Creativity: The Missing Ingredient

In Life Is Short, News & Stuff, Pep Talks, The Craft, The Italian Incident, The Life Creative by David62 Comments

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.


  1. You seem t o be making the progress I was sure you would. Once again, I am deeply impressed with your positivity and ability to pull achievement from the potential dungeon of the despair you must have felt. You are an example to us all as well as a photographic inspiration.

  2. Thank you for being authentically you and sharing your creative talent as well as your human challenges! So great to see you making such positive progress after your amputation. Clearly, while a very difficult decision you made the right choice! Thanks for all your heartfelt inspiration and your touches of humor along the way!

  3. As you mentioned above, reading this, about half way through I thought there must be a book on creativity (or as you say a memoir) on the horizon. As always, your words are a balm for the creative soul. Thank you for all you do!

  4. Our camera club, HCC, The Huntington Camera Club of Long Island, NY watched your presentation The Heart of the Photograph last night with utter success and joy. Thank you for sharing it with us. we were fortunate to have you speak with us a few years ago and were happy to hear you are ‘on the mend’. Your inspiration in every aspect of your life is one to be admired. As you say: Art doesn’t imitate life, it responds to life. As you are proving. You’ve got over a hundred people wishing you well and following your story and your success. Keep up the good work and we will be seeing you again soon.

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for your very kind words, Diedre, and my gratitude to everyone at HCC for your thoughts and support!

  5. That photo — what a photo! It says it all, hope, fear, joy, determination and utter surprise! I am thrilled to see you brimming with optimism and hope and plans, etc. Yes, fear, pain and anguish will remain, but I pray that will only be a temporary partner on this new journey of yours. Thank you for your insight and sharing of yourself in such personal ways. We all look forward to your success and freedom to be on, not just planning your next adventure. Give all your loved ones one extra big hug from all of us. They too are hero’s.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Pam. I was just out for a very short walk/hike by the ocean and even those brief moments give me hope. Thanks for your generous words.

  6. David,

    When I first picked up a camera a decade or so ago, I was lucky to discover Craft & Vision. Since then, through your books and videos, you have continued to be a source of thought-provoking inspiration, often with a healthy dose of humour.

    Now, that inspiration has risen to a new level as I follow your journey down a new path. As a wise man once said,

    “Life, an unpredictable partner to be sure, but it’s our reactions that form the person we become.” – David duChemin

    Wishing you strength and fortitude as you venture into the unknown.

    1. Author

      Hi Gary. Thank you so much for that. Not sure about your quote though, wasn’t that Mark Twain? Sounds way too smart for me. 😂 Thank you for the reminder. I love it when people quote me back to me. Short story: I was on safari in January and working with a young guide named George. Super nice guy. One day he asks if my work is online and I give him my card and he obviously spend some time on the website, and most obviously saw my books, including the one titled Start Ugly. The next morning we’re working with low POV shots of rhinos and I’m not quite getting what I want and he leans over and says, “Remember, Mr. David, sometimes you have to start ugly.” I lost my shit. That was one of the funniest moments I’ve had with a guide. He got a great tip!

  7. Hi David,
    I enjoy how you write in such a clearly expressed manner.
    So glad to see you on your feet and looking ahead.
    This is where my mind went, for better or not…
    I find myself agreeing with you and as usual reflecting on just why that is. One quote came to mind repeatedly, “People are the product of the expectations placed upon them.” author unknown. Perhaps a version of the Pygmalion effect. “When positive expectations positively impact our behaviour and our performance.” These seem more external in nature but our internal expectations interest even me more. I expect to achieve my goals notwithstanding the fact that I often have no idea how that might happen. How do I get the photos that really ‘sing’ to me?
    Yesterday, I enjoyed a brief period in which to photograph activities at the Antigonish Highland Games. Of the 111 photos I captured there is one, just one, that stands out to me. It is of a lone piper, in full regalia standing in the tall grass, with his back to me, under the trees facing a small river. I just happened to be walking bye and saw my one brief chance as it turned out. Of all the photos I took that one just ‘sings’ to me. I experience such a flood of thoughts and feelings when I look at it. Now, if I could more clearly articulate why that is. New hurtle/goal/challenge! Signed, The one handed southpaw newbie photographer
    Thank you

    1. Author

      Dana, if I could get one image out of 100 that sang to me I’d consider myself a very lucky, grateful, photographer. Well done. That’s all we want, isn’t it? Just to make something that’s alive and sings. Well done, my friend.

