“I sure wish I was more creative.”
Have you ever said those words either to yourself or others? Every time I hear “I wish I were more creative,” I want to put my fingers in my ears and run out of the room. La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you! It’s a crappy mantra.
You can be more creative.
Being more creative is not something you wish for. It’s something you do. You don’t hear athletes saying, “Gosh, I sure wish I were stronger, or faster.” What you hear them saying is, “I’m going to the gym,” or “I have to train harder.”
Like any other people practicing a craft or making art, photographers must hone their creativity in the same way an athlete chooses training instead of wishing and hoping, to do their best work—and, I would argue, to live their best lives.
There are things you can do to actively become more creative. And when you’re more creative you make better and more meaningful photographs.
If you were sitting beside me right now here in my office in the early morning and sipping a cup of coffee, and you told me you wished you were more creative, I’d have three questions for you. Put the coffee on.
What kind of ritual or structure do you have for your creativity?
If your creative time is ad hoc or crammed into the margins of the day, then there’s a good chance your creativity isn’t that important to you. Sure, it matters, but just not as much as all the little stuff. Or you’ve never made it a priority. For me, creativity needs to be on my calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it won’t happen. What will happen? A million trivial things. And Facebook. And Instagram. But not the important stuff.
The most creative people—those who create the most—make dedicated time. Two hours in the morning before everyone is up and clamouring for your attention, or three hours after dinner is over, or that block in the afternoon you have a couple times a week. Put a line through that on your calendar with the words “Do the Work.” It is not free time, not play time (though it kind of is), and it is not unimportant. Protect that time. Give it to no one. If you need to move it, do what you can to move something else instead. Creative work needs only a few truly essential resources and the most needed of those is time. Don’t hope you can find it: make it.
Where are your distractions?
The second question follows closely on the first and also relates to resources. If time is so important, so is focus. Attention is also a resource, and we have less and less of it these days. We’re learning to apply our limited attention very broadly, but not deep—and if you’re going to do consistent work that eventually becomes meaningful work, you have to focus and go deep. You need time for that, but you also need to to be undistracted. Phones off, people.
Creativity of any stripe is problem solving, and to solve problems, your brain needs space and quiet to work. It doesn’t work well when checking Facebook every 10 minutes or answering the phone every time it rings. It needs a certain level of boredom—that’s when it chews on things—and we quickly eradicate those longer spans of boredom by looking for that dopamine hit from social media and email. This is one of the reasons I have a social media ban in place during my workshops. You need to be undistracted. It’s why when I need to do my own deep work, I limit my time on devices and turn off all notifications, and I limit my social time because I get peopled-out really quickly, and that depletes my attention and focus.
Finally: What are you reading?
What are you watching? What are you listening to? The quality of your output is related to the quality of your input. That’s where the raw materials for the ideas come from. My most truly creative times are when I’ve got a good book or two on the go, when I’m spending less time online and more time with my nose in a book of photographs or walking through a gallery. Because in a gallery or with a book, not only is it more pleasurable, but it’s a more immersive experience. It sticks. It doesn’t just get ingested, it gets digested. It’s a more fully human, more sensory activity to which we respond in deeper ways.
All of these have something in common: a slowing down. An intentional creation of larger margins in our lives. More time and attention spent on fewer (though deeper) things. And that requires the courage and the willingness to say no. I have this feeling that many of the people from whom I’ve heard the words, “I wish I were more creative,” would discover they could be more creative than they would ever know what to do with if they made the time and space needed to be so; to get their hands on the clay and work it; to make more than a half-assed attempt at the photography project they want to do (for the record, I prefer a full-assed attempt at all things), or to start that novel.