5 WAYS TO JUMPSTART YOUR CREATIVITY AND GET YOURSELF OUT OF THAT RUT!
Everyone finds themselves in some sort of a rut from time to time. But I think ruts are especially daunting for creatives. Not only do ruts disrupt the creative process and derail us from our projects but their effects can cut far deeper as well. Ruts are where seeds of doubt and uncertainty find fertile soil. They undermine our confidence, spur procrastination, generate self-criticism and doubt, and can grow so wide and so deep as to drive people from creative pursuits forever.
I find it particularly challenging in this age of instant media. All the world’s a stage and we are constantly surrounded by other people’s successes. Everything we do, everything we are, and everything we create is instantly compared and contrasted with the very best everyone else has to offer within this carefully cultivated Grand Illusion. It’s a world that can quickly turn the simple rut into a yawning chasm. But don’t despair, my friend, it need not be!
First off, realize that you are not alone. All artists deal with the dreaded creative rut at some point or another and there are a lot of things we can do to help us kick start our creative hearts and get back in the game. While not a comprehensive list by any means, I wanted to share five practical, real-world things I do when faced with a creative rut. Please note: while these are primarily focused on my current business as a fashion/creative portrait photographer they can easily be applied to virtually any creative pursuit.
1. CHANGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT & DEFINE YOUR CREATIVE SPACE
We often forget the roll environment plays in our wellbeing, and this is especially important for a creative. So take a moment to step back and look at the space where you usually go to “create.” What do you see? Is it a private, tranquil, safe space surrounded by inspiration, inviting you to push your boundaries and explore your imagination? Or, is it a dust-covered Besta cabinet sitting next to your husband's Xbox strewn with bills, books, and other debris looking for a home? Have you ever tried to think of something creative while someone’s playing Call Of Duty? Not happening. Nor should it. Now, I know we are all subject to certain realities, and sometimes we just can’t have that “perfect space” for us to go and create. But you at least need a space, so the first step is to give yourself permission to go and find that space. Even if it’s not ideal you need a space that is dedicated to one thing and one thing only: your creativity. There is no such thing as multitasking here (actually there is no such thing as multitasking at all, it’s all just inefficient mono-tasking, but that’s a subject for another article). Everything in that space must be dedicated to the purpose of creativity. So, if you don’t have your space yet that is your first step towards breaking out of your rut.
But let’s say you already have your space. It’s nice, cozy, and pleasant. Now is the time shake things up a bit. First, clean it up! Grab a rag and get things spotless. Next, look at what it’s filled with. Have distractions crept their way in over the past winter? Remove them, and this means all of them. No phones, no email, no Facebook, no TV, books, bills, letters, or magazines. Nothing that is not directly connected to your inspiration and pursuit of creating should have a home in this space. And what about any past work you have displayed there, is it all of your latest and greatest or just faded highlights from the past 20 some-odd years? Ditch anything more than three years old. Yes, yes, I know, “but it’s such a great photo and it took me hours to get that shot!” And it still is! But its home is not where you are supposed to be forging new territory and exploring new frontiers. Time for something fresh.
And speaking of fresh, go buy a plant. No, seriously, this really does work. Buying a plant can completely transform your space. For one it provides you with oxygen and removes contaminants from the air, (particularly if you choose an “air-scrubbing” variety like Dracaena, Ficus, or Snake Plant) but also it forces you to rearrange your setup just to put it somewhere. That is more significant than it might sound. Simply the act of rearranging and refreshing your workspace can keep your creative mind fresh and the ruts at bay.
So respect your space. Clean it, fill it with inspiration, showcase your best recent work, and commit to doing this on a weekly basis. A rolling stone gathers no moss!
2. TAKE A SHOWER
You don’t have to literally take a shower, but rather take a moment to put down the camera and walk away for a bit. Time to be quiet.
Creatives have a tendency to become too close to their art, to the point where we can no longer see the forest for the trees. I do that ALL THE TIME, and I end up wasting hours staring at an image that I should have just put away for awhile. Sometimes our creative ruts simply stem from being too involved with a project to the point where we can no longer recognize a good idea from bad. That’s the time to disengage.
That being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. This does not mean it’s time to go bing-watching your favorite show on Netflix. You need quiet, not distraction. Detachment, not disengagement.
