The difference between creativity and inspiration

Anne Tyler-WritingQuote

There is a big difference between creativity and inspiration yet many people assume they are the same. One of the comments I often read on Twitter is that a writer doesn’t feel in the mood, that today isn’t a creative day, that their muse isn’t with them. It sometimes comes from an established author but you mostly hear it from those starting out on their writing journey. The problem is, these writers are confusing inspirations with creativity.

The math of creativity and inspiration

In order to help understand the difference between the two and why it’s important, I’ve drawn up a couple of equations for you – no, don’t run, they are really simple.

Here’s the first one:

Inspiration = right time + right place + notepad

And now the second one:

creativity = inspiration + perspiration*

Why is this important?

Because waiting around for inspiration is a pointless exercise. You have no control over when inspiration strikes. Those lightning rods of enlightenment hit you when they feel like it, not when you want them to. Some writers enhance the chances of it happening by visiting places that inspire them, listening to inspiring music or looking at inspiring art, but nothing is guaranteed. Some people appear blessed with ideas, continually coming up with something new and exciting, but my impression is that these people just happen to be better at recognising inspiration than the rest of us. All most of us can do is have a notepad and pen (or a handy smartphone) to note down ideas when they arise.

Creativity is hard work

The biggest lesson all creatives learn, whether in art, music, design, writing or any other of the creative areas, is that moment of inspiration is just the start. Then it is hard work all the way. That’s why the most common piece of advice you’ll get from a writer is to write every day, whether you feel like it or not. It’s one of the key reasons experienced writers tell you to never self-edit during the first draft, because they know that the ideas and inspiration generated during that process need honing again and again until you get it right.

It is very difficult to approach a blank page with no idea of what you are going to write. That’s where your inspirational notepad comes in handy. It is much easier to take something you have written, adapt it, develop it, improve it step by step until before polishing it until it shines. That’s not to say it is easy, as I said before it is a lot of hard work.

But none of this is possible if you’re not writing.



*stolen from Thomas Edison’s quote “Genius = 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Don’t worry, I’m sure he won’t mind.



36 thoughts on “The difference between creativity and inspiration

  1. I always, always carry idea notebooks everywhere. A funny green hat, a comment, a random thought, a scent I want to remember, the feel of a net on my fingers — all can lead to great things, or remain fleeting, but memorable moments and I never want them to pass me by. My notebooks are tattered and worn, but make the best idea catchers.

    • I tend to use my smartphone because I always have it with me. This does lead me to being accused of tweeting or texting when I’m making a note but at least the idea doesn’t get lost. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Totally agree, but I think it goes even further. Inspiration doesn’t come out of nowhere, the harder you work at flexing your creative muscles the more often inspiration will strike, because you’re training your brain to be inspired.

    • I was hoping you would comment on this, Andrew. While I was writing the post I thought about you and your brainstorming approach to generating ideas for your writing. I’m not sure whether it counts as inspiration or creativity, but frankly it doesn’t matter in the overall theme of the post which is you need to work at being creative and not wait for it to happen. However, I’d love to know more about your views on training your brain to be inspired 🙂

      • Honestly, I think it’s mostly just a matter of regular use, and of finding exercises that make you think about it in different ways. Like the exercise I read somewhere about dancing as your character, or the exercises where you just keep pushing and pushing until you’ve got a hundred ideas on a theme.

        Sadly, I’m a bit too tired to feel very inspired about this right now, but I’ve put it on my list for future posts to write for my blog – coming soon to a computer screen near you!

    • I don’t know if you are the same as me but once I’ve written something down (or thumbed it into my smartphone) it sticks in my memory, so hopefully many of those lost ideas and thoughts are still there in your head, waiting to be released.

  3. I’ve learned that the only way I manage to write a short story is if I get struck by inspiration — almost literally. It has to hit me like a hammer and force me to write it, because otherwise I’m too wrapped up in my longer creative work to have time for little ideas.

    And I’m too wrapped up in my longer work because I’ve worked the act of writing like a muscle over many years, to the point that it’s an automatic part of my day to sit down at the computer and add more to the text file. If I don’t feel like I’m in the mood, I make the mood, by listening to music that connects me to the character/situation and by moving around (dancing or just pacing) until I start seeing those beautiful cinematic visions that drive me onward. It has to become like this — the reflex, the routine — because it’s a long journey, and perhaps an endless one. I have a lot of work to get done, and no time to lay around complaining about how I don’t feel like it.

