Sometimes you’re on a roll.You’re on fire.
Everything you touch turns to gold, and ideas come faster than you know what to do with them.
Other times you’ve got nothing.
Standing there in the middle of one of those places that’s so amazing you can’t make a bad photograph and feeling like an idiot because the only thing you’ve made is bad photographs, feeling empty is about the worst feeling for an otherwise creative person. I love being on fire. I don’t mind fighting through the times I’m challenged.
But empty? Shoot me now.The creative life is a cycle of ups and downs, a rhythm of ideas and execution that has, at its low points, a trough in which there is nothing.Zilch. Nadda. Goose egg. Big Fat Zero.
It’s here we doubt anything we ever thought we knew about ourselves, our potential, and our work both in the past and in the future. It can be a dark, frustrating place that feels like our creative deathbed. We will never make another good photograph. We will never again write anything worth reading.
We close our eyes and think really, really hard to summon the muse and are rewarded only with light-headedness and the feeling that perhaps it’s not too early for a drink. It’s 5 pm somewhere right?Know what I mean?
I think it’s important to remind you that this is normal. More than normal, it’s necessary. It’s important that with some frequency we look in the coffers and find we’ve used up all our previous ideas and inspirations. It means we’ve been squeezing the sponge dry and holding nothing back. And it means there’s now room for new ideas.
That emptiness signals a hunger for more. It’s not the feeling of being hungry that we don’t like: it’s the fear that there’s no meal awaiting us. Creatively, it’s a signal to freak out and start posting your gear on eBay. Maybe you should learn to juggle instead. But the thing is, there’s always a meal on the other side. It’s there. We just can’t see it.
Here are five ways I use to reliably find it, or at least catch the first glimpses of it.Go with It
Who says you need a great idea to begin a great work? Begin with a lousy idea. One of the most important principles of creativity for me is Start Ugly. We all want to begin on an idea that’s halfway grown; one that already shows promise. But ideas don’t come into the world like that most of the time. Like newborns, they arrive with a wail, covered in cream cheese and jelly and wrinkly skin. Don’t wait to fill the empty with a good idea, fill it with an idea you can play with, an idea that will grow and become something. If you wait for the good ones to arrive all grown up, you’ll wait forever.
Go exploring with your camera, with no preconceived ideas. Just play. Too often our creative efforts focus on the something that we’re making and don’t give enough room for the playfulness of process or serendipity. When you try too hard, your brain freezes up. Take some of the pressure off.Increase the Inputs
The brain is an idea factory and no factory (least of all a metaphorical one) can make anything without raw materials. If you want more ideas, then increase or improve the raw materials. What are you reading? What photographs or visual art are you studying? Are you filling your brain with the same old, same old stuff? Are you following truly interesting people on social media? Are you watching films that challenge you? Do you only read articles that reinforce what you already believe, or are you open to being challenged?
Want to stir the paint? Read a novel that’s far outside your usual preferences, or watch some documentaries about great artists, or read something instructional that’s outside your genre. If you’re a photographer, read a biography about Picasso or On Writing by Stephen King. Your output is only as good as your inputs. And if you’re dry, perhaps it’s time to dramatically increase the inputs. I average two books a week, and when I stop reading I always feel myself going dry.Look to the Overflow
When you’re in the flow of things, perhaps in the days or weeks leading up to your current dry spell, there is often a surplus of great potential ideas. You’re always being forced to go with one or two of them, casting others off for one reason or another, most often because they aren’t a fit for this project. But that ill-fitting idea now might be a perfect fit later.
I keep a little black notebook and pen with me all the time. It holds my overflow. It takes discipline; if you haven’t been doing this, there’s no value in checking the pages of that blank notebook now, but you can begin today. The most creative and prolific people I know all keep a notebook or journal and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
My notebook has some symbols that mark new ideas (a scribbled lightbulb) or questions (a capital Q), something I see with immediate potential or something that excites me (three exclamation points) or ideas to execute or take action on (small square/tick box). As new ideas come in, separate from my journal entries, I make these marks so I can find them again later.
In my dry times, I pull a couple notebooks from my shelf and flip through them, often coming up with several ideas I’d forgotten. These ideas become my ugly starting point and I’m off. If you keep a journal, take an hour and look back and see what kind of ideas are just sitting there. If you don’t keep a notebook of some kind, consider starting.