Studies dating back to the 60’s have shown the brain undergoes significant changes when watching TV. Beta waves, the brain waves associated with an active, conscious state, disappear and are replaced with Alpha waves, which are associated with an unfocused and highly suggestible idle state. In other words, it literally turns off your brain. Now, while that may sound enticing as an escape it’s actually very counter-productive. The purpose of detaching is to allow your brain a chance to “mull things over” subconsciously. To deconstruct and reconstruct problems and patterns in different ways, ways your conscious mind could never come up with on its own. This concept is at the heart of one of the most respected and influential books of the past century, Napoleon Hill’s “Think And Grow Rich.” Taking over 20 years to write, documenting first hand the habits and philosophies of the most successful and influential minds of the early 20th Century, Napoleon Hill found that this principle of detaching and allowing inspiration to strike was universal and accounted greatly towards the success of everyone he interviewed.
It goes the same for artists as well. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter wasn’t conceived at her writing desk but rather on a commuter train riding home from work. Yes’s #1 hit song “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” was conceived in the bathroom of all places. And Archimedes came up with his principles of density and buoyancy while relaxing in a bath. Yikes, think of what the world would be like had they all vegged out in front of the boob-tube instead! So take a break. Get up, take a walk, clear you mind. Take a shower! In fact, Woody Allen swears by this method and can spend hours in the shower getting his creative engine started. So learn to get up and walk away for a bit when faced with a creative rut.
3. GO ANALOG
Computers. Love them or hate them they are everywhere! I remember as a little boy dreaming of a world where people tapped on magical glass tablets, spoke into sleek Star Trek communicators, and engaged the world though the cool blue glow of a computer screen. Now it’s 2017 and, yep, everybody’s tapping on iPads, talking on smartphones, and, well, pretty much doing everything in front of a computer. So as a creative these ubiquitous devices have become our go-to tools for creating. We write on computers, paint on computers, sculpt on computers, compose songs on computers, edit photos on computers, take photos on computers. Everywhere you look a computer is an integral part of the modern creative workflow. And they are fabulous tools, but they come at a price. You see, the use of computers is technical in nature. Interfacing with a computer engages a completely different area of the brain than when one uses a more “traditional” medium like paints, pens, clay, or actual musical instruments. This is true even when computers are used for creative pursuits. The act of simply operating the device tends to take over, stimulating an area that is more logical and technical in nature rather than abstract, visceral, and creative. So the creative processes our minds uses in the digital age is decidedly different than it was even just 15 years ago. So what does this mean when it comes to climbing out of your creative rut? One thing you can try is taking your creative processes back to the time before it became so dominated by the computer. Here is a trick used a lot by songwriters. Step away from the computer and pick up pen and paper instead. Write down a list of interesting and stimulating words, cut them out, spread them on a table and just look at what combinations start to jump out (also known as the “Jon Anderson” method of songwriting). The actual act of writing the words, cutting them out, and physically manipulating them across the table and in various combinations engages a completely different center of the brain vs merely typing the words out on a computer screen and staring at them.
I use the same method with my photography too. I’ll run down to the local grocery store and buy a couple fashion magazines with some cool images in them. I then cut them out, spread them out on a table, and just see what different combinations pique my interest. Maybe I like a particular color combination, or an interesting dress in one picture against an interesting background from another. Regardless, it starts to engage other centers of my brain in the creative process, giving me ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have come up with. And the more senses you use the better! Put on some epic music, grab a bolt of soft, red velvet, enjoy the smell of a few fresh cut roses and see what pops into your minds eye for your next fine-art or boudoir themed shoot. But whatever you do make it physical. Get your hands involved in the creative process and see where that takes you.
4. CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Sometimes you can fall into a rut simply because you have thoroughly explored all of the tools you currently have in your toolbox. The cure for that? Go buy yourself a new tool! But before you grab your wallet and that B&H catalog here are some things to consider. Take a look at the work you are currently doing. What do you notice about it? Is it all using the same color palette? Same lighting styles? Same lens choices? Same subjects, composition, and post-processing workflow? Then before you spend a dime think about what tools would actually shake that all up. Are you a natural lighting master who is looking for something different? Then maybe a modest investment in a speed light flash and lighting modifier is just the ticket! The Youngnuo 560mkIII flash (http://yongnuousa.net/) with a Gamilight Box50 modifier (http://www.infinitypointstudio.com/gamilight/) would only set you back about $120. And if you’re really feeling crazy you can throw in a set of Jake Hicks/Lee Filters Color Gels (http://jakehicksphotography.com/products/) for another $40! Commit to using that on your next few shoots and I guarantee you’ll see some big changes.
