Go to the Writers.

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Vision Is Better by David48 Comments

I’m re-reading a stack of books about the creative process. Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Annie Dillard, Robert McKee, et al. When what I want is to hear about the creative life, I don’t go to photographers – most of them are good with images, lousy with words. Want insight into how this whole creative thing works? Go to the writers.

Anne Lamott, in particular, has helped me as both a writer and a photographer. Probably because she’s more neurotic and self-deprecating than I am, and I take comfort in that. In her book Bird by Bird she talks about the first steps in writing, among them this: Write sh*tty first drafts. Don’t over-think it, just get it down. Put the words on paper, no matter how loud the inner critic is screaming that those words are juvenile, self-indulgent, cliche, obvious, crap. Just get it down.

Interestingly most creative disciplines have a similar process. There’s a time and place at the beginning of creation, to be messy and to create really horrific stuff. Painters sketch. Musicians write lousy first drafts on napkins, their angst and heartbreak leaving puddles of tears on the bar. And we photographers, no less artists – potentially – than the others, seem to feel we need to hit the shutter, create something great, and move on. Bollocks.

Creation is almost always messy. Because we are messy. If your plan is to from Point A (no photograph) to Point B (iconic photograph which will define my career and on which I will retire fabulously wealthy) then you’re in for a shock. If there is such a transition at all, it’s from Point A to Point Z. And in between are the sh*tty first drafts, the sketch images.

When I shoot a scene I often shoot a hundred frames sometimes over a few hours or days, before I begin to get a real handle on what I want in the frame and how I want it there. It is rare – very rare – that I pull it off in one burst of the shutter, yet alone one single frame. Of course that happens once in a while, but the vast amount of my best images, the ones I am most proud of, are ones that are preceded in my Lightroom library but several, if not a great many, frames of total crap. The process of creating the crappy images, reacting to them, and trying something else, is what gets me to the final draft. Few writers sit down and just fire off a novel in a couple days. They write crappy first drafts then they edit and re-write and polish and sweat over their keyboard.

Very early tomorrow morning we’re releasing my VENICE book, the first in The Print & The Process series, and that’s a great example of my own process of first writing a sh*tty first draft photographically. Those images were shot over 5 days in Venice and many of them – no, MOST of them – were shot in one form or another, many frames of them, over the course of those 5 days – sketch images, crappy first draft images – before I got them right. Sometimes the moment wasn’t quite right. Sometimes it was the light. Other times I’m not even sure, it just didn’t work. But for me, I can’t bypass the sketches or crappy first drafts. Those lesser images aren’t in the way of me creating the better work; they are the way of me creating better work. Don’t sabotage your process, wait it out, and in the meantime; give the sketch images their room to be crappy images, let them out, look at them, play with them. Don’t let them discourage you, let them bring you to your better images.

In case there is any confusion or ambiguity, the VENICE book discusses my process in general and in relation to the images in the monograph, but does not show you  -as this post does – the crappy first drafts. But that might not be a bad idea in the future, eh?


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  4. Hi David, I got my copy of On Writing (in spanish here in Argentina) and is definitively a must for people persuing the craft of writing, for any purpose, thanks for the recommendation!.

  5. Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is so great, I love it. Be sure to also read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, it’s a great companion book to Lamott’s book.

  6. David and all, your posts/comments remind me that we creative people are a global community – though I’m German the mentioned books have also been my inspiration and kept me going throughout my writing life.
    (My first book on writing was “Becoming a writer” from Dorothea Brande). You rock! Monika, Munich area

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  11. Bah your final sentence stole my idea but I’ll say it anyway! 🙂

    I would love to see a ‘pro’ go through exactly what you say. What always irks me about photo books is you get all these folk telling you how to do things and showing you their great images, where what you really want is to illustrate the point they’re making through the sh!tty images they create before getting to the awesome result. Without that you’re lulled into thinking a great image is a one off alignment of good stuff and it’s all about talent/luck to get it.

    But I’d love to see more honest critiques of the process, what it is you didn’t like, why you tried something different, etc. But of course who would want to open their sh!t up to that scrutiny (but if we’re all going to produce it, might as well sell it right? :)).

    Btw I approve of the word bollocks in this post!

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  13. Have to agree that Stephen King’s On Writing is just one of “those” books for creatives. It’s even better as a audiobook, because Steve reads it, and his cadence is perfect because, of course, they’re his words 🙂 That book changed my life, not just as a wordsmith but as a creative person.

    Looking forward to picking up the new eBooks and already have the new book on preorder, David 🙂

  14. David, your Venice book moved me to tears several times with its honesty and humanity – thank you for sharing both your emotions and skills/knowledge with us. Absolutely love it – will read it many times.

  15. Author

    Safe travels in Italy, Harriskeir! Raise a glass of Vermentino for me when you get to Cinque Terre.

  16. Thanks for this. We are off to Cinque Terre and then Venice. Your Camogil was my screen last month and Venice this month thanks.