    2. David, a friend forwarded this article and it resonated. But I’ll have to chew on it a few more times before I can say that I fully understand.

      But why I really wrote, was to say “sorry” about your foot. My brother just lost both legs to diabetes and I can kinda/sorta understand the range of emotions you might be going through.

      My brother has been pretty much bed/chair ridden and I feared that he would never aspire to more. Then, on the beach, I saw a man with no legs, with two prosthetics, and he was surfing.

      I took a picture and sent it to Kip. I hope he can believe that he can do more than just sit in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

      Best wishes to to, both physically and mentally.

      1. Author

        Hey Cole, I don’t know if you’re on Instagram, but check out the #amputeefitness hashtag. There are some incredible people doing mind-blowing things with way fewer body parts than most of us were born with. Most of them could run circles around me. I did recovery years ago with a hockey player who lost both legs and in the gym his worst day was better than my best day and I still had my legs. Amazing. Please take this in the spirit in which I am giving it: Kip’s biggest limits will be in his mind and heart, not his wheelchair. This is true for all of us. My best to him and to you as you support him.

  8. David

    I am so pleased that the 5th also had a good outcome. I am thinking about you often and just know that you will recover and regain your mobility sooner than imagined. Thank you for the inspiration and positivity in every communication, no matter what the circumstances. You are working your own miracles along your road to the summit.

    1. Author

      Thank you Elise! Every day there are new wins. Yesterday I got into my truck just to see what it might be like to drive. Could I feel the pedals? Would I be able to move my foot from one to the other, or brake fast enough? In the end I did some practicing, and drove around the block. Then I drove around another block and soon I was just out there driving without a care in the world. It was one of my biggest worries. So if I can’t walk the road to the summit, at least i can now drive it. 😉

      1. David, I am smiling with you. Never over-think a situation. It always works out better than we can imagine. Nike said so long ago.

  9. David, what a beautiful photograph- your smile speaks volumes! And what an inspiring and thought provoking article. I am grateful to have found you several years ago, and although we’ve never met, I consider you a highly valued teacher and guide. Thank you for sharing you gifts and your struggles. Sending you continued good wishes for recovery and healing.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Sarah. I hope our paths cross some day. It means so much to me to know I’m valued for what I do, that it makes a difference. Thank you!🙏

  10. Hi David, Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. That must be difficult in itself. I keep you in my prayers.
    I heard you years ago when you spoke at a camera club function in Nanaimo. I found you inspiring, generous compassionate, humble and all tied together with a wonderful sense of humour. And as I follow your blog I see you haven’t changed a bit. Thank you for that!

    1. Author

      Jane, sounds like you have me confused by someone else. I’m more the dark and mysterious type. Very serious. 😂 LOL. Thanks for this. It’s so appreciated. I’m humbled by your enthusiasm for who I am and what I offer. 🙏

  11. So wonderful to see you on your feet again! I appreciate, as always, you sharing your thoughts and experience w/ us, and wish you continuing trust in and love for the possibilities ahead. Much love and all the best to you dear David. <3

    1. Author

      Hi Joolz! Thank you so much for this. I feel like I’m surrounded by cheerleaders, which is pretty cool because in highschool there’s no chance a cheerleader would even have spoken to me. 😂

  12. Hello again David. You might doubt this but I think of you often. Especially when I’m limping with my weak leg after my back surgery a year ago. Yes, I mentioned that previously to you. I use to be a competitive runner; ranked All American. Now I struggle walking an eighteen minutes pace but most times I’m good with that, well almost. I remember injuries that held me back but I knew rest would heal them and I’d be back in the game. Time it all takes time. I have a new normal which you also will have. You look great and your new foot is very cool. As always you kick ass in inspiring and motivating us. It’s so nice you’re being you.

