Impetus and Inertia

Photo source: Nividia Cave


impetusI’ve always wondered what brings a work of art into being. The creative process is a mysterious one and I approach it with trepidation. There have been times when it seized me and tossed me around like a giant wave—and I’ve come to define those instances as moments of true inspiration. But most times, beginning to write is like walking into a dark cave with no torch, no equipment, and a slim chance of survival—whether for the future poem or for my ego, I’m not sure. I’m not leaving inspiration out of this second scenario. It may strike at any moment like a vengeful bat swooping down from some hidden cornice in the cavern, unhappy with me for disturbing its peace.

You might ask then, why write, if writing is so fraught with danger? Why paint, why sculpt, why make a movie? For some creative minds, the answer resides in the question itself: for the sake of danger. We do what we do, because it’s thrilling to experience fear while knowing, at least theoretically, that there is no bodily harm involved in our adventures. There’s plenty of agony, anguish, loss of confidence in our ability to stitch words, images, sounds together, but no visible disfiguration. We watch horror movies or read scary stories for the same reason. Fear, alas, is not something I personally seek, at least not consciously.

I’m aware that different artists experience their creative processes differently and that some of them (hopefully not the vast majority, because that would be simply unfair) may derive a great amount of joy from the very first word they scribble on the paper–or the very first brush stroke on a canvas–to the very last. I envy the ease of their creativity and resign myself to hours of self-torture.

For me the joy comes in the aftermath. It is perhaps the joy of having survived another bout of wrestling with a muse that led me astray trough endless, low-ceilinged corridors of metaphors and similes. But it is also the joy of finding out that the cave continues to surprise me, that each passage through, no matter how excruciating, is also one of serendipitous discoveries. The vengeful bat ends up as a somewhat cantankerous guide, opening unexpected doorways and burrowing tunnels into bedrock.

What I want to discuss today is how one moves from a state of uncreative inertia to one of creative action. How does one cross that first threshold into the cave? What is the impetus that propels a human being toward making something out of an experience, a thought, an image in his/her head?

Physics was never my strong point, but this is one time I need its terminology to describe the concepts I’m attempting to use. A simple Google search offered the above definition for impetus. Here’s one for inertia:

In other words (my own, completely unscientific and therefore to be taken with your personal grain of salt, words), inertia is the resistance of a human being to any change in his or her level of comfort or discomfort for fear of bringing about further discomfort, pain, shame, ostracism, death. So as not to sound overdramatic, let me add that the word ‘any’ may include changes in activity, profession, relationships, responsibilities, political affiliations, sexual orientation, religious and cultural upbringing, etc. So many of us preserve the status quo, often a place in which we’re extremely uncomfortable, simply because we’re afraid of what lies beyond the threshold of the cave.

I’m afraid a comparison with Plato’s allegory of the cave simply begs to be brought up (see the following website for Plato’s text:

In Plato’s allegory, unenlightened people are prisoners chained inside a cave, facing a wall, unable to turn their heads toward the fire burning behind them. Between them and the fire, puppeteers walk by, holding up their wares to cast shadows on the wall. It’s a strange way of torturing people, but there it is: all the prisoners can see are these passing, insubstantial shadows. The words the prisoners might use among themselves to represent these shadows are dim echoes of the real objects, since they are several times removed from the truth. Plato goes on to say that when a prisoner is freed, he may be initially blinded by the fire inside the cave, and blinded once more by sunlight once he is led out. In his blindness, he may see reality as illusory compared to what he knows to be the truth—shadows on a wall.

Where am I going with this? I’m not. What I’m describing is inertia.

Whether the metaphor takes us into or out of a cave, inertia is what holds us prisoner inside it—and instead of exploring the cave and finding our way out toward the light that would shatter our preconceptions, we continue to remain chained, our eyes intent on a wall of passing shadows that represent all we know about the world. This is a pessimistic view of humankind. Here comes the optimism: all we have to do is turn our heads toward the fire behind us. Or the fire within us.

Perhaps one of the most powerful deterrents to our mission to combat inertia is self-doubt. What if there’s no fire behind us, nothing glowing within, no sunlight elsewhere? What if there is no elsewhere at all and what we’re left with is right here, right now, this wall of shadows, the only thing containing any meaning?

Perhaps not each and every one of us asks questions about the meaning of life, but there are so many people in the world who simply don’t believe themselves capable of creating anything worthy of someone’s attention. Which brings me to the simple truth that while we do create for others (also, for fame, money, and attention), since it’s impossible in today’s world to do anything in a vacuum, most of all we create for ourselves. No wonder art is often used as a form of therapy. It has the power to recharge our batteries, to take our mind off what hurts physically or emotionally, to translate that pain into another medium, where it’s more contained than it was before. For me, art is as necessary as sleeping—I cannot go without it for a long time. And when I’m forced to do so by the daily grind I feel existentially exhausted.

What I need then to leave the rut, the cave, the state of inertia, is an impetus, a kernel of motivation, a glowing ember, a spark. Here’s one for all of us, hidden talents everywhere.

“I believe that most people have some degree of talent for
something–forms, colors, words, sounds. Talent lies around
in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just
as gifted as others, are less lucky. Fate never drops a match
on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their
energy is low, or their obligations too many. Something.”
~ Wallace Stegner “Crossing to Safety”

This may not be the happiest of quotes, but I find the possibility of kindling lying around inside us incredibly motivating. Perhaps we don’t need to wait for fate to drop the match. Perhaps we can look for sparks of our own. Maybe soon there will be a little flame, somewhere in there, licking at that kindling.

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