold,” as Edgar Allan Poe once said. So feed your mind!
This goes beyond simply reading books and exposing yourself to art. This involves seeing the world around you, experiencing it with open eyes, like you did when you were a child, as Genn says. Absorb everything, pay attention to what is happening around you. Don’t take things for granted.
One of my lifelong adages is simply, “Look up”. When I was a freshman at university, I lived on the fourth floor of my dormitory. I took out the window screens and would open the windows wide, and I would sit there, sometimes for hours, just watching everything below. I noticed something though. People would walk around, reading books or looking at their phones or simply walk past with their hands in their pockets, heads down, oblivious to the world. But no one ever saw me sitting there in the window. No one looked up.
I thought that was sad, and very telling of our condition as humans and creatures of familiarity and habit. So I always remind myself to simply “look up”. See what’s around, take stock of your environment, ask questions. Don’t take anything for granted, as much as it’s possible. Robert Genn says to approach the world agnostically, see everything fresh and try to believe that there’s something more than what you see.
Just be aware. There’s another one of my favourite zen koans that tells a story about a monk who visits a famous zen teacher. When he arrives at his house it’s raining outside, so he removes his shoes and umbrella and leaves them at the door. When he sits down inside with the zen teacher, the teacher asks him on which side of the door he left his umbrella and shoes. The monk realises he cannot answer, and his teacher tells him he must practise his “every minute zen”—his every minute awareness of what he is doing.
It’s a wonderful lesson. Practise your every minute zen, as a writer or painter or musician—just as a conscious, living, breathing human. That’s where inspiration begins—when you look closely, even stars are driven by the tiniest of movements. Yet those movements build to astronomical scales, and so does our work. Be always aware of what is happening around you, and you will find that you are constantly inspired by all the strange things that happen every day, every minute in our world.