Stoke the Fire

In A Beautiful Anarchy, Creativity and Inspiration by David15 Comments

Sometimes you lose the fire. Sometimes, after years of loving something, you can’t find the spark. I’ve had a couple photographers recently tell me they’ve lost it, that they awoke one morning to find their groove had become a rut and they felt trapped and directionless. It happens. And sometimes the answer is just pick up the camera, get out there and see if the muse doesn’t just catch up with you. Sometimes she’s a few steps behind, waiting to see if you’ll just get out there and do the work.

And sometimes, she’s just completely f*cked off. Nowhere to be found. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is make a photograph.

Put the camera down.

Life is too short to be bound by the shoulds and the ought-tos. It is too beautiful to let yourself feel shame or guilt or fear about the thing you love, even if that thing is also your bread & butter.  If you do this for a living you might not have the luxury of all the time in the world in which to dig yourself from this rut, but you damn-well better because these bills aren’t going to pay themselves. So these thoughts might apply to you as well, just a little more urgently.

Our creativity depends on so many factors, a solid work ethic being high among them. But it also depends on curiosity and vision, on that spark if not on that fire and if you’re down to embers, it might be worth stopping long enough to fan those embers to flame again.

Without the artist there is no art. You have to protect her. You have to nurture him. Put the camera down. Go for a walk in the woods. Go find some new thing to learn: juggling or cooking or the French Horn. Take a breath. Hell, take yoga and learn to breathe again. Or pick up an old film camera and take on a new project that’s so divergent from what you usually do that you feel a little lost and unsure of yourself, but excited to try something new.

Ruts are just grooves that got a little too deep. Don’t just lie there, change direction. Go the other way. We’re probably there because our groove became safe, became easy, and we’ve a tendency to camp out in safe, easy places. But what’s safe and easy isn’t always good for us, at least not for long. Our creativity needs something to push against, something to explore, some unknown and unpredictable path to poke its head around. Our souls need new problems to solve and much as we fear the next step, now’s the time to take it.

Do something hard. Challenging. Something you’re afraid of. Find another rutted artist and collaborate your way out, or find someone who’s experiencing a really fruitful time and go spend some time with them and see if the fire doesn’t catch a little.

Whatever you do, protect that spark and don’t let it go out. But remember, the spark is not a photography spark. It’s a creative spark, a soul spark, and it could be that the best way to tend it right now is by giving it something different to burn. Write a poem, even if it’s a truly bad poem. Write a song. Take a ceramics course and learn to throw a pot. Learn to paint and explore a new relationship with shape and colour.

When creative people come to me looking for ideas the best I can do is ask them the same questions I ask myself when it feels like the fire’s dying: What are you reading? What new project have you been wrestling with? Who are you spending time with? What are you challenging yourself with? When’s the last time you went to a museum or a concert or a gallery? If you haven’t done something different for a while I have a feeling I know why you’re in that rut. Getting out isn’t hard, it’s just scary.

The spark is still there. It could be you just haven’t given it anything new to consume for a while. Creativity works on an input/output basis. Just like fire, it needs something to burn, if you expect it to produce any heat. You’ve got this. You’re not broken. You haven’t made your last good photograph. But you might have to put the camera down and head out to the wood pile. It’ll be there when you’re ready.

I just got news this week that my book about creativity: A Beautiful Anarchy, When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created, has been re-printed and is available on Amazon. It’s got a new cover by MoMA artist, and a hero of mine, James Victore, and it’s available for pre-order now – they should be shipping in the next week or so. If this article resonated with you, this book might be helpful. I know it has been for many others. You can find A Beautiful Anarchy on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble.

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  1. Just read your article, which hit pretty close to home. Okay…dead on.

    After 40 years in photography, my photographic flame as well as my writing flame has dimmed. It’s not the first time. I’ve actually gone through this many times. Each time I’ve turned my passions elsewhere. This particular time, I turned to learning to play jazz on the piano. I haven’t touched a musical instrument since picking up a camera.

    I have no aspirations to be a professional jazz pianist performing on stage. But, I am enjoying the challenge of learning something new. And now my love of jazz piano is starting to fuel my photographic flame.

    I now want to branch into music photography, including stage performances and musician portraits. I’ve been hanging around the local music stores, talking to musicians and handing out business cards. Soon I will start a personal project to build a music photography portfolio.

    Thanks for your insight David. It’s always nice to know that we all go through this.

    1. Author

      Sounds like a wonderful re-invention of yourself in this areas, Wes. I’m thrilled to hear it – sounds very liberating, like you got your spark back!

  2. I can relate to this article. I was to a point where I completely lost any and all interest in photography. I was tired of constantly putting work out and then second guessing everything I composed or edited. I would stare at my work, and instead of pushing myself to do better, I allowed my images to suffer and I was okay with that. I got to the point that I had enough disgust with the whole process that I gave up. Now that I am a little older, maybe a bit wiser, I am starting the cycle again. Starting fresh, clear minded, new perspective. Purchased a few more books of yours hoping I can reignite what I once had. I saw your photos of the great bear rainforest and it immediately drummed up feelings for me. It was refreshing and beautiful. Your art is very inspiring.

  3. Thank you for this, this is exactly where I am currently – my muse has left the building. Time to put down the camera and go do something else for a little while.

  4. Good article, i like photograph but sometimes i lost my fire, but i still have the spark.
    Thanks to share about this, it’s wake me up

  5. Wow, your timing is perfect — been wrestling with this a lot this year, especially this past month. Thanks, as always, for the perspective and prodding.

  6. At times like this I remember the tough love words of American photographer Jack London
    “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

    My club of choice has a bent nail in it ?

  7. You know David, your vision about “Stoke the fire” reflects not only photography but a lot of other things in life and work for me. Sometimes, but fortunately not often, when I hear myself complaining about everything it is not about everything but about me. If you (in this case me) don’t want to be inspired it doesn’t happen. Do not blame the other one. So yes ‘Stoke the fire’ is for me about one step back in order being able to step 2 forwards again 🙂

  8. Ruts are so dangerous because they are so easy. If we are overwhelmed in some other aspect of our lives it is extra easy to stay in the rut, our safe place! I know I have been in the rut this year, and am finally dragging myself out again. So true – what are you reading. Also what are you listening to, what are you watching. Huge motivators. I will often start new projects after reading or watching something. The projects don’t always work out, but they did their job, they got me shooting, writing, and creating again.

  9. Sometimes you realize there are other important needs which want to be fed, like more social life … .
    And sometimes it’s just November, you want to sit down with a good book and hibernate … .

  10. Very well said! Even though I’m not anywhere near being a pro photographer, losing the spark does eventually come, and as long as there’s enough variety in our activities/hobbies, it’s just natural and temporary. Great article!

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