  17. And then there’s my favorite writer on writing, Annie Dillard, whom you mention. She says she never writes the next sentence until the current sentence in FINAL.

    BTW, my favorite book on creative discipline is “The War of Art.” Highly recommended.

  18. thank you for this!
    Thank you for making me feel that my “lesser images” can amount to something if I keep working at it.

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  20. How about a bibliography of your favourite books for photographers based on business and inspiration?

  21. I found I had an easier time with photography when I returned to it after years of wrestling with playwrighting. Photography seemed, well, easy in comparison. I think that the process of writing helped burn away so much of the ‘over-thinking’ I see prevalent and helped me trust my instincts more.

  22. I’ll second Josh’s recommendation. I stumbled upon “Art and Fear” myself from the website of one of the authors and just started reading it last night and couldn’t put it down. This accounts for my need for a coffee right about now!

    Thanks for another great post.

  23. No… I’ve read both Vision Mongers and Within The Frame, so I’m just discovering you! I assume those two e-books will have some good creative process discussion?

  24. I’m very interested in learning more about the creative process. I’m writing down the suggestions for good books to read from the writers… and I enjoy that general suggestion.

    David, could you or any others here suggest any other specific books on the creative process? Thanks!

  25. I’ll have to check those books out. I’m in the middle of Art and Fear right now which Chase Jarvis recommended awhile back. It is fantastic and I think everyone who is a creative or knows someone closely that is a creative would get a lot out of reading it. Short book but a lot to absorb. Most subjects covered seem obvious as you read them but they are subjects we are all familiar with and (I at least) can’t easily put into words. Here’s a review:


  26. Thanks for another insightful, and thought provoking post. A book that I keep going through, and you may be familiar with is “The Artists’s Way,” by Julia Cameron.

  27. First off, I love your site, books and eBooks…I’m a huge fan. The first thing I do when I get to work is check this site for new posts.

    This is a great post. I often wonder what the ENTIRE process was for a particular photo. I’d love to see an eBook created where you take a couple shots and breakdown EVERYTHING from your thoughts before you took the shot(s) to the final product. If you decide to do an eBook like this, you have customer #1 right here.

  28. Thanks David. Insightful as always. The second paragraph really resonated with me. Too many times we are paralyzed by the thought of “will it be good enough” that we don’t even start. As the saying goes, every journey of a million miles (or shutter clicks) starts with the first step.

  29. You and I have a similar stack of books. I love “bird by bird”! It is one of the most empowering books I’ve ever read.

    And you are absolutely right about the creative process… with a vision, patience and persistence and much crap along the way, finally we learn to express ourselves – better and better. And we continue because we never arrive. If we actually succeeded in expressing our vision perfectly, we’d quit, right?

  30. I came across the idea of deliberate practice lately in a NYT article by Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/magazine/07wwln_freak.html?_r=1). They describe the work of a psychology prof named Anders Ericsson who studied experts in various fields and (surprise, surprise) noted that talent is significantly overrated; these experts are nearly always made, not born. Yes, practice does make perfect–but not just any type of practice.

    “Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.”

    Dubner and Levitt note that this leads to another significant conclusion:

    “When it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.”

    (Though I haven’t read the book, I think that Malcolm Gladwell used some of this material in his book “Outliers”.)

  31. Stephen King’s On Writing is a great look at not only his creative process, but a bit autobiographical, too . . . fantastic read. If I may suggest another fantastic book by a writer, it’s Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers. Great insight and a tremendously fun read!

  32. Author

    @Rob-L – Yes, absolutely. If you’ve read anything more than this blog post you’d know I’m a huge advocate of intentionality and pursuing the discovery and expression of your vision. Intent is huge. But not everyone comes here with that back-story on me. So yes, for sure – those crappy first drafts, the sketches, are intentional and part of a process – they aren’t the magic incantation that gets us to the sudden appearance of a good image.

  33. Thanks for another great article on reasons not to beat ourselves up about those crappy early frames. I have experienced the reality of this both in the long and short term.

    Recently, I covered a 100km bicycle ride–shooting every rider for later on-line sales. The images from the end of the day were much better than the ones at the beginning. Similarly, I went on an 18 day wilderness river trip and my images from the end of the trip are significantly better than the ones made at the beginning. It’s just the way it is. I always thought it was because I was not a great photographer. But, as we improve in our craft, what we consider “crap” also changes. It just takes time to get into the zone.

    Now, if only this worked for my writing . . . 🙂

  34. I think this is great advice, but I believe one thing should be cleared up. Readers can get the false impression that if they shoot a lot, sooner or later they’ll get a good shot and that’s not what you’re saying.

    I think some readers may gloss over an important statement “When I shoot a scene I often shoot a hundred frames sometimes over a few hours or days, before I begin to get a real handle on what I want in the frame and how I want it there.” You’re shooting with a purpose and a vision and tweaking to get it right. You’re not just shooting a lot hoping to get lucky and I think that is an important distinction.

  35. Fantastic – can’t wait for it. Seeing your workflow and process through your eyes will do wonders for me and, I assume, many others.

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