    Anyway, as you said above, it’s all about polishing. The first draft is half-digested crap, but you have to get it out before you can refine it. So get it out!

    • I know that feeling well. I’m very impressed with writers who seem to effortlessly switch from long-form to short-form writing. Saying that, I wrote this blog when I did because I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my current round of editing.
      You make a good point about creating the mood to write. For me it is all about routine. I make a cup of tea, go to my office and close the door. That simple act gets me in the mood to write. Sadly I can’t listen to music while creating because I’ve played in bands for years and tend to get distracted. I do use music while editing, usually to evoke the emotion I’m trying to create in the particular scene. It makes for some interesting choices.
      Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

  4. This is timely, Dylan. I’m sitting at my desk today, waiting… hoping for inspiration to strike. Today I’m writing (or waiting for the inspiration to write) one of my regular vignettes – we call them Coffee Break Stories – for a client’s newsletter. And I’m all out of ideas. I guess I’ll just have to perspire until I can wring something out of my uninspired brain. Or maybe it’s time to dip into my ‘resource of last resort’… a little book-like tool designed to get the imagination going. It’s called “The Writer’s Block” – have you seen it? I’m reaching for it now.

  5. There’s something to be said for writing every day. I learned that lesson recently. Writing really does beget writing, and sometimes it can encourage inspiration, too.

    • It really does work and I’ve often been surprised when looking back at a first draft that my writing on days where I’ve really struggled has often been as good, if not better, than days where it has flowed.

  6. Reblogged this on ked and commented:
    When I saw the thumbnail pic, I initially disagreed. If I don’t feel like writing, I know it’s going to suck. After reading the post, however, I completely agree.

  7. Oh hell yes. It’s hard to write when you have the block on (coincidentally, daily post asked about this subject today). I think Philip Pullman put it eloquently in saying that when you have no inspiration, that’s the time to make yourself do something. When you are bursting with ideas, that’s when to take a break.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the second part but I understand his reasoning in that some of your ideas will be rubbish and you’ll throw them away. Best re-evaluate with a clear head the following day.

    • That second part of the Pullman quote is interesting. I’ve often found myself getting side-tracked while trying to crowbar the latest idea into a piece of writing only to realise it doesn’t really fit. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  8. Great post, thanks! Much like everyone else, it seems, I always have notebooks lying around, with various incomprehensible (at least to others) notes scribbled on them! To make things worse, my mailbox is littered with emails sent by me via the smartphone, when I’m, say, at a restaurant and don’t want to ruin my napkin! 🙂

  9. Great post, Dylan! I do try to write those inspirations down as they occur to me. Unfortunately I seem to get a lot of ideas when either (a) I’m driving, or (b) I’m lying in bed after all the lights are out. Not the best times to write things down! Clearly I need to start voice recording. 🙂

    • One of my old friends kept a notepad in their car and would pull over whenever an idea struck. Made their journey into work a little longer but they never lost an idea.
      I have a notepad beside the bed and my alarm clock is bright enough to write by. Unfortunately my night-writing isn’t always that legible the next day 🙂

  10. Hi Dylan,

    Likeminded people, I like your blog. I don’t have one, yet, but will soon.

    This is an excerpt from The Child of Heaven,
    (The Teaching, Chapter II)

    “Art is the collective name given to creative work that the human mind and soul are capable of generating. This is a combined effort between inspiration, imagination, and ability. When we experience things in life, good or bad, happy or sad, the degree of the feelings involved, triggers our inspiration. We are inspired to do something using our imagination, and our particular ability to transcribe and to translate the feeling, becomes the means of expression.”

    I’m not trying to promote my book here on your blog, but simply indicating a parallel train of thought…

    Best wishes and Good luck with your blog and writing,


  11. I’m sure that I will be a crooked old lady thanks to the gigantic bags full of notebooks I heft around with me all day! I have a general ideas notebook, a notebook for whatever project(s) I’m working on, notebooks for brainstorming marketing/promotion type ideas… my poor back, but it’s well worth it!

    I find generally that writing every day is the key to keeping creativity flowing – I vaguely imagine that my writing muscle is like any other, it gets stiff and unwieldy if I don’t work it regularly. The days that I sit around staring at the blank screen and wondering when my muse might rock up tend to be the first few days after a holiday or other break.

    • Have you thought about putting all your notebooks in a shopping trolley? I’ve seen a few people do this in cities, pushing their trolleys along while mumbling about plot ideas & character traits…

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