When I’m stuck in a rut and not feeling like my photos are that amazing, it usually just takes going to a beautiful new place or going out when the light is incredible to get my back on the path of being excited about taking photos. But not always. Sometimes I need some added inspiration for my creativity. Can you relate?
Sometimes I think all the busyness of my mind, the client who wants something yesterday, the endless emails that needs answering, the toilet that needs fixing in my studio, take over that part of my brain that is flowing and waiting to take photos. It’s almost like these tasks put a huge stopper on my creative flow.
When this happens I like to turn to minds wiser than my own. Over the years I’ve come across ideas that have sparked something in me, helping me to look at the world in new and different ways. Just remembering these ideas when I am down in the depths of not-creating, usually helps to jumpstart my mind and get me back into creating again.
I love hearing advice about creativity from all sources, because it is an act regardless the medium. From singers (“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Miles Davis) to painters (“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Picasso), everyone has something illuminating to share about the creative act.
Here are some of my favourite ideas to inspire creativity:
1. Look for indirect inspiration (via Ernst Haas)
I love looking at other photographers’ work. I like to put myself into a place where I am inspired by other people’s creative visions. But when I am stuck in my own photography, looking at other photographer’s work is probably the worst thing to do.
Funny enough, my favourite photographer of all time – Ernst Haas – agreed! He warned against seeking too much direct inspiration, as it:
“leads too quickly to repetitions of what inspired you,” and instead he recommends you should: “refine your senses through the great masters of music, painting, and poetry. In short, try indirect inspirations, and everything will come by itself.”
So fill your life with beautiful, joyful, and interesting things. Things that make the hair on the back of your neck tingle.
2. Beware the barrenness of a busy life (via Socrates)
Let’s just assume something: our work and your life responsibilities are an endless flow of stuff, and you will never get it all done. Ever. It’s impossible. So stop trying, and give yourself permission to just wander, percolate, get bored. Day dream and do all those awesome things that eventually lead to creativity.
So given that it’s endless, how about deciding that in order to have a happy life, one that is rich with fulfilment and fun and adventure, you have to break free occasionally. Because it’s so satisfying.
Socrates said: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Think about the things that really make you feel fulfilled and inspired. Things that nourish you deep down, that make you feel happy to be alive. You need more of that and less of the constant emails – right?
Turn off the faucet of tasks and prioritize being creative.
3. Kill perfectionism (via Anne Lamott)
When I start a photo project I am visited by that evil force – perfectionism. (It visits me towards the end too, and usually in the middle, in that vast sea when I am unanchored and often unsure of where to go next. It always catches me when I am feeling most vulnerable). I start to worry – “What if my best shot is behind me, what if I’ll never shoot anything amazing again, what if, what if…!?”
And, wow, is perfectionism easy to get sucked into. It’s something on which we believe, that we’re just being super focused. When in fact:
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” – Michael Law
That’s why you have to kill it, because perfectionism will stop you in your tracks. It will stop you before you even get started.
Perfectionism often appears when you’ve cleared everything out of the way and are ready to get down to it. You’ve turned off your phone, cleared the diary, extracted yourself from the ever flowing font of responsibilities. When you are faced with the actually doing.
But what happens if you give into it, and keep giving in to it and never get started?
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.” – Anne Lamott
So how do we deal with this beast? Weirdly what seems to work the best for me, is to say to myself, “It doesn’t matter if what you do is terrible, just do it.” In fact I slightly encourage myself to be terrible, so that I have removed all that pressure to achieve something amazing. Therefore I’ve killed perfectionism at the root (because perfectionism is a desire to either be perfect or pretty amazing).
Then once I’m out the door and taking photos, I’ll fall into the flow and forget all about that horrible perfectionism. Most of the time I’ll even end up with some pretty good shots! Getting started is better than never striking out. Or as Seneca said:
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” – Seneca
4. Make creativity a habit (via Maya Angelou)
I read this quote to my 10 year old son the other day because he had started writing a story. After an initial burst of enthusiasm he said his inspiration had disappeared and he didn’t want to carry on.
