Creativity: Find Your Rhythm

In Creativity and Inspiration by David39 Comments

Finding my own rhythm again hasn’t been easy, but it’s still there. Sometimes the waves just seem to take longer to crest, but they do. This was the first time I really picked up a camera since the accident. It took me two months to get there. Photo: Cynthia Haynes.

Every creative person I know goes through ups and downs, as though our creative life rides on top of the water and rises and falls with the waves. We experience brilliant highs and depressing lows. When the wind kicks up and the ocean is wild, the highs are higher, and we feel glorious, unstoppable, and they crash harder, the glory gone. Stopped.

What helps is not looking too closely at the wave, but at the ocean itself. Pull back, look at the water from a hill ten miles distant and the water looks smooth as glass – as your creative life does, or will, from a distance. The dips and peaks evened out. This helps not because it makes one bit of difference when you’re at the bottom of a wave cycle and you feel like you’ve made your last good, beautiful, photograph or written your last honest word. It helps because it allows us to understand the cycle, to use it, to ride out the waves, even building momentum.

Our creative life, the very nature of how most of us work internally, is rhythmic. Brilliant creativity is unsustainable day-to-day. A wave that has a high, but is not flanked by lows, is not a wave, it’s placid water. No lows, but no highs, either. We have a word for it in the creative world – mediocrity. Todd Henry, in his book The Accidental Creative, says, “mediocrity is a high price to pay for a lifetime of safety.” You can’t have this creative life, ask for the highs, and never get the lows. That doesn’t make the lows easier, but it’s nice to feel normal, isn’t it?

Creativity happens in the space between taking in and incubating as many influences as the world allows us, and the sudden rush of a newborn idea who comes into the world in a mix of hard work and joy, sweat and tears. The birth of that idea, and the execution of it, are often on the crest of the wave. They are the high points for which we live. If the high point of that wave is adoration and praise, then you’re missing out. Singer/songwriter Josh Ritter sings, “I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” Russian actor (and originator of Method acting) Konstantin Stanislavsky, said, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” But that’s a digression, not really my point.

My point is this (man, he’s long-winded!): it’s in the lows of the wave where we feed inspiration. If we are conscious of the shape of the wave and the way our process works, we know that wave will crest again. What we do at the bottom of the wave determines how much momentum we have at the top. We can spend that time being depressed and feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can feed the muse. We can go to the museum, the gallery, the coffee shop, the library, the theater, wherever it is you find your own paint stirred. Forget how you’ve suddenly lost your brilliance. Go find the brilliance of others and let it feed your soul. Go be with your family, read a book, and then, most importantly, do the work. Don’t set your camera down simply because inspiration hasn’t yet come. Inspiration, says French poet Charles Baudelaire, comes from working.

Riding these waves gets more predictable the longer you do it; you see the rhythm in it, you begin to know your process. I will often mumble this to myself in the lows, when I am doing the work and my Muse (wretched, unreliable, prodigal Muse, where the hell is she?!) is nowhere in sight. “Trust your process, David. It’ll come.” and I keep working, mumbling other things, less savory and less family-rated things, but I keep at it, and the movement of the wave carries me forward, pulls me upward, as it always does, and I begin to get excited about what I might find at the top, and I get more grateful for the Muse (wonderful, reliable, always-present Muse!).

Do the work. Trust your process. Ride the wave out.

Creativity is our single greatest asset. If you want to nurture that asset, and understand your process more, here are two suggestions. Corwin Hiebert just wrote an eBook called Your Creative Mix and it’s a brilliant book about creativity. Read more HERE. And I’ve got two eBooks – The Inspired Eye and The Inspired Eye 2. Both of those talk directly about ways we can understand and strengthen our creative process as photographers.


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  4. “What we do at the bottom of the wave determines how much momentum we have at the top.”

    Wow. Did I need to hear that. Thanks.

    BTW, You rock the gloves! Hope things are progressing. Can’t wait to follow you and Jessie again.

