Secrets to become inspired and effectively smash creative blocks
August 18, 2019
Cover photo credit: QQ
I believe all artists have these “blocks” every once in a while. Feeling of discouragement or lack of motivation, inspiration, and will to do something we know we love to do.
Writers have a “writer’s block” - a condition in which a writer is unable to write anything. Logically it doesn’t make sense, because how could a writer who has e.g., written hundreds of pages before not be able to form sentences all of a sudden?
It’s nothing to do with writing specifically. I believe it is the same for any form of art, photography included. It’s really just a “creativity block.”
Paticia Huston, MD, MPH has written a paper on the writer’s block and how to resolve it. I gathered some nuggets from it and put it in a photography context. In addition, I added other ideas from various sources and sprinkled in my own experiences and ideas.
I wish you a pleasant reading.
Lower the bar
One of the reasons for being uninspired might be the fact that you have unrealistic expectations. You put too much importance on the photographs.
Realize that not every picture you make needs to be a great image or shared with others. Shoot for fun, having no expectations whatsoever.
Make photographs of things you’d normally won’t make. Shoot the sky, trees, mannequins, houses, street signs. Just start clicking the shutter, you will gain momentum and make the creative juices start flowing. Again, it’s just for fun.
“I write how a child plays. And I’m having so much fun, and I’m just getting started.”
Essentially just lower the bar of what’s good. Everything you make is good. Simply because you made it. You’re unique, and therefore, everything you make is unique - unique to you.
Give yourself permission to be imperfect as perfection is impossible anyway.
If you’re working on a project and feeling uninspired - think like a sculptor. A sculptor doesn’t start from the head trying to make the head perfect first and then moving to other parts. No, the sculptor has a rough idea of what he or she wants to make out of the block of stone and slowly starts to carve out the pieces.
This is also the way we should approach our work. Do the rough draft first, and then start improving it on different parts.
Don’t stress over being perfect. It’s a lot more important to get your work out there than spending so much time trying to make it better and better and end up not shipping it at all.
The longer you sit on something, the harder it becomes to get it out there. Our minds come up with all sorts of excuses why it’s not ready yet and why it needs more this or that.
Let success land
Give yourself positive feedback even on minor progress.
E.g., if you have improved or achieved some sort of success, reward yourself. Letting success actually land is necessary.
Some people, no matter how much success they receive, don’t acknowledge it (enough). It’s mentally unhealthy. I think it stems from deep-rooted insecurity of you thinking that you don’t deserve success. I was like that.
When I received my LLM degree, I simply went and picked up the diploma as if it was the morning newspaper. I did not celebrate it with anyone. I did not attend the ceremony.
If you never achieve success by always looking for the next thing to conquer, it’s no wonder you lose motivation at one point. It’s not sustainable. You’ll burn out.
This might have something to do with the so-called “imposter syndrome.” You might feel that you’re fake, that you’re not really an artist and that people will call you out sooner or later. For this, Huston gives the following advice (in addition to rewarding yourself): you either pretend that you are, in fact, someone else or reassure yourself that you’re an artist by finding your unique voice.
Peter Elbow (the author of Writing with Power) suggests that by pulling yourself out of your usual perspective, you can sidestep your preoccupation with the block and start thinking directly.
Take a break
Sometimes we simply need a small break to be inspired again.
Do something else - don’t do any photography for a couple of days or even for a week. Or shoot a week only with your phone.
I can still remember the time when I first got into photography. I went out to shoot with my phone every day as I didn’t have a “real” camera yet. I had one of the best times of my life.
Also, take long walks to clear up your mind from clutter.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
As the famous director and writer Ingmar Bergman once said: “Demons hate fresh air.”
There are countless artists and creators throughout the history who took regular walks. E.g., Bob Dylan got once picked up by the police for wandering in the suburbs of New Jersey.
If you’re not taking long walks, you’re missing out. I probably walk at least a minimum of 2 hours almost every day.
Walking is not only good for regaining inspiration and for maintaining your physical health, but it is also good for your mental health in general. Especially in today’s world, where people are almost constantly plugged into their phones.
Read (photography) books
Always have a photography book that you’re reading. Study the book carefully, so you’ll really let those photos sink in.
By looking at the photographs made by the masters of photography, you’ll realize how much you’ve got to improve.
The first time I went through Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” it left me lukewarm. I didn’t think it’s bad, but I didn’t think it’s anything special either. I thought it was overrated. I recently went through it again and looked at the photos from a totally changed perspective. The images had a different meaning for me this time.
I think that it has something to do with certain information not being accessible to you yet. When you’re a beginner, then a decent amount of theory is good for you. However, at a certain point, the theory or information doesn’t give you anything anymore. In fact, excess information usually makes things worse.
It’s as if you haven’t unlocked the next level yet in order to be able to access that information. Once you gain more practical experience, visit that same material again, it might offer you something new!
Quit social media
Quit Facebook and Instagram. You don’t need to delete the accounts but just step back from the noise for a while.
One of the worst things you can do after waking up is to start your day by checking your phone immediately for news and notifications. This sets the tone for the rest of the day. By checking your phone, you’re in reaction mode.
I’ve found out that a lot of creativity and inspiration comes to me, e.g., when I’m taking a walk, or not doing anything that requires cognitive thinking.
What’s the first thing we tend to do when we’re bored? Check our phone.
The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow our unconscious mind to work as we’re constantly putting pressure on the conscious mind. If we free up space in our mind, we can allow the unconscious mind to do the thinking - which is often underestimated.
