Inspiration and the Mountain

The mountain doesn’t look like the mountain when you’re on it. Often enough, it doesn’t look like much at all. Like standing only a few inches away from one of Georges Seurat’s pieces, all I see are points of color. It’s just dots, at least that’s true to some degree. Yet I’d venture a guess that Seurat was not primarily or initially moved by a vision of tiny marks on a canvas but that he took up the brush and diligently, meticulously made those millions of tiny marks because he was moved by a vision of sand and water or skin and eyes.

I took my son hiking last week. He’s two years old and already enjoys the outdoors. I think it’s the dirt he likes best. I can recall moments in the past few months when I would point out a hawk in flight over our heads or a new calf learning to walk behind its mother only to turn and find him with a mouthful of mud saying, “Dirt, Dad!” Now, by “we went hiking” I actually mean that I went hiking and took him with me in his backpack. It’s probably the best Craigslist purchase I’ve ever made; a Kelty kid backpack for my son, Asa. He doesn’t wear it. I wear it with him in it. He just hangs out back there, asking for cheese and grapes while I trudge up the hill carrying the extra thirty pounds or so. It’s quite a deal for him, and it keeps him from eating too much dirt.

Our plan was to strap Asa to my back and hike around the beautiful and enchanting lower half of Mt. Diablo while he chewed in my ear. Described as a “geologic anomaly,” Mt. Diablo’s unique volcanic ancestry means that it is visible from just about any place in the greater San Francisco Bay area. In fact, from the peak of Diablo, it is estimated (by people who do math while hiking, apparently) that one can see 13,000 square miles of my home state of California. We live only a few miles from the mountain, so we see it every day, like a constant reminder of our place on the planet.

From about two miles away, driving along the floor of the Diablo Valley, we started talking about the mountain towering in the near distance. “There it is!” I’d say and he’d reply by kicking around in his carseat and shouting “Mountain! Hike it!” But as we got closer to the mountain itself, we could only catch glimpses of it because it was often obscured by trees and hills that formed its footing. Of course, once we were actually on the mountain we really couldn’t “see it” at all. That is, not in any way we had come to recognize as “The Mountain.” We could only see the trail we were on; the rocks, the trees, and the stream that ran down Mitchell Canyon.

“Where mountain go?” Asa asked me.

“We’re on it, pal. This is the mountain.”

He looked at me with that funny-sad-serious face only toddlers can really muster and said, again, “Where mountain go?” 

“I promise this is it, son.”

The whole exchange called back to mind an old Toad the Wet Sprocket song featuring a line something like: “Sometimes, when you’re that close to something that big you can’t see anything at all.” We had seen Diablo standing in the distance before us for most of our short journey. But it seemed to him that instead of arriving at the mountain he’d been seeing, we had instead ended up somewhere else entirely; somewhere far less interesting.

Because the mountain doesn’t look like the mountain when you’re on it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an inspiring idea or vision for a project and been powerfully motivated to start working on it. Then I lost that sense of inspired motivation once the idea was replaced by the tedious process of putting one foot in front of the other and actually making that idea happen. Unfortunately, I’ve far too often given up when the creative process pulled this bait and switch on me. No longer faced with a grand, sweeping vision for the idea or the result — rather, faced by the details or challenges of the work phase — I’ve dropped work I should have carried through to completion. I don’t want to do that. Anyone can work on something when inspired. Art must be more than just inspiration.

So I’m learning to appreciate the mountain for the dusty trail, the heat, and the climb.

For example, about eighteen months ago, I set to work on a project I’d formed in my mind and been deeply moved by. It is a collision of songs, personal letters, visual art, and reflective essays entitled CMYK. It is an enormous endeavor and, in its conception, looked like a book, an album, and a live performance; all of which are very inspiring images to me. But like I said, that was eighteen months ago. Right now as I sit here, I’m looking at an Excel spreadsheet with the project’s elements listed out and CMYK doesn’t look like a book or letters or visual art or an album. The project looks like a spreadsheet with its elements listed out. That’s not very inspiring (unless, I suppose, you’re the kind of person who likes to do math while hiking). But the dusty details in front of me are, in fact, the project as it appears standing this close to it. This is the mountain.  It is the part of the mountain I can attend to right now, today. And just like I can’t leap to the top of the hill in one spring, I have to apply myself to the manageable details of the Big Idea in order for that Big Idea to become a reality.

Here are a few things I’m learning to do in order to keep from quitting when a project I’ve committed to becomes about work rather than inspiration:

Find a way to keep the original inspiring vision readily accessible.
Normally, this has meant sharing the initial vision with interested, creative, and consistent friends. This is one more way art is a collaborative process. I need the critique and the accountability of folks outside my mind to call me back to the work I set out to do and convince me why it’s worth doing when I forget.

Make regular stops. Work more slowly.
Just like finding places on a hike from which we can look back down (and sometimes further up) the trail and get a sense of our place, there are natural moments in the process of making where a nice pause is appropriate. Most of the time, I’m trudging away with my head down. Once in a while, when I’m tired or need a break, I want to take that break in a place where I can see a bit of what I’ve climbed so far. I don’t do this at the end of every day because not every day is very productive, just like I don’t pause at the turn of every switchback while hiking. But I do find that the natural lulls in my process can serve as great moments to look at my progress.

Don’t let the details get lost in the Big Idea.  
Somewhere in California’s past, men and women paid enough attention to the details to find gold “in them, thar hills.” Indeed, there are always precious and valuable nuggets in the hidden places along the dusty trail. If I’m entirely focused on making progress or “getting it done” and just peaking the hill, I will almost certainly miss those gold nuggets. And the lesson Seurat taught with his work and process is exactly that those tiny moments, those small marks, aren’t incidental; they can be magical.

Read the trail signs.
There are trails on the mountain because a lot of men and women were there before me. Some of those men and women left markings along the way and even named the trails. Over the course of years, some of those markings and names have come to be more widely recognized and used. Read those signs, note those markings, and remember those names. Because we need encouragement to do this, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has become a favorite read among artists along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  

Inspiration generally gets me to the mountain. But once I’m there, inspiration often fizzles because the mountain doesn’t look like the mountain anymore. It looks like about 400 ft. of dusty trail. It looks like a 12% grade and lots of short steps carrying a cheese-obsessed toddler on my back. It looks like a spreadsheet or a blank page in front of me instead of a finished book. It looks like cliché and bad transitions instead of a song. In short, it looks like work. I do get inspired, and that’s how things get started. But at some point, I’ve simply got to get to work on the part of the Idea right in front of me.

Justin McRoberts is a singer-songwriter and storyteller from the San Francisco Bay Area where he lives with his wife and their son, Asa. He is currently working on his first published book and tenth studio album. The project is called CMYK.

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