“In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.” – John Steinbeck.
Although this may be about writing, it is totally true of any creative pursuit. That is because:
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou
I love that quote because it shows that making an active effort to be be creative on a regular basis (whether it’s every Sunday afternoon, each morning for an hour at 6am, or Wednesday evenings) will guarantee that you will generate more creativity. It’s all about making the time to do it. Because, by the way, there is never the right time, or enough time for everything else. Even professional photographers, like me, need to literally carve out time to be creative.
5. But on the other hand….destroy your other habits (via Henry van Dyke)
“As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge” – Henry van Dyke
Because our brain is a very helpful entity, wanting to make our lives as simple as possible (thank you brain), it creates habits very quickly. Although that makes it easy to get up in the morning, make breakfast, get ready for work, get to work and do your job without actually thinking about it too hard, or making any huge decisions – this is terrible for your creativity.
Because most of the activities you do are by habit. That includes 70-80% of the thoughts you have today, you had yesterday (and will have tomorrow. Scary!) Which means you are for the most part living your life on autopilot. So if you want to create something new, in fact just the act of creating is by nature doing something new, you have to abandon those habits that keep you thinking and living the same way over and over again.
To be aware is to not be locked in habit, or lost in a sea of your ever-revolving thoughts. So take a new route to work, change your morning routine, take a walk in the evening – anything that wakes up that mind of yours and gets you doing and thinking in new ways.
6. Your mind is made of play-doh (via Gandhi)
On my workshops many people come with preconceived ideas of what they are good at, and most definitely what they are not good at. Although I agree we all have predispositions to being naturally good at certain things, what science is now learning about the brain, is that it can continue to learn, change, adapt and evolve throughout your whole life.
“New research shows many aspects of the brain remain changeable (or “plastic”) even into adulthood.” – Wikipedia
How exciting is that? So when Gandhi said this:
“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Gandhi
Not only was he totally right, but he was showing us that when we put our minds to something, and really focus and concentrate, we can learn and create whatever we want. As Thomas Edison said:
“If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”
So not being good at something now, or not being a very technical or creative person should not limit you. If you want to be more creative – go out there and work at being creative. If you want to become a technically adept person – do it! Everything is possible if you believe (that’s science saying that, not me).
When I get stuck with the things I struggle with photographically, I remember that I need to not give in to that thought, and instead push through with what I want my photography to be.
7. Dreaming with your eyes wide open (via Ernst Haas)
Being open and creative is something that all children excel at, but it is often squeezed out of us as we grow up. Children are amazing at making connections between disparate ideas; they have an openness and freedom to look at things without thinking, “I can’t think that, I can’t do that, I can’t try that, I’m not good at that.”
So as you were creative as a child, you can be creative again!
It’s about opening yourself up to the wondrous magic that is in the world all the time. Take a walk with a three year old, and it won’t be in a straight line. It will take four or five times longer, or more! Children are not goal-orientated, they are all about noticing that beautiful flower or funny face in the shop, a piece of colourful glass on the floor, or a ladybird!
Haas calls it “dreaming with your eyes wide open”. I love that it’s about shaking off the shackles of that adult training. So just look, wander, get lost, daydream. That’s when you start seeing things that you’ve blocked out in your ordinary day to day life.
Finally, I think many of us have become a culture aimed towards being too goal-orientated, so used to spending our time achieving things, and exchanging our time for achievement. But while it’s important to regularly take time to be creative, it doesn’t always have to lead to an outcome. Just the act of being creative, or looking, is fuel for the fire, even if it never leads anywhere. In fact let’s just throw outcomes out of the window, and get involved in taking photos for the sake of taking photos.
I think being creative is an incredible way to live, because it’s not just being locked into doing stuff, achieving stuff, focused on outcomes. It’s about being in wonder and awe of life.
I think Henry Miller summoned it up perfectly when he wrote:
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”