  5. I needed this. I’m feeling a slump, which has seriously disturbed me since it usually hits me in winter, not the middle of the summer!

  6. “Creativity happens in the space between taking in and incubating as many influences as the world allows us, and the sudden rush of a newborn idea who comes into the world in a mix of hard work and joy, sweat and tears.”

    I love that! I think you do need the “lows” now and again in order to better appreciate it when you’re at those high points. We can’t always wait for inspiration before getting to work; getting into a routine and trusting the process helps you reign in your creativity until you know you can rely on it.

  7. Feeling the low myself these days. I know I’ll get my “mojo” back, but it’s tough sometimes riding the slow wave.

  8. Thank you, David, for these words. Since my own accident–home totally lost to a fire, second-degree burns to my right arm,–I have “lost” something, including the inspiration to create anything. I am missing it. I think perhaps sometimes we need to have these lows in the process. Now, as I am healing, I am about to purchase my new camera to replace the one that died in the fire, and I am looking forward to just “snapping”.

    Thank you for the encouragement to do something, anything, to get started–and I’m heading over to look at some books!

  9. …“mediocrity is a high price to pay for a lifetime of safety.” OUCH! Brutal, but SO true.

    Nice post. Muses are indeed wretched and unreliable. And the “travel agents” have a warped sense of humor. And then… Onward…

  10. David, you have no idea how perfect your timing is on this piece (for me)! I’m feeling a bit mired creatively while I spend some much-needed time focusing on my post-photography work (processing, printing, organizing, etc.), and your article is hugely encouraging and optimistic. I’m trying to make the most of this creative downtime, and you’ve reminded me that it has a distinct purpose as I wait for the crest of that next wave.

  11. Good words again, David. And, yes, without downs there would be no ups. Although it’s still hard to appreciate the downs – even when they are indeed the time to prepare for the next up – as you say. Just read the three ebooks you recommend in this post, and they are all small jewels. Thank you.

  12. Thank you so much for this David. Once again when I find myself in strange territory there you are with a blog post that answers the million questions roaming around in my head..

    I’ve been in low spots before, but they seemed short & sweet. This one seems to be sticking around longer, so I am taking your advice and am going to read some books and find inspiration through others 🙂

    And I agree with Piper! Your writing is a blessing, though I know it’s come through incredible hardship for you. Bless you~

  13. David, once again, this post is right on the nailhead! Glad to see you are progressing with your recovery. Interesting that you mentioned Todd Henry (Accidental Creative) – Been listening to his podcast for quite a while – he’s an excellent resource for building sustainable creativity. the new book is excellent! Keep getting better as I’m sure most of us want see you back in action… standing near walls… not on them!

  14. Hey! It’s great to see you out and about with a camera.

    Let the Muse refresh you……. all things turn in a circle.

  15. I am wheelchair using Architect from Nepal who love photography very much. Every times when i see your post alert in my inbox i could not resist my self to read it. I always enjoying by reading your beautiful articles…..this time as well it was brilliant as usual! Get well soon Devid BUT keep on writing great post!!!
    Deepak from Nepal

  16. that’s right. it’s an ongoing process. and like you wrote earlier, you need to show up or it doesn’t happen.

  17. Great article. This can be applied to life in general and its many facets. It is easy to let the low end of the cycle become discouraging, but if we prepare for the upturn while things are low we know there is something positive to look forward to.

    That’s just how life works. Everything runs on a cycle.

  18. Great article as usual David, with a number of things to think about and consider.

    I know at times I fight just to setup the camera, however, once I do and I get under the dark cloth and concentrate on what I see on the ground glass, I lose track of where I am and begin just seeing photographically. It’s during those times I often run out of film and either have to reload then and there, or just take pictures with my eyes.

    Thanks again,

  19. So glad to see you are looking at the world through a lense again. Such beautiful stories told within the confines of a camera view.
    The highs and the lows are to remind us that in all things and at all times we are never alone. It is not unlike looking through a lense with the cap on and then suddenly it is removed and we see the wonder on the other side of the trial.

