We are all missing something. We are all a Gordian Knot of what we are, what we have and do not have, and what we’ve both gained and lost. The blessing of some of that is easily seen, while some of it is hard not to see as a curse or a deficiency. All of it comprises the constraints within which we live. As a photographer and a teacher on matters of creativity, that word “constraint” is important to me. Easily misunderstood as a barrier to creativity, constraints are not what prevent creativity but what drive it.
Accepting this—and working with it—is the key not only to a challenging and fruitful creative life but to life. Full stop.
When I say “creative” does your mind immediately jump to painters, musicians, filmmakers or that weird neighbour who wears too much purple and makes macrame owls? It’s true, creativity thrives in the arts (though the arts is also sometimes the place true creativity goes to die). But creativity also thrives in engineering, and the sciences. It’s the realm of inventors and great teachers and struggling parents and baseball coaches. Creativity is an idea that’s fuzzy around the edges but implies making something. Creating. Whether that’s making a family, making a meal, making a photograph, or making a presentation. It might be making time for what’s important or making a difference in your community. All of these come with their own constraints, their own challenges. They contain within them a problem to be solved, often several problems.
The creative person is the one who thinks differently about those problems and looks at them from a different angle. The creative person is the one who conjures the courage to take the risk on possible solutions and the perseverance to work through the failed first solutions.
The truly creative person is the one who isn’t confined by what they have or do not have but sees them all as possibilities, or challenges to drive them forward.
Challenge is under-rated. Too often bemoaned as distractions that keep us from our busy lives—lives in which we otherwise might be more creative if only we had the time and fewer of these challenges—it is challenge itself that primes us to be at our creative best. It is challenge that gets us into what artists and athletes have long seen as flow, or “the zone”.
Challenge is the gift given to us by our constraints. It is what fills the void opened by what we lack. Lack of time, lack of natural talent, lack of insight, lack of resources or—as I am hoping as I enter the 5th week since my amputation—lack of a foot. Challenge is not the reason our creative efforts fail but the reason we need those efforts in the first place. No one needs to “get creative” about problems they do not have. What we lack is what drives human ingenuity. It is what drives human drive. The opposite is boredom, which has been described as “the lack of a lack.” We need the challenges that arise when our constraints bump up against our desires.
Creative people are the ones who rise to the challenge of fulfilling those desires in the face of their constraints. They are not necessarily the ones who get it right the first time, but the ones who try, and try from different angles. They are not the most flamboyant, nor necessarily even the most outwardly innovative. You can be creative without glitter and glue. You cannot be creative without a problem to solve. It is these problems, particularly problems that are new to us, that require a different approach, a different solution, one that doesn’t come from our usual way of thinking. It is exploring these problems that usually has us muttering under our breaths the long-muttered mantra of all creative people (whether they identify as such or not), “what if…?”
This is all made so much harder by how uncertain it always is. Creativity is not needed to apply a known solution to a familiar problem, but to fresh challenges for which the possible outcomes are hidden, shrouded. We ask “what if…?” because we truly don’t know. But we have a hunch. A curiosity. A suspicion that we’re on the right track. It might not be the track that leads directly to the solution and our Nobel Prize, but it might lead us to the detour that leads us to the rabbit-trail that leads us to the path. Life is labyrinthical and creativity happens in the unknown. That’s one of the lacks, one of the constraints.
Creativity isn’t one thing, it’s not one characteristic of the human soul or mind, but many traits found in aggregate. Among other things, it is a combination of curiosity, resilience, and courage – all of which, it seems to me, are responses to an obstacle, a constraint. Curiosity is a response to a lack of knowledge, resilience is a response to failure, and courage to fear. Without those counterparts they have no reason to exist.
Creativity is not only the stuff of pink pipe cleaners, and rainbow sparkles, but an imaginative response to lives that often prove harder and harder as we get older and find ourselves missing more and more, or more keenly aware of what we’ve been missing all along and that our time to respond to that is drawing short.
Being creative doesn’t happen when conditions are perfect, but in response to conditions that are far from perfect. Being creative is a leaning in to that.
What is missing in our lives becomes, in part, the stuff of the songs we sing and the art we make. We write about the hunger for the things we do not have (often love, or a dog, or if you write country music, also a truck). We photograph and paint to find the beauty we long for, and in all forms of art we ask questions to look for answers we do not have. Scientists, though not usually ones to call themselves artists do this too, and are no less creative. Engineers too, and teachers. We respond to the lack. That’s where the challenge of our days comes from. How we face those challenges becomes our chance to shine.
Our lack, and how we respond to it becomes our chance to put our unique fingerprint on our lives and those we touch. Our challenges give us the chance not only to shine, but to do so in ways unique to us. Leonard Cohen famously sang “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I think it’s also how the light gets out.
It’s why some people shine more intensely than others. More cracks, more light.
Marcus Aurelius, if you’ll forgive one more quote, said “what stands in the way becomes the way.” He might have added the word maybe. Sometimes it does not. Our constraints do not always become possibilities; they often become excuses. They turn us around in the fear that we don’t have the resources, don’t know where the path leads, and have no guarantee of success. In short: it might get hard. And who can blame anyone for wanting an easier path? For wishing they had what they do not, or looking over their shoulder and wishing for what others seem to have in abundance? Creativity is not found in wishing.
Art doesn’t imitate life. It responds to life.
In the same way courage is a response to fear, or faith is to doubt. It doesn’t happen only when the struggles fade and the traumas are forgotten, but as a reaction to those. A creative life is not something at which we succeed only when we’ve got all the right pieces. Everyone is missing something. That’s not a deficiency, it’s a path. A challenging path, to be sure, but stepping into that gap is what brings us meaning, and purpose and if that’s not artful living, I don’t know what is. That’s what creativity is to me. Stepping into the gap, and finding ways to fill it.
Want to be more creative? Find the gap. Find the constraints and embrace them.
It turns out, where creativity is concerned, if you are not missing something, you’re missing everything.
For the Love of the Photograph,
Footnotes: An Update on my Amputation
On July 5, exactly one month since the surgeon removed my foot, my prosthetist gave it back. It’s only a temporary model and the foot shell that covers the carbon fibre says “Loaner” in magic marker, but for now it’s my foot—the first of many before I get my definitive prosthetic. I wish I could tell you I put this leg on and took to the parallel bars like I’d done this many times before, but it was hard. Hard to trust this thing would hold me, hard to believe my leg had the strength to do what I was asking of it, even hard to believe my surgeon had done her job well and my remaining leg bones we’re just going to jab out the bottom. The first steps were confusing, full of both hope and terror.
Now, 4 days later, I’m walking 10 minutes at a time, up and down my street. I’m partly supported by crutches, but I’m starting to see how this all might not be a total disaster, how one day I might not only walk but run. I’m also allowing myself to dream again, to look at the 2024 calendar that has been sitting empty, and wonder what adventures I might fill it with.
I want to thank you all again for the truly overwhelming blog comments and emails. Forgive me for not replying, all my energy has been going into getting back on my feet, but I read every one of them and I am so grateful. Thank you!
I’m back into the prosthetic clinic tomorrow to be re-assessed and get my new marching orders.
3 New Monographs, 1 Prosthetic Leg, and a Huge Thank You!
When I had my foot amputated I released a bundle of monographs and desktop wallpapers for whatever you’d like to pay. Creating these kept my mind of the coming surgery and something new to offer you, as well as a way to chip away at the costs of my prosthetic leg and foot. The response has been incredible and when I’m back to traveling you’ll be part of every footstep I take on every adventure. Thank you so much for your support. These brand new monographs and collection of desktop wallpapers are still available here.