Is Inspiration a Great Way To Avoid Hard Work?

Leonard Cohen “But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.”

It’s easy to sell inspiration. What makes it easy to sell is the idea that something is going to happen fast, without effort, produce amazing results while we are on a boat somewhere enjoying ourselves. Yes, inspiration is easy to sell.

Inspiration is also easy to sell because there’s a slight and ever so gentle inference that it’s enjoyable. I mean, when we say we’re inspired, we usually have a smile on our face. So with enjoyment, a smile and effortlessness attached to it, inspiration is easy to sell.

If you were born in the Australian Outback, you are one of the lucky ones who really understand what inspiration means. It means waking up at 4.00am, chopping wood, lighting the fire, making a cuppa tea, going out in the blistering cold rain, milking cows, shearing sheep, clearing away the snakes and then having breakfast at about 9.00am just in time to go shovel some more cow poo and clean a drain. Then doing it all again tomorrow, and the next day and the next etc. Yes, you know what inspiration is because you grew up everyday working hard but living the miracle of life out in nature.

Hard work, nature and inspiration go hand in hand. I know it. I mean I was blessed to be bought up in the Australian Bush – I lived the miracles of nature. So, I don’t need to do Tai Chi to know that the air is filled with life. I don’t need to do yoga to be reminded to be humble to a power greater than myself. That’s life in the countryside. Hard work, nature and inspiration.

But no matter where we are born, we need to be reminded, reconnected to the miracle that’s a breath, or a cloud or whatever it is. We so easily individualise and then mistakenly hope that by either extreme luck (inspiration means this to most) or through some sort of heavenly worship, we’ll jump the queue, make a profit, hit the jackpot and be famous.

Lets see what others think about Inspiration:

Leonard Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration”

The same thing is articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky – “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

And novelist Isabel Allende – Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Painter Chuck Close – Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Beloved author E.B. White – “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope – “My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”

Designer Massimo Vignelli – “There is no design without discipline.”

Cohen again “I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” 

Working begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

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