  20. david, your words inspire me all the time. i am amazed and humbled that you have taken everything that’s happened to you in the last few months and turned it into something beautiful. you have set me thinking about … well just about everything.
    keep writing, and keep getting stronger, mind and body.

  21. David
    I love all that you write but this was simply divine!! I know you can’t wait to get back out on the road with a camera in hand but having you home bound and writing is a blessing for us that follow you. Your words today were a true gift, Thank you.

  22. Nice picture! I love the x100, although I did bring up to Stuart that part of me wishes it had interchangeable lenses…I love it but there are times when you need zoom or a longer reaching lens…oh well though. It takes beautiful pictures, I love the body (throwback to the old rangefinders, yay!).
    I whole heartedly agree with this post – sometimes it’s easy though to let yourself wallow when your paddling around, waiting for the next wave. And worse yet – the sinking feeling you get when you just missed a great wave, because you can’t get your s*** together! Oh wait, that’s my issue…
    At any rate…looking good in the picture! Another great post to think about of course!

  23. David,
    Nice to see you shooting again.
    Maybe some day you might address the whole “left-eye shooter” thing, as I see you using the “clearly meant for righties” X100. I would really enjoy seeing that topic addressed in your blog.

  24. It’s funny. I once played poker on a semi-professional level and this perfectly describes how I felt when I was playing. There were tremendous highs and tremendous lows. Times where I felt I couldn’t lose and times where I felt like I would never win again. But like your ocean analogy, the professional poker player knows that if they are putting in the work and playing to their best of their ability, the profit is a steady line when looked at over a long period of time.

    The key phrase being a long period of time. in poker, it takes a VERY long period of time for that to occur and you have to have patience. Same goes for creativity. The parallels are so fascinating.

  25. David, very pleased to see you with camera back in hand. Your post resonates with me on many levels. As a photography student, I find myself in a creative flux a few times. My current solution has been to toy around with a 15mm fish eye – in all the madness it’s important to have a laugh! Great post. I’ve just purchased the Creative Mix book and look forward to getting my own creative juices flowing again.

  26. Author

    Nancy. Love me, love my wind! (Ok, that came out wrong…)

    Thank you. 🙂

  27. David, love seeing you out and about! Thanks, needed the reminder, albeit long-winded.

  28. Author

    Broch – I love my x100. Will it give you your shooting mojo back? I have no idea. We all work differently. I prefer the SLR, but this is a nice change, as is my iPhone4 camera. I’m not sure any camera I’ve ever had brings with it an intrinsic “Wow factor” – I think that’s the part you bring 🙂

    Sarah – Totally agree. I’d equate expiration, or exhaling, with doing the work. In between the oxygen does its job. 🙂

  29. creativity is a bit like breathing, except the wavelength and depth change according to other factors. inspiration requires expiration…

  30. I see you happily shooting away with your X100 in that pic, and I’m glad to see it! I’ve owned several different DSLR’s over the past 2 years, and I’ve experienced no “Wow” factor from any of them. I’m looking for something that will get me excited about shooting again. I’ve been shooting since the film days, and wonder if the X100 just may do the trick to helping me get my shooting mojo back. Care to share any thoughts on that?

  31. Hi David, thanks for the post. It’s hard to pick up the stride especially after something like the accident that happened to you, and I am amazed and applaud you for the grit that you possess to get back into your creative swing after only eight weeks. I want to add that maybe sometimes it’s also little things that interrupt the flow of creativity. Like errands and chores, for instance. Sometimes these take over whole days. It may be essential to set aside creative time, just to make sure you do what life needs you to, but you also feed your soul.

  32. Loved this post David –

    I think the mantra that I often go back to, which is spot on w/ what you are saying, comes from Pressfield (The War of Art) – where he talks about the process of sitting down to write and then creative comes from putting in the time – or the process of “getting up and doing it”

    Process & “systems” aren’t always the enemy of creativity.

    BTW, Josh Ritter rules 😉

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