There’s a belief that all the great artists are inspired, that what makes their work wonderful is a brilliant idea or new insight. But this is just a myth. A single moment of brilliance can be blinding to the rest of us, but there’s more to it than that. You can’t make use of inspiration if you don’t know how to use your medium. Great art comes from lots of work, which can be summed up in one word: practice.

Waiting for inspiration is a poor way to get things done. If I waited until I felt like writing, I wouldn’t write anything at all. And yet this is exactly how I approach most of my creative interests. I expect to be able to just draw or sew or spin wonderful things as a result of a compelling vision or brilliant idea.

It can work that way, sometimes. I’ve been quilting and knitting long enough to have a set of skills I can use when an idea is burning its way through my brain. The desire to make the thing, be it a soft sculpture or a dinosaur sweater, takes over. I work quickly and if I’m very lucky, the final product resembles to some degree the thing I originally envisioned.

Tiny loves her Velma sweater… mostly.

But the best way to work with inspiration is to be in training: to spend time with the materials, to experiment with different techniques, to master the use of the tools. That way, when the muse dumps an idea on me, I have the skills to follow through.

It can be hard to practice regularly. It’s so much more fun to be making something. As a result, I don’t practice really, but just make more stuff and let myself slowly improve over time. But focused practice has its value, even if the immediate results aren’t that great. Practice is planting seeds for future creative endeavors.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve been reminded of this lately by my efforts to nature journal. I find myself struggling to sketch birds that don’t sit still for more than a minute at a time, so I’ve started using YouTube videos to practice. I watch videos of birds and squirrels made for cats. (This one’s my current favorite).

I use the videos to practice drawing moving animals. When I’m in the field, I’m distracted, trying to observe everything and figure out what to record. While I do draw, it’s one of many things I’m doing, and doesn’t get my full attention. Drawing from the videos lets me focus just on my drawing so that the next time I’m in the field, the sketching will be more automatic.

While the following quote talks specifically about writing, I think it applies to anyone who makes anything:

I know writers who write only when inspiration comes. How would Issac Stern play if he played the violin only when he felt like it? He would be lousy. — Madeleine L’Engle


You can wait for inspiration, but will you be able to act on it when it finally arrives? Possibly. But you might as well make good use of the time while you’re waiting for it to appear.

How do you feel about practice versus inspiration? Do you wait to be inspired? Or do you practice techniques in preparation for inspiration?

4 thoughts on “Waiting for Inspiration? Spend the Time Practicing”

    1. Plenty of people argue that inspiration comes from working, rather than the other way around (Stravinsky comes to mind), and I think they are right. It’s working with your materials that gives you new ideas of things to try.

  1. Love the quote! I’ve always likened it to playing music, too. I play flute and I think of how many years it took for me to be good at it (though that was several years ago and I would be rusty at it now to say the least and need more practice 🙂 Writing is no different.
    Great post!

    1. Thanks. It definitely applies to music. It’s easier to see the analogy with performance art, but really applies to anything that requires skill.

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