Or maybe you are pixel-peeping, flash-using, connoisseur of sharpness, meticulously insuring every line of your fashion portraits is finely etched and every color deep and saturated. Well, mount up a $30 Tiffen GlimmerGlass #3 filter and see where the world of light bloom, diffused color, and muted contrast leads you.
And new “tools” don’t stop with the gear, either. The gear is only as good as you are at using it, so you need to commit yourself to learning exactly how to effectively use your new toy, er, tool before you go spending money on it. And sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with gear at all. Wondering how to take your photography to new levels? Sign up for a couple classes at Creative Live or RGG University and learn from the people who have already gotten there. Some of the world’s top creative professionals are positively giving away their best techniques and trade secrets for less than most people spend on a week's worth of Starbucks coffee. Professional development is literally at your fingertips, and once you learn a new skill or technique you will quickly realized that creative rut is a distant memory.
So browse around a bit, pick ONE thing (only one), and commit a weekend to learning/using that new technique or tool!
Yep, I want you to go steal something. But hear me out, there is a method behind this madness.
Take a moment to think about exactly what T. S. Elliot meant by his statement, particularly the words he chose to use. “Mature” vs “immature.” Those words are very telling. He is referring to a growth process that every creative goes through. Much like a child, we learn our way around the creative world by observing and digesting what has come before us. It is from these influences and raw materials that our new ideas are formed.
Imitating (or copying) is a very important part of that process. How better to truly understand the artists that influence and inspire us than to try to emulate them? And how better to learn the techniques behind what makes them so inspirational than to recreate them ourselves? This can be huge in forging new directions and further developing our style. Whether it be just one element, like a certain color palette, lighting setup or pose, or an entire image and everything in it, imitating those things teaches us the techniques that were used and provides a glimpse into the thought processes of the artists behind them.
Immature creatives, however, think the process simply ends there. To the contrary, it is only the beginning. The next step is to truly digest those ideas, internalize them, deconstruct them and incorporate them into our own unique body of work in new and fresh ways.
Revisiting this process of growth and discovery can be an incredibly powerful tool in pulling us out of a creative rut. Sit down and spend some time just looking. Look at the artists and the images that resonate with you and make a note of them. One way I do this is to have what’s called a swipe file. Whenever I come across an image, concept, or idea that I like I will take a picture of it and put that in a folder on my desktop named “Swipe.” Then, from time to time, I will simply look through that folder and pick something that inspires me. I’ll start by just trying to copy the idea, but as I familiarize myself with the technique I will instead start discovering new ways to marry that with other ideas and techniques I already know to create something entirely new and different. This gives you a near limitless supply of raw material and inspiration to work from! So if you are feeling stuck it might be time to start “stealing!”
HONORABLE MENTION: SET A ROUTINE
I don’t think it would be fair to finish up this article without mentioning the importance of a routine. This isn’t exactly a way to end a rut as much as it’s a way to keep from falling into one. Being creative isn’t some magical “state” that some are blessed with and others are not, it is a skill. And like any other skill it take practice to perfect and master. A central element of effective practicing is the routine. Consider this, which do you think would be more effective: practicing 20 minutes a day, every day, at the same time like clockwork for a week or practicing eight hours straight on a Sunday afternoon? Despite the fact that you would be spending 70% LESS total time practicing, the 20-minutes a day method is far, far more effective. So why, when it comes to our creative pursuits, are so many of us locked into this “feast or famine” cycle? By having a routine we start to train our brains to fall into a creative mode at a time of our choosing. And by repeatedly practicing that transition from “daily life” to dedicated creative time it becomes easier and easier for us to do. So try this: pick one creative pursuit to do at one consistent time every single day and do that for only 20 minutes. Doesn’t matter if you get in your groove and the ideas are flowing like a waterfall, once those 20 minutes are up you stop and move on to something else. This is very important! We are training our brains to respond to US, not the other way around. Not only that but by having a hard 20 minute time limit you will find you’ll actually get a lot more done than if you had the luxury of say, 60 minutes, since you subconsciously know you have so much less time to waste. So give it a try!
We’ve covered a LOT of ground in this article and I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful. Above all else, just keep creating. Keep plowing through it, tilling up that ground in your rut to make sure those seeds of negativity don’t have a chance to grow. And if you have any suggestions of your own that have worked for you please share them, we would love to hear from you!