A couple of years ago I had an awful time when photography stopped being something that made me happy, gave me strength, and was always there for me, and instead became a source of worry and angst. My inspiration had upped and left the building and it didn’t feel good. The sense of loss was horrible; my whole life was – is – centred around photography and I felt like I imagine a religious person would if they lost their faith. What I didn’t realise then was that it happens to nearly all of us at some point or other, and it’s happened to me many times since. It doesn’t worry me nearly so much now, because I know it will almost certainly come back. There are some things I’ve learned during these times – things that give practical help and things that are comforting – and I thought I’d bring them together here in the hope that they might be of use to someone else. This is not so much about those times when you run out of ideas (much more easily sorted), but more about a kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ of photography when it all feels hopeless and you can’t quite remember why you’re doing this.
1. Remember these times are part of the natural creative process. Gail McMeekin, author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women, refers to it as the Void and says “In the creative cycles of birth and death and rebirth, there are times when we are empty of ideas, adrift in a sea of ambiguity and nothingness. These times can be labelled the neutral zone, the void, a vacuum. No matter what they are called, they are part of the creative cycle and wise women accept them and trust that when it’s time their inspirations will percolate again.”
In Chinese philosophy winter (whether of the earth or of the soul) is seen as a time of quiet, of withdrawing, reflecting and preparing for spring. It’s not regarded as an unproductive time at all, but as a necessary stage and a time to nourish yourself for the bursting energy of the spring that’s on its way. It may not look as if much is going on, but underneath the surface there’s a lot happening. I’ve noticed that after a spell where nothing inspires me or interests me photographically, when I do finally pick up my camera again I start to produce better shots – it’s as if I’ve taken a quantum leap forward. These fallow spells often herald a positive change when you do get going again. I think we reach a kind of learning plateau where we can languish for a while like a boat in the doldrums. Sometimes giving it time is all that’s needed.
A lack of inspiration can also be a sign that we need to change direction, or re-assess what we’ve been doing. However, it’s best not to try to