Do we generate ideas through sweat and toil; or, do mystical angels sweetly blow ideas into us?
It’s the difference between inspiration and perspiration. Both words come from the Latin word for breathing: Inspiration meant breathing into; while perspiration was constant breathing, breathing through (per).
Today, inspiration leads to creativity and perspiration is sweat. Inspiration is stimulant to action; perspiration cools the body after labor and exertion. (Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow.)
We exalt inspiration: an idea appears to us seemingly unbidden, an almost mystical gift from a muse. We love the idea that appears like an illuminated light bulb: Insight in a flash—darkness banished in an instant.
Yet perspiration, working up a sweat through repetitions, and incremental efforts don’t capture our imaginations. The steady work of logical thinking doesn’t have the flare of inspiration. Charles Darwin studied the gastropod mollusk for 8 years, culminating in a 684 page monograph so dense that even the mollusk’s mother wouldn’t read it.
We urge people to be more creative, but, we don’t urge them to study a mollusk for 9 years. We prefer the excitement of inspiration; the faintly scandalous fury of passion. Mollusks barely move. We want action.
We want stories like the naked Archimedes shouting “Eureka” in his bathtub; or, Samuel Coleridge dreaming his poem Kubla Khan in an opium haze; or, Jack Kerouac’s claim to have written On the Road in three weeks on a 120 foot scroll in April 1951.
Kerouac wanted On the Road to be like jazz—spontaneous, free and improvised. He wrote on the scroll so that he didn’t even have to stop to insert new paper into his typewriter. He had no margins or paragraph breaks to interfere—nothing but a river of words spreading out in a deluge of inspiration rolling for 120 feet.
Was it a magic moment of pure inspiration; a writer receiving a gift from the gods? Maybe. But, consider how much time and effort he spent trying to make the work seem free and easy. He used scissors to cut tracing paper to fit into his typewriter, taping the pieces together into the scroll. He methodically planned his process. How long does it take to cut and tape 120 feet of paper? But, still it only took him three weeks to write, right? Three weeks plus or minus nine years: Kerouac wrote versions of On the Road as early as 1948. He continued to edit and revise his 1951 scroll manuscript until the book was published in 1957.
We understand the “sweat” of Darwin’s 8 years studying the gastropod mollusk, but Kerouac tried to disguise the 9 years or more of work that he devoted to On the Road.
In show business, the axiom is “never let them see you sweat.” The audience wants to escape the drudgery of daily life into a magic that suggests the divine, the impossible. We want to believe that Eureka strikes a mathematician in the bath tub, that there is a secret potion that opens up a world of beauty in poetry and that one man can be a lightning rod for the emotions rendered through fiction.
We want to believe that innovation and creativity grow from magical seed and some day we will find our own magical seeds.
Writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” as if ideas were available on Ebay or Amazon. Ideas come through the “sweat” of applying your imagination—by writing, by painting, by experiments or whatever you need to do to achieve your goal. Sometimes, we let our thoughts incubate by stepping away from the work to allow the subconscious mind to process. That’s why ideas appear to come to us in the shower or jogging or driving in the car. But, the revelations appear only after preparation of both conscious and subconscious work.
Incubated ideas will not come without adequate perspiration. Kerouac could not have written his novel without the early “failed” drafts and three years of imagining his work, followed by 6 years of sporadic revising.
So, the next time you wait for inspiration—eschewing the work that leads to perspiration—find a pair of scissors and cut up 120 feet of paper. Or, study a mollusk for 8 years.