"Inspiration is for amateurs." 
        Chuck Close

 Chuck Close: Self Portrait

Chuck Close: Self Portrait


I remember seeing an interview with the artists Chuck Close and Richard Serra, two of the most accomplished artists of our time. In it, they were asked about how they foster creativity. Each time the interviewer used the word, he noticed that Close and Serra would glance at each other. Finally, the interviewer asked if he was saying something incorrect. (I will summarize the response to the best of my memory.)

"No, it's just that we hate that word," replied Serra. 

"What do you call creativity?" asked the interviewer. 

"We call it going to work," replied Close. 

"Each day I go to the studio at exactly the same time. When I work on a new piece, it starts out as a piece of crap. Bad. Really bad. I keep working on it until it is slightly less pathetic. Then, day by day, it gets to an acceptable level of merit. Still, I keep working on it until I feel okay about offering it to the world to see. It is a long and arduous process. So, the idea that somehow I just have a flash of insight and then execute it is a work of fiction for most of us who make our living creating art."

There is a profound lesson in his response, one I have heard from many accomplished people. It crosses disciplines and vocations. In the end, you just have to show up for work. Then do it. 

At one point, I marveled at how I used to be able to sit down and crank out an article in one sitting. Wondering if I lost my edge or creative insight, I dug up some of my early articles. I now know why they were written in such a short period of time and the answer wasn't flattering. As I have more experience, the bar is higher. What was acceptable then is now no longer. It takes time to write and rewrite pieces until they are acceptable. The process is messy and decidedly unsexy. 

The idea of inspiration is a lovely narrative. The story of a flash of insight followed by the creation of a substantial and insightful piece of work is very alluring, yet not the way most creative work actually happens. Furthermore, it has a substantial shadow side; if you are not inspired you cannot be creative. Given that, you occupy yourself with other things until the creative moment happens. Nice idea. Hours, weeks and years later, nothing has yet been done. 

I know this to be true for me. Many people have asked how I found time to write the "Mystery of Pain" The answer was one hour a day, from 5:30 am to 6:30 am. Every day. Some days were reading the research, some actual writing, some days it was moving paragraphs around. I didn't wait for inspiration to come to me, I went to it. 

This is in line with the way the ancient Greeks thought about creativity as well. If by the sweat of your efforts, you were diligently working on a project and suddenly had an "Ah Hah" moment, then the Greeks believed you were visited by the Engenium. The important point here is that a visit by the Engenium was something you earned by the sweat of your brow.

I think this is true as well in the clinic. Where do most of my own therapeutic insights originate? When my back is to the wall. If I am seeing a client and failing to help them, I am forced to be creative. All my favorite tools and approaches have been used, to no avail. Now what? 

Back against the wall.jpg

As uncomfortable as it is, I relish that moment. Even writing that statement is a bit uncomfortable because, like everyone else, I don't particularly like failure. It is, however, the one catalyst that I can point to as being responsible for most of the leaps in my own growth. This is perhaps why most scientific breakthroughs happen early in one's career. Early on, it is easier to embrace failure. "So what?" you wonder. "I have nothing to lose and people think I'm too young anyway." As you age in your career, failure takes on new meaning. Plus, you are comfortable with what you are doing now. Why risk looking like an idiot? 

In the clinic, you don't get that choice. If the client has already seen many other disciplines and the problem seems to be soft tissue, game on. It's up to you to help. It is tempting to refer them somewhere else, but they have already been to Noah's Ark for health care, and the one thing no one has done is specific soft tissue therapy. Fasten your seatbelt, put your tray table in the upright and locked position. You're up. Clients will also be immensely impressed with your dedication to lifelong learning and to doing everything possible to help them. Not only will your clients benefit, you will as well. In the end, you will grow as a person and as a therapist.