    1. Author

      Joanne, I don’t doubt you at, though I’m humbled by your words. I’m thrilled to be part of your life and to nudge people forward (gently or with an ass-kicking). One of the truths of life is that we become different people as we age. I think the key is that we do what we can to grow into greater complexity, that we keep expanding. At least I’m hoping so. If we can do that and stay grateful, that’s a good and interesting life. Thanks for the kind words. 🙏 😉

  13. G’day from Australia Mate,
    your attitude and all your words about your current journey is admirable. Keep up the positivity. I loved your article about creativity and problem solving.
    One thing that especially resonated with me was “Art is where creativity goes to die.” As a member of two Photographic groups I feel that judges and critics drag photographers away from creativity and toward the normal, accepted, or the current trend. It is only very special judges that see the creativity involved.
    When you are your major judge then creativity truly can flourish. Hence the idea of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the home of real creativity.
    The arts are particularly susceptible to fads and fashions, and the need to be part of the “IN” crowd to be accepted, exhibited, and to support yourself (mentally as well as financially). Judgements are often in the form of “Do it my way because that is THE ONLY way”.
    Stay inspired, challenge the norms, and ride your new wave of creativity.

    1. Author

      Challenge the norms. Exactly. Art is not found among the crowds but out on our own. What the crowd offers has already been picked over. Thanks for the encouragement, Max!

  14. Hi from Victoria, Australia.
    David, Ive been following you for a long time and you’ve always been an inspiration to me.
    For 50 years I worked as a Sheetmetalworker, making useful things out of .. not very much. It’s always a thrill to make something that is useful for someone.
    Years ago, when my wife and I lived in England, I converted a cellar into a darkroom, at first just for black and white. Later I converted my old Gnome enlarger so that I could print Cibachrome colour prints.
    I also made a roller for the print drum out of a hairdryer motor and some wheels off an office chair.
    Now I’m retired and part of the Revival Fellowship here in Australia your words often inspire my talks that I give twice a month.

    It’s great to see you up and about again and we will be praying for your continued recovery and more words of inspiration from
    Ps: there is a Revival Fellowhip near to you.


  15. David, I apologize in advance for the length of this comment.

    Your post on creativity really resonated with me. For 45 years I worked as an engineer for NASA until my retirement at the end of 2016. After 25 years as a practicing engineer I changed direction a bit and became a facilitator working with teams of engineers (and management) to find solutions to tricky problems. I was also one of three instructors teaching a course we developed for NASA employees entitled, “Enhancing Your Creative Genius”. The idea being that we are all creative, but sometimes we might need help getting unstuck.

    So I had been teaching the class for a couple of years and one night my wife and I went to Busch Gardens to see (and for me to photograph) the fireworks. I had been doing this for a couple of years using a 200 mm lens, a project I called “An Inner Beauty”. It was almost like you were inside the fireworks. Well this night it turns out that my wife had previously removed my tripod which had been in the back of her car. I didn’t realize that until I went to get it and set up for the start of the show. To say I was upset is quite the understatement. So as any instructor of creativity would do…I pouted…for about 5 minutes.

    After coming back to my senses, I asked myself, what was the purpose of the tripod? Answer: To hold the camera still so it could record the movement of the fireworks. But what if the camera moved as well, so it recorded a combination of fireworks and camera movements? What would that look like?

    So I grabbed my camera and 200 mm lens and headed to the spot where I liked to shoot. Having shot fireworks quite a few times before at this show, I was used to coming home with 4, maybe 5, interesting shots. This night after shooting maybe 50 images, when I opened them in Lightroom I had 4 or 5 that DIDN’T blow me away. I started a new project that night called “An Inner Beauty Abstracted”. It’s been quite a ride, and all because my wife took away my tripod and left a big constraint in its place.

    Hang in there. We are all pulling for you.

    1. Author

      Fantastic, Charlie. I love it. We play the hand we’re dealt, don’t we. Or we give up and go home. One way gets us somewhere interesting, the other get us back on the couch. Thanks for the support. It feels like small wins every day!

  16. “That’s what creativity is to me. Stepping into the gap, and finding ways to fill it.”

    Maybe the wisest words I’ve read in a while, and that wisdom is hard won. Fantastic to see you standing!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Jim. Nice to hit the nail on the head every now and then, eh? 😉

  17. So happy to see your progress! Congratulations…you doing it…one step at a time. No pun intended. Pat yourself on the back, David. Hugs from the other side of the Continent…SE Pennsylvania. 🤗

    1. Author

      Thank you, Kate. There’s so much back-patting going on I doubt I’ll ever have to do it myself, but I should encounter a sudden lack, I’ll do it myself! 🙂

  18. It is great to see you back on your feet, walking and looking forward to new adventures.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Richard. I got into my truck and drove with my prosthesis yesterday, which is a huge next step for me. No problems at all. Amazing what muscle memory does for us.

