The Two Faces of Inspiration: From Sabotage to Genius

Have you noticed how your desire to create – to put your dreams into action – can inspire a raft of excuses, doubts, distractions and competing priorities?  Not enough time, space, quiet or money. Being needed elsewhere. Looking after other people. There’s always tomorrow, next week, month or end of the school holidays. Right?

With creative endeavour, a corresponding energy competes for attention. Inspiration shows itself as curiosity, desire, excitement and interest. The other is more shifty, hopping along for the ride as an uninvited guest. Stephen Pressfield (author of the War Of Art) believes this presumptuous companion is the “most toxic force on the planet.” He calls it resistance. Intimate and familiar in my creative life, I call it Saboteur.

Resistance can look like a change-of-heart. Fatigue. Busyness. It might masquerade as having exacting standards: the conditions needing to be just so. Perfectionism. Its voice can be sensible and cautious. Almost always, another time is a better time – than this time, right now.

Watch out for what lurks behind innocuous diversions: a pang of hunger or thirst for a hot drink requiring a ritual with a teapot. A text that should be sent or responded to. Emails to be glanced at just in case. A ‘to-do’ list with an urgency to be ticked off, clearing the decks for a guilt-free conscience. After all, to set aside time to play can be postponed. No one is depending on it or demanding its conclusion or outcome. The world is full of books, tunes, paintings, eye-catching gardens or recipes.

If creativity could be reduced to a formula, this tango of opposing forces could be summed up in all its contradictory glory: the stronger the impulse or longing, the greater the resistance.

To create for the joy of creating’s sake has to be self-driven. No matter how much support around us, we get to choose to buckle down and be creative, after all. There is rarely a tidy finishing line or alarm bell to announce ‘complete.’ There are always more ways to improve, hone, pummel or prepare that labour of love to become fuller, bigger, or more perfect. There is a giddying freedom in exploring the blank canvas of any medium, with only our own counsel to go by.

What fascinates me is how my experience of resistance never goes away. Knowing its many guises and how it plays out in my daily life, I remain sensitive and sometimes oblivious to its temptation. Uncomfortable feelings of ‘not now’ or ‘this isn’t working – take a break,’ can be hard to ignore. It takes a lot of effort to fight the urge to quit or positively overwrite judgements such as “not good enough.” Resistance can be so reasonable. My Saboteur is the very restlessness dragging at my commitment to creativity. She is the same dis-ease that can also show up as fretful sleep. Or dulled panic.

The urge to create is unreasonable in nature. Bypassing mind, it comes fresh from the heart – bubbling up without filter. That is what makes our creativity vulnerable to the many reasons persuading us not to honour it.

With a tweak of the lens, resistance is the destructive twin of desire and the heart’s impulse to play. In our material, electronic, time-stretched existences, the very medicine we need – to employ our creativity and allow its right and joy to express – is often what we will do our utmost to avoid! Why is that? What is really going on here? We’re only talking about picking up a pen, crayon, needle or lump of clay; warming up the vocal cords or guitar strings… What is stopping us from diving right in to the play zone more often than not?

I’ve just returned from Shambala, celebrated as one of the most creative festivals in the summer calendar. It is a bombardment of colour, costume, flamboyance; music and song, spoken arts; the crafts and hats on sale fit for the V & A, the food, talks and workshops, the lakes & woods adding to the enchantment. It would take a closed heart not to be inspired by the vitality and love of life in all directions – let alone the daring effort of an artistic army committed to co-creating a space where every individual can celebrate Muse.

And yet, as I wandered about soaking up the magic, a shadow loomed. How little I wanted to hold my two workshops – the reason for my being at the festival. Scheduled over the weekend, Creativity Circles promise take-away tools to help inspire and deepen self-expression. I had three days before the first one, and as time slipped away, the pressure inside me grew.

It had been some months since my last workshop. I was feeling rusty. Since Christmas – nine months – my energy has been focussed on a building project to transform my cellar into an underground temple for workshops and gatherings. I had been consumed with spread-sheets, materials, builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, tillers, as well as the effort envisaging the muddy crater as a space to inspire.

Who might show up? What state would they be in? After all, this was a festival in muddy fields, not a ticketed urban event. My tension at the prospect became unbearable. I had to take stock. My anxiety was stopping me from diving into the festival spirit.

With half a day to go before the first workshop, something clicked. Of course! How could I not have spotted this sooner? Resistance – the very rich territory my workshop was set up to explore – was at it AGAIN! And I was so close to believing, “I’m through with workshops. Maybe I should focus only on writing, on storytelling. Maybe another building project. A holiday. Anything.”

I settled myself in a quiet spot by a lake, beneath an oak tree. I laid out a circle of stones I was planning to use in the workshop to explore the process of resistance. I followed all the practises and material step by step. I used my breath consciously, and then, just as I would be guiding others, I invited my Saboteur to sit there with me, and give all the reasons for why the workshop would be a disaster and how I was unqualified to hold it.

You see, I had forgotten. To ignore my Saboteur, turns up Her volume to a drumbeat. She’ll get louder and persistent. It’s best to have Her on side: demanding my attention, I can choose to forge a new relationship with Her. She carries power, and a great deal of energy. As She destroys, so She creates.

This is the map I’m here to share which opens up the rich road I walk. Creativity not only invites Muse. Her twin sister, Saboteur must also become part of the multi-layered package. They are intertwined aspects of the ultimate creation dance of Mother Nature.

And surprisingly, when resistance shows up at the table, you’re not as off track as you might assume. On the contrary, you are encountering rich and fertile territory calling for exploration and commitment.

As we befriend our inner critic, we can discover a big enough space to embrace sabotage and genius. We can choose to open the door to Muse & Saboteur – and the knife-edge tango of their interdependent dance. Genius (Latin word; Romans used it to mean an inner spirit, watching over us, guiding us to our calling) is what births our unique voice and vision. It is within us all. It is our right, our gift and at its most alive when employed or honoured…and yes, awaits us just beyond the veils of resistance.

What is YOUR resistance revealing about your purpose or longing; the song that longs to be sung and danced through you?