If you’ve ever belted out the lyrics to the Elton John song Rocket Man while driving down the highway, you have a man named Bernie Taupin to thank. Bernie was the longtime lyricist who wrote the words to many of Elton John’s most popular songs. It was in 1971, while Bernie was driving to his parent’s house in Lincolnshire, England that the idea for “Rocket Man” came to Earth.
Bernie had been living in the States and it had been a long time since he’d visited home. The sun had just set and the back roads were dark and winding. Bernie sped along and let his mind wander. He’d just read a science fiction story by Ray Bradbury about a homesick astronaut, and he thought about what it must feel like to miss your family while working in space. The stars were above him and his high beams cut through the night. Cold air filled the car and Bernie felt a familiar feeling creep over him. Suddenly, out came the words: She packed my bags last night pre-flight / Zero hour 9 am / And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.
As the words left Bernie’s lips, something stirred inside him. He reached in the backseat and dug through his bag—no paper. He checked the glove box—no pen. There was no service station ahead and he was still miles away from his parent’s house.
. . .
In his book, The Artist’s Journey, Steven Pressfield writes about what he believes are the two levels of the universe. “The first level is the material world, the visible physical sphere in which you and I dwell.” And then the second level, “…the invisible world, the plane of the as-yet-unmanifested, the sphere of pure potentiality.” Pressfield writes that artists, filmmakers, dancers, and all creatives have one skill in common: They shuttle between levels.
Any human can visit the second level, or the invisible world where pure potential lives. Creativity, however, remains unfulfilled until the traveler comes back to turn inspiration into action. Many people lift-off and sprawl across the incorporeal realm of possibility, yet never return to the material world to produce their vision. The poet and singer Patti Smith knows this trap well, and once wrote, “It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”
The trouble is anyone who’s had a creative epiphany knows that they don’t arrive on a set schedule. Liftoff often happens at random, when we’re focusing on other things. Like Bernie in the car, a new idea will reach down from the night sky and whisper in our ear when we least expect it.
Maybe ideas are energetic life-forms, bouncing from human to human-like a round of speed dating, searching for the perfect match. Maybe ideas rise from the depths of our subconscious, influenced by past experience and current inputs. But whether it’s a matter of neuroscience or science fiction, one thing is for sure: Inspiration is nothing without real-world action.
. . .
Bernie raced down the highway. He gripped the steering wheel and shouted the lyrics out the window, reciting them to memory. She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. He channeled all his focus, desperate to not lose his train of thought.
When he finally reached his parents’ house, they stood at the front door, eager to greet their son. Bernie threw his car into park and, without saying, “hello” rushed past them into the house. He found pen and paper.
Zero hour / 9 AM
Bernie couldn’t have known that those lyrics would end up at the top of the charts a year later, or that “Rocket Man” would become one of the most beloved Elton John songs of all time. He didn’t know that thousands of other people would go on to repeat the same words in their own car, on other dark highways, for the next 50 years. Still, Bernie recognized that feeling when it came to him. He felt the strange alchemy of intuition, excitement, and fear that idea might disappear. Many songwriters struggle to explain this feeling when it comes. But Bernie knew he didn’t need to explain it, he just needed to write it down.
Bernie was first connected enough to himself and his imagination to hear the call. And then, after recognizing the moment, he did the one thing that separates the amateurs from the pros: He took action.
“Write while the heat is in you,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. “The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.” There’s a balance to be made between how long an idea needs to simmer in our imagination before we bring it out into the world. Delivered too soon and it’s dead on arrival. Yet, the longer it sits around the waiting room of our conscious mind, the longer it has to be trampled by logic and practicalities.
The real problem, however, is that when ideas aren’t followed by a physical action, they create traffic in our brain. Creative epiphanies aren’t meant to live inside the darkroom of our mind, left to kick and scream and compete with wandering thoughts. Trying to store multiple ideas in your head is a ticket for overwhelm and a crowded imagination.
Taking action with your ideas right away doesn’t mean they won’t continue to evolve over time, or that you have to stop thinking about them. The lesson here is to grab that initial spark from the outer world of imagination and deliver it into reality as soon as possible. Write it down. Feed it real-world oxygen. Allow yourself to hold it in your hand and see it for what it is. That way it’s free of the traffic jams and noisy neighborhoods of the mind, set aside and ready when you are.
Remember, if we don’t bring our flashes of insight out of our head and into the world, they will eventually evaporate on the dark highway, wishing a different astronaut had come along to claim them.
If you want other people to find warmth around your flame, capture your fire while it’s still hot.