On inspiration

As someone who has an interest in creative pursuits (primarily programming, but also writing and art), I make an effort to record bits of inspiration that I find in my daily life. Most of these ideas are collected in an org-mode file, which was 656 lines long at the time when this entry was written. One would think that, for all these ideas, I'd be busy as a bee; and yet oftentimes the opposite is more accurate: So much inspires me, but acting on that inspiration is incredibly difficult.

Imagine you see a flower and consider its qualities. Maybe its petals are extraordinarily delicate; maybe a careful matte color bleeds out near the edges into something translucent; or maybe a perfect shock of orange-yellow stamen stands out like a sun amidst the rest of the blossom. The circumstantial scrap of carbon is a symphony in its own right, or a solar system floating in infinite space. As a programmer, a practitioner of the doomed discipline, what could you do but merely write about what great thing you had seen? A scientist studying space-time or an engineer designing airplanes might find some way to express the flower's beauty in his work; but the programmer is stuck in a prison of sets, automata, and graphs, seemingly isolated from the aesthetic world of art and creativity. It is far easier to begin with a mundane problem and draw up a similarly mundane solution to it than it is to see the flower's magnificence and create ex nihilo some work of programming inspired by that sight.

Perhaps, even in creative acts, a programmer must act as a sort of machine. The longer one works on a toy library for parsing command-line options, or building a massive distributed system with a team, the more novelty and subtlety is lost. Software is not a place for poetry: Great words must be pared down and reduced to only what is necessary, while it is the fate of elegant laconisms to be banished in favor of redundancy.

Is inspiration even relevant to a programmer, then? Perhaps not. It may be that the programmer cannot do what a musician or painter can; perhaps this field is entirely without a soul, and I would be better served by expending effort on some other pursuit.