What Inspires You?

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(I presented the following speech at UVU's My Word!, a ceremony that celebrates student writing and art as published in the journals Essais, Touchstones, and Warp & Weave.

A few nights ago, a friend called me to discuss a dilemma. He’s a photographer, and a popular art magazine is planning to feature his work this month. As part of the feature, the magazine wants to include a short bio, and they asked my friend, Jack, to answer this question: What inspires your work?

He was having difficulty coming up with a reply.

Jack is an intelligent 26-year-old from Virginia. He grew up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood near DC. He excelled in college as an advertising student and now he freelances, divvying his time between New York and LA, bouncing from the backseat of his car to couches to dingy downtown apartments. He mostly photographs urban, Millennial up-and-comers in the music industry—hip-hop artists, jazz musicians, R&B singers, DJs—and his portraits possess that same quality with which they imbue music: soul.

Why, he asked himself, do I photograph and hang with the musically inclined urban caste? What am I trying to say?

At first, Jack wondered whether it’s about the music. But, upon reflection, he realized that although music inspires him, it’s not why he shoots. Then he considered that maybe inner-city culture is the cause and source of his work, but that wasn’t it either. Maybe he’s inspired by a kind of raw and real approach to life, an obsession with creative work. Maybe he’s trying to document that. This, although closer, Jack confessed, still did not quite feel like the truth.

He became frustrated with the question posed, seeing it as trite and thoughtless, and he felt that no matter how he responded his answer wouldn’t be real or accurate or complete. Anything he wrote would fall short of identifying what inspires him.

What inspires me, and what am I trying to inspire in others?

These two questions seem inextricably tied. Maybe the former is difficult to answer because if the artist can identify the inspirited source of his work, then he might also discover why he creates at all. And if he discovers why he creates, he may no longer have cause to do so.

Anyone who has remained committed to a creative work has questioned his or her own motives. And, I suspect, like Jack, in searching the soul they find mostly slippery impressions that shine like the emerald sheen of a frail bubble. And when they try grabbing hold, all vanishes.

Last November I rolled my van down to a section of Salt Lake City where those who are homeless and drug addicted dwell. I bought heroin from a young 27-year-old father of two, introduced myself, stated my purpose, and then spent the next few days talking with him, following him, watching him poke his veins with a ten-cent contraption filled with artificial spiritual release. I made notes and photographs. The story I subsequently wrote is why I’m standing here now.

Since publishing the story people have asked me, “Do you see yourself in the subject of your story?” Yes. “Is the story a critique of American culture?” Yes. “Is it a call for empathy or self-reflection?” Yes.

“Why did you write the story?”

(Crickets.)

This, essentially, is what Jack asked me when he called the other night. What inspires you? And, at first, given my lifetime of navel gazing, I thought I knew. Maybe I’m inspired by the idea of achieving fame or recognition, an unglamorous possibility. Maybe I vainly hope to transcend death by leaving behind a few flimsy creative artifacts. Maybe I’m moved by this ambiguous universe, the self-refuting proofs, the contradictions that hold up, this never-ending sense of youth inside a body that is cursed, the fact that data rides on streams of light, whether through fiber cords or optic nerves, that I exist, that the world and we are here, that there is joy and hurt in it.

Alas, I’m not sure if this is why I write. I’m not sure whether it’s why Jack makes photos. And, I think, if you go deep into your creative impulses, you’ll find too that your whys morph and dissolve and maybe even disappear.

Jack and I had a good laugh that night as we tried to unpack and elucidate our drives. We imagined how a five-year-old might respond if asked, after pushing colored crayons around a sheet of paper, “What inspired you? Why did you make this?”

We could only envision a scrunched and quizzical face that said, “Are you fucking kidding me? What do you mean “why”?

So, why do you shoot or draw or dance or write? What inspires you?

I think this is a good question to explore if you’re going to paint or poem or compose. But be wary of the answers you feed yourself. If you’re willing to accept the apparent reasonability of this question you must also accept the underlying absurdity of it. There is the chance, after all, that no reason exists, that the hopeful artist is merely a medium, a channel, a conduit that hangs between two diaphanous realms, between spirit and spirit, pulse and impulse. And if in your searching you should find a reason or source for your artistic drive, consider letting it remain nameless, unidentified, because knowing puts an end to mystery. And without that, what would you have left to attempt to represent?