Yesterday I linked my social media accounts out to an old blog post – Toward Mastery. One of the replies I got was refreshingly honest: I’ve hit a brick wall, and no amount of practicing is working. Twitter isn’t the kind of place to reply meaningfully to that kind of candor, so if you’ll indulge me, I’ll do it here. I know there are a lot of you out there that need to hear it. I’ve met you. Talked to you. I’ve been you, and most days, I’m still you.
First of all, you’re wrong on the most basic level, because I’ve seen your work and there’s some really great stuff in there. It’s consistent. It’s alive. There’s an energy there, and I’d look at those images any day. So it might be that you need to ask yourself what you even mean by, “it’s not working.” What are you hoping to achieve? What is your photography not doing for you that you want it to? It might have nothing to do with practice. You might already be there. You might have already honed your craft to the point that practice is not what you need any more.
Maybe you need to venture out into new directions? Maybe what you are shooting is your safe place now and there’s no risk anymore, and you need to do something new, something scary. Maybe you need to impose some creative constraints so you have something new against which to strain – a little like building muscle, our creativity grows only as we encounter resistance. Perhaps you need to play more, and take yourself less seriously? Perhaps you need to find someone to collaborate with.
Practice, forgive me for flailing so unkindly at a sacred cow, is not the be-all, end-all. When it is suggested that our first 10,000 images are our worst, I suspect strongly that creating them, looking at them, and reacting to them, playfully and without losing the joy of creation and discovery, is much, much, more important than practice -which to me seems to suggest repetition, not play. Repetition makes permanent, but it’s no way to spend our lives. The muse gets bored quickly.
The only wall you’ve run into is one that you’ve created yourself, and you’re not being remotely as creative in getting around, over over, this wall, as you were when you created the photographs I’m looking at now, on your Flickr stream. Ask yourself: what do you want, creatively? If what you’re doing now isn’t it, then abandon it. Try something else. But like so many others I talk to, could it be that you’re just wrestling with the great discontent of being a creative person? I mean, don’t we all wrestle with the longing for our work to be better, to more powerfully express the ineffable things we’ll probably spend our entire lives trying to say? To eff the ineffable, as Nick Hornby once wrote. That’s the challenge. It’s not the obstacle, it’s the path. Find a way to enjoy that tension, to use it to push you forward, and to look at the work you’ve done and love it for what it is, or was – something you thrilled to make, something imperfect that is, all the same, part of you, and a gift to the rest of us. Lying face down on the cobbles is likely to make any road look like a brick wall. Stand up and start walking, it’ll become a path again. It always does.