Updated: Jun 23
Have you ever found yourself in a creative rut?
Have you experienced times when nothing you create excites you, when your creative energy is low or even non-existent?
I have found this state creep into my life a few times over the last few months, which is probably not surprising, given the circumstances we are living through.
But there is a way out of this rut.
First of all, it's important to see where we are right now.
With photography I find myself in a creative rut when I feel I have taken all the photos I can take, from every possible angle, when I still feel I’m not making much progress but am asking what is left to do?
There are no opportunities for travel, to visit new locations or seek new opportunities.
Sometimes it feels as though there are just no more places to go within 5km of home.
In photography it is important that we stay motivated and inspired for the sake of our long-term growth as photographers. Without motivation our expensive equipment will gather dust as we find excuses not to go out taking photographs.
But even if there is no expensive equipment at stake, we need to stay motivated for the sake of our personal growth as creators, whether we are artists, dancers, sculptors, writers or belong to any one of the numerous other creative groups.
In my blogging life I can hit that creative rut when I feel that I have nothing interesting to write or I’m asking myself, who is interested anyway?
At those times I feel that I have said everything already and people aren’t really engaging with me. I compare my blogs to those with hundreds or thousands of readers and get dis-heartened.
These are the times I need inspiration, the times when I need to remember why I’m doing this and know that when I write something that is meaningful to me it might also be meaningful to someone else.
In reality, if only one person reads what I write and finds it useful then that’s a success, but there are times when I am far from looking at it like that.
So, how do I get out of that state and back to a rhythm where I am excited by what I produce?
State of flow
It is my belief that whatever we do in the area of creativity we need to get into a state of flow – we need to give ourselves fully to the task, be fully absorbed by what we do, be totally immersed in the activity and in the moment.
One of the main characteristics of a flow activity is that it is an activity that gives us a challenge which is just outside our comfort zone but is possible to achieve. Previously I wrote a blog called Photography and Flow, where I considered the importance of being in a state of flow and how this can benefit our wellbeing.
I quoted some research on the topic which indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety.
During my research I discovered that Italian-born psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was the first to recognise and name the psychological concept of ‘flow’, defined the concept after interviews with artists who reported that they would get so immersed in their work that they would forget about everything around them, even eating, sleeping and showering.
Given that in this state people experience lower levels of depression and anxiety it makes sense that it is a state we might like to aim for. It appears to be the opposite to being in a creative rut.
So, how do we get from creative rut to a state of flow?
Moving from creative rut to flow
One answer to that question that has worked for me is to take some action. It might be just a small action but if we take some action it can make the difference.
One artist talks of ‘contributing daily to the thing that gives me life.’ During times of turbulence (both inner and outer) that can be difficult, so recently I sat down and made a list of some practical things I can do to reawaken the creative spirit and get back into flow.
Getting ourselves into the right state of mind
When this COVID-19 pandemic began I struggled with anxiety and fear of the unknown and noticed that I had little interest in taking out my camera. As I settled in to the new pattern of living I found myself adopting strategies to help with relaxation, such as daily meditation and listening to music, and these in turn helped me to become motivated to go outside each day, even to my own garden, and take some photographs. As I can now go a little further afield, I know that being in a relaxed state of mind is a pre-requisite for spending quality time with my camera once more, so the relaxation practices continue.
Try something new
Nothing ensures getting ourselves out of a rut so much as mixing things up, doing something different. I have turned to YouTube for inspiration, listened to podcasts, read some enlightening articles, all of which have given a new impetus to my creativity. At times I have taken on the role of beginner and re-learned something from scratch to improve my understanding, at other times I have pursued a different slant to generate new ideas. For example, while there are not many opportunities to develop landscape photography techniques right now, I still found this video useful as it provided some techniques that can be practiced in a wooded area of my local park with a phone camera
Go somewhere different
I often find that going to a new place can change my energy. This can apply to many types of artist and can have a motivating effect, but it is a particularly good technique for photographers. In ‘normal’ times, when I hit a creative rut and feel that I have exhausted the possibilities near my home, I get into my car and drive – into the country, to the coast, to a new town – wherever the drive takes me as long as it is somewhere different. This engages my creative spirit in two ways. Firstly, I find something new to photograph. Even small things in a new environment excite me. Secondly, it helps to rediscover possibilities near my home which I may have overlooked, because possibilities are always there!
During this lockdown period getting into the car and driving somewhere different has not been possible so to compensate I stayed within my 5 km limit but went in a different direction at a different time and ended up at 5.30am overlooking Dublin Bay watching the sun come up and grabbing a few shots into the bargain
There is a vibrant creative community out there which can help, even when they don’t realise it. Not everyone hits a creative rut at the same time, so reading a blog or article, listening to a podcast, watching a video or joining one of the many online live sessions which are now available can sometimes be all we need to get our creative juices flowing again. We can also comment on other blogs and photographs (constructively!) rather than simply giving likes. Helpful comments build engagement with others and help us refine our own thoughts and preferences. We can also invite others’ comments on our work. Being part of a creative community on social media provides opportunities for this type of engagement and it can be a positive experience provided we stick with communities that are aligned with our own values.
No matter what our creative area might be we won’t get into flow creatively when tasks are too easy and we are not stretching ourselves beyond what we know. It is important that we challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, in more ways than one! We can give ourselves a challenge to do one thing each day to enhance our creativity, which might be enough to get us out of the creative rut initially. We can go further and challenge ourselves to master something that will improve our practice but about which we may have previously said, “I couldn’t do that!” We can challenge ourselves to come up with new, fresh ideas to reinvigorate our craft. Our challenges should be just out of reach but possible to achieve, just outside our comfort zone, but not too far outside. This will ensure that we are not challenged beyond our capabilities and prompted to give up, but rather that our minds are stimulated enough to be fully engaged with our task and to reach a state of flow.
My own photography challenge is to learn more about light in photography and discover how to find the best light for capturing good images. This will not come from reading but from taking my camera out and about in different lighting conditions to see what works best.
Because I am currently engaged in this challenge, I got out of bed at 4.30 am to capture the early morning light with my phone camera.
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.” – Trent Parke
The value of walking
We all understand the importance of walking for our physical and mental health, yet when we lack motivation in other areas it can even be hard to motivate ourselves to go out walking. For many people, walking aimlessly holds no attraction but what about a purposeful walk? What about taking your camera and one lens, or even your phone camera, and taking a photo walk? I have found this to be very therapeutic as well as a great motivator for getting stated again with my photography after a lean period. A photo walk involves being attentive to our surroundings, observing, being on the lookout for photo opportunities, and making the most of chances to practise our photography skills. I recently wrote a blog post on the topic which you can read here.
On a recent walk I did some experimenting with leading lines
Most of us experience a slump in creativity from time to time. I hope some of these suggestions will help you climb out of the creative rut and find some joy in a 'flow' activity, whatever that might be for you.
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FIrst published May 2020
Updated March 2021