  19. Well, you did it. You forced me to finally take the trip of a lifetime. At the age of 84, my wife and I booked a trip to Africa. Just not a 10-day run-of-a-mill trip but a month. Not sure what we are getting into but what the heck. Only one life as you have at times pointed out. Of course, a million questions that are hard to get answered but I guess you just need to go with the flow.

    I wish you the very best. Getting a new leg, so to speak, is pretty creative but more importantly in the end takes courage. Constant pain at times helps in making a decision but looking at your life through the prism of sitting at a desk/chair for your remaining years usually becomes the deciding factor. I have followed you for so many years, you feel like part of my extended family.

    1. Author

      Gerald, that is fantastic! I hope you have the time of your life. What a wonderful adventure awaits you. Well done, my friend!! Very happy to be part of this extended family. Let us know how the trip goes!

  20. Your amazing attitude is admirable in all your words about your current journey. Keep up the positivity. I loved your article about creativity and problem solving. I found inspiration in your thoughtful encouragement. THANKS.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Carrol. It helps that you can’t see the grumpy moments of negativity that come and go throughout the day. It’s a slow journey, and it’s tough, but the scenery now and then can’t be beat and I’m told the summit is spectacular. 😉

    1. Author

      Thank you, Boyd! It’s slow going and the phantom pains are surprisingly resilient, but every day feels like slow movement forward.

  21. Thank you David for sharing your perspective and story so inspiring .

  22. I have always appreciated The Contact Sheet and have found many gems in it over the years., however I have found your recent ones even more meaningful as you are taking things to so many new levels beyond photography and art. You once said that in order to really dig deep and create more meaningful images that one has to dig deep into our minds and work through all of those fears and perceived constraints/barriers – to really be able to let go and get curious – I think this applies to taking on new challenges or facing the unknown. It was good advice back then and it still applies now. I really appreciate your updates and am thrilled that you are progressing though I imagine that there are a lot of challenges you’re facing with this life change.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Pam. It’s so good to hear from you. Yes! A lot of challenges. Some of them are the “sink your teeth into them and get it done!” kind of challenge. Go team, go! Others are the kind that are “grit your teeth and wonder if it’s too late to change your mind” kind of challenges. They’re less fun, but I suspect they’re also where the growth will be most evident on the other side. Baby steps!

  23. Just want to say hello…and say that photo of you in the parallel bars is fabulous. You are on your way!!

    1. Author

      Hi Gail. Thanks for that. So good to see your name here. Thanks for your encouragement and support. The picture with the parallel bars is a bit of a cheat. A glimpse at the one brief moment I had the courage to let go of the damn bars. But it’s getting a little easier to walk each day, always still with crutches but the upside is my upper body is getting strong! Hope you’re well. Love from us both.😘

  24. “Art doesn’t imitate life. It responds to life”
    You always know what my creative mind needs to hear. Thank you.
    And keep sending the “Footnotes”! 🦶

    1. Author

      Hey Linsey. Thanks for dropping in. Your encouragement is exactly what my mind needs to hear. So thank you for that!

  25. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings about photography and also your very personal journey. You have always been inspiring and are even more so now.

  26. Boy, are you on target on creativity. It is not specific to one area. It cannot be confined. If one are is not available for creativity to manifest itself, it will find another area.

    Recover is always hard, but you have already been through worse. You will go forward. For now, the recovery is the constraint and new creativity will sprout from it.

    1. Author

      “For now recovery is the constraint.” You hit the nail on the head, John. Thanks for the note.

  27. Your story is powerful. Your writing is excellent. Do you have plans to write a book about your journey through pain, hope, fear, and success? I hope so. You are an inspiration,

    1. Author

      Thank you, Arlys. No plans to write a specific book, but it wouldn’t surprise me if something came of all this. I don’t feel old enough to write a memoir at 51. 😉

  28. That picture brought tears (good tears) to my eyes. Also, this post on creativity had me nodding my head. One to save and re-read.

    1. Author

      I’m never happy until I make someone cry, Holly. Thank you. 😉

  29. “Footnotes.” “…getting back on my feet.” 😂 Well done, David!

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