“The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.”
I don’t think I was ever really inspired by visiting Instagram. To be honest, it made me feel worse. To browse through all kinds of mediocre mess which included cat and baby pictures, political memes, and half-naked models. It also made me feel guilty for wasting so much time on it.
After quitting Instagram, I feel so much more inspired to do stuff - to produce instead of only consume. On my blog, I don’t have any way to comment, and I have turned off all the stats.
Also, e.g., instead of posting directly to Facebook, why not post on your own blog and simply repost automatically to your Facebook account. This way, you’re building your own platform instead of someone else’s.
Don’t make photography a job
If possible, don’t try to turn your hobby into work.
If you work as a photographer, making similar pictures every day for work, it’s hard to stay inspired. Many people who are full-time photographers don’t have the energy anymore to photograph for fun after work. It’s the same reason why a chef doesn’t want to do any cooking at home.
“It is better to be a plumber in the daytime so you can be a photographer at night time.”
Shooting for clients creates a certain pressure to produce images to please them.
“One of the easiest ways to hate something is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.”
Austin Kleon, Keep Going
Vivian Mayer was a nanny, and she was almost constantly taking pictures. At least judging by the amount of the negatives, she did shoot a lot.
Austin Kleon warns people to be mindful of the potential impact that monetizing your passion might have on your life.
What about traveling and new gear?
It seems that traveling to new places is a sure way to get a quick inspiration hit. I think it’s only because of the novelty. Since everything around you is new, you feel more inclined to take pictures and walk around more.
However, once the novelty wears off, so does the inspiration.
It’s similar to getting new gear - you’ll feel inspired at first, but after a couple of weeks you’re back to your normal state.
Do not buy new gear to feel inspired! This is terrible advice! You’ll discover that a few weeks later, the “high” is gone and you’re a couple of thousand dollars poorer.
Do go travel though. Not to fix the inspiration, but to widen your perspective and to invest in experiences.
Overall you need to be able to feel inspired where ever you are. If you can be inspired to do photography with your old camera in a 500 people cow town, you know you have fixed the underlying cause.
I saved the best for last. This is for the hardcore OG’s.
“To turn pro” is a term Steven Pressfield uses. It’s not meant to be taken in its conventional meaning, but rather it means to take your art seriously as a professional does. It doesn’t mean to turn it into a job. Your work is not your job.
“‘Mr. Faulkner, do you write on inspiration or do you write on a schedule?’ Faulkner replied. ‘Well, of course I write on inspiration. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at a quarter past nine.’”
We shouldn’t simply dabble around with our art. We should have the approach of a professional. If you do street photography, then do it! If you write articles, then write articles. Do it every day!
We show up to our jobs whether we feel like going there or not. So we already know how to show up no matter what.
I have noticed myself that sometimes before sitting down behind a computer, I have no idea what I’m going to write about. Yet, it has happened that in many of those cases, I end up writing a thousand-word article in one sitting.
Even this article was not meant to be that long. I just thought of sharing a couple of tips - 500 words max, but I kept adding more and more ideas, and at one point it had turned into a 2 500+ word monster.
Sometimes when I go out to do street photography even if I don’t feel like it, I take some pictures, and before I know it, I’m inspired again.
Therefore, interestingly, inspiration comes to you when you start to do your work, not when you wait for it.
If you do your work every day, it builds up momentum, and you’ll find it’s easier to do your art.
For me, it’s actually easier to write an article every day than it is to write 2-3 times a week. Because of momentum. The same applies to photography. If I haven’t gone out to shoot for a couple of days, it becomes harder. I guess this is also why people feel it harder to go to work on Mondays than, e.g., on Thursdays.
Momentum is the energy of movement. It’s like Newton’s first law (also called the law of inertia) which states that an object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.
If you sit still, you’re inclined to keep sitting still. If you do your work five days in a row and then stop for a couple of days, it’s harder to start again as you have to exert more energy. If you’re already in movement, all you need to do is a slight nudge to keep yourself moving forward. Just like a car takes more fuel to start up compared to when you’re already driving it on a highway and only need to keep it going.
All artists experience a lack of inspiration from time to time. Although it’s natural, it’s also curable.
This is a short summary of the tips we went through:
- Lower the bar. Even if you’re a professional photographer allow yourself to make “bad” pictures. Not everything you make needs to be shared online. Shoot for fun and for yourself.
- Let success land. Award yourself even for minor improvements. Keep in mind that celebrating success is a sign of a confident person.
- Take a break. Sometimes we need to stay completely away from our art for a little while in order to come back stronger. Take regular walks.
- Read books. One of the best ways to go out to start taking pictures again is to look at the photographs of masters.
- Quit social media. Stay away from the noise for a while. Instagram is bad for inspiration.
- If possible, don’t make photography as your job. This way you can take the pictures you want, not what is expected of you.
- Don’t buy new gear in order to fix the inspiration problem. Travel as much as you can, but realize that if you think it’s going to fix your inspiration crisis long-term, you’ll be disappointed. Fix the root cause instead.
- Turn “pro.” Inspiration will come to those who do the work no matter what. Whether it rains or whether or not you feel like it, you always do your work — every day.
It seems the common denominator for most of them is to take action, to move, to change, to surprise your brain, to get out of the house.
This is a list of ideas I personally resonate with. It’s not an exhaustive list meant to fit everyone. Find out what you relate to and then use whatever works. Either way, I hope you got some ideas.