“I sure wish I was more creative.”
Have you ever said those words either to yourself or others? Every time I hear “I wish I were more creative,” I want to put my fingers in my ears and run out of the room. La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you! It’s a crappy mantra.
You can be more creative.
Being more creative is not something you wish for. It’s something you do. You don’t hear athletes saying, “Gosh, I sure wish I were stronger, or faster.” What you hear them saying is, “I’m going to the gym,” or “I have to train harder.”
Like any other people practicing a craft or making art, photographers must hone their creativity in the same way an athlete chooses training instead of wishing and hoping, to do their best work—and, I would argue, to live their best lives.
There are things you can do to actively become more creative. And when you’re more creative you make better and more meaningful photographs.
If you were sitting beside me right now here in my office in the early morning and sipping a cup of coffee, and you told me you wished you were more creative, I’d have three questions for you. Put the coffee on.
What kind of ritual or structure do you have for your creativity?
If your creative time is ad hoc or crammed into the margins of the day, then there’s a good chance your creativity isn’t that important to you. Sure, it matters, but just not as much as all the little stuff. Or you’ve never made it a priority. For me, creativity needs to be on my calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it won’t happen. What will happen? A million trivial things. And Facebook. And Instagram. But not the important stuff.
The most creative people—those who create the most—make dedicated time. Two hours in the morning before everyone is up and clamouring for your attention, or three hours after dinner is over, or that block in the afternoon you have a couple times a week. Put a line through that on your calendar with the words “Do the Work.” It is not free time, not play time (though it kind of is), and it is not unimportant. Protect that time. Give it to no one. If you need to move it, do what you can to move something else instead. Creative work needs only a few truly essential resources and the most needed of those is time. Don’t hope you can find it: make it.
Where are your distractions?
The second question follows closely on the first and also relates to resources. If time is so important, so is focus. Attention is also a resource, and we have less and less of it these days. We’re learning to apply our limited attention very broadly, but not deep—and if you’re going to do consistent work that eventually becomes meaningful work, you have to focus and go deep. You need time for that, but you also need to to be undistracted. Phones off, people.
Creativity of any stripe is problem solving, and to solve problems, your brain needs space and quiet to work. It doesn’t work well when checking Facebook every 10 minutes or answering the phone every time it rings. It needs a certain level of boredom—that’s when it chews on things—and we quickly eradicate those longer spans of boredom by looking for that dopamine hit from social media and email. This is one of the reasons I have a social media ban in place during my workshops. You need to be undistracted. It’s why when I need to do my own deep work, I limit my time on devices and turn off all notifications, and I limit my social time because I get peopled-out really quickly, and that depletes my attention and focus.
Finally: What are you reading?
What are you watching? What are you listening to? The quality of your output is related to the quality of your input. That’s where the raw materials for the ideas come from. My most truly creative times are when I’ve got a good book or two on the go, when I’m spending less time online and more time with my nose in a book of photographs or walking through a gallery. Because in a gallery or with a book, not only is it more pleasurable, but it’s a more immersive experience. It sticks. It doesn’t just get ingested, it gets digested. It’s a more fully human, more sensory activity to which we respond in deeper ways.
All of these have something in common: a slowing down. An intentional creation of larger margins in our lives. More time and attention spent on fewer (though deeper) things. And that requires the courage and the willingness to say no. I have this feeling that many of the people from whom I’ve heard the words, “I wish I were more creative,” would discover they could be more creative than they would ever know what to do with if they made the time and space needed to be so; to get their hands on the clay and work it; to make more than a half-assed attempt at the photography project they want to do (for the record, I prefer a full-assed attempt at all things), or to start that novel.
Want to do something really scary?
Take responsibility for every moment over the coming week. Do a time audit. Every hour take one minute to write down what you’ve done with your time. How many times did you check email? How many times did you check texts that are nothing more than chit-chat? I’m not saying it’s all frivolous. But you might find that if you stopped breaking the day into the tiniest little moments and batched those together, you’d have some larger pieces to do your creative work. You might find there are none at all, in which case you need to get creative.
Is it time for the kids to start doing their own laundry? Is it time to ask them to help with meal prep? Are they over-scheduled, turning you into a taxi service? Can you hire a neighbour kid to clean the house or mow the lawn and buy back that time for more important work? Soul work? The reason you find yourself wishing you were more creative in the first place?
However you have to do it, remember this: creativity is not something we are. It is not a talent we have or do not have. That’s a cop-out. Creativity is something we do, and time and attention and slowing down is essential to creating good work: YOUR work. Those things are made; they are carved out of the chaos. They do not magically happen. They are not wished for.
More creative? Here’s the good news: you can be as creative as your heart desires and that should give you freedom and permission, should you feel you need it, to make a little more time for the muse this week.
You’ve got this.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – If you’d rather get these posts by email, I send them out as The Contact Sheet which you can subscribe to here. Contact Sheet subscribers also get PDF copies of my latest work and a copy of my eBook, 20 Ways To Make Better Photographs. I’d love to save you a trip to the browser every 2 weeks, if that’s helpful to you. You can subscribe here.
Hi David, thanks for the point you made about scheduling your creativity. When you’re creating something beautiful for other people, that can be a challenge.
But I’ve also found that scheduling the right creative time for you personally give you the space to let the creative juices flow. Mornings work best for me .
Oh yeah untill just a few minutes ago every time I look at my photographs though I do actually have a couple of pics Im rather proud of … a, for years, novel feeling in my photography
I read somewhere creativity comes from being bored. It’s something that doesn’t happen enough in today’s world full of noise. Thank you for the post!
this blog is really very inspirational for all those people who are demotivated. And there is also one phrase said in this blog “Being more creative is not something you wish for. It’s something you do.” I loved this phrase.
Thanks for sharing this blog, it is very helpful.
useful information about photography.
I’ve been reading your books for many years, they’ve earned permanent spots in my primary bookcase. 🙂
I diverged from photography a few years ago to focus on my growing teens, travel, watchmaking, and other tech and outdoor hobbies but I’m finding my way back to photography now.
I thought I would re-visit the websites of some of the photographers I used to follow, yours being one of them. I’ve been reading some of your recent blog posts, and it’s like returning to an old friend’s house. Glad to see your insight, wit, and clear purpose are intact! I will stay a while…
Thanks for writing!
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…I like what’s coming out of your new workspace 🙂 Keep churning…
Thanks, Fury. I’m reading a challenging book right now called Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport, and it’s reinforcing some of these ideas even more for me – forcing me to re-evaluate the time I sacrifice (and will never get back) to my devices and their apps. Highly recommended.
If you don’t already you might want to follow Cal Newport’s blog at http://calnewport.com/blog/. Low noise and high signal. That’s what I like about your blog!
Always remember that social media and technology needs to benefit in a positive way. It has to further your craft and you as a human being. If it doesn’t do that it’s time to chuck it and do without. Otherwise you’re wasting your limited time and just avoiding the hard work you must do. But you already knew that.
Hi Rob – Thank you for asking. Though I’m sorry to say that book is no longer publicly available. I’ll drop you an email and see about getting you a digital copy.
David, A book of yours titled _Portraits_of_Earth_ was on a suggested reading list I came across. Does that exist? Is it available?
As always, beautiful post. I really like the suggestion to take responsibility for every moment of the coming week. I tell myself often that I spend too much time doing frivolous things, too many moments “just checking” my phone. Taking an inventory of how I spend my moments this week is a great, albeit kind of terrifying idea… it’ll surely show me just how much time I waste, and how much time I really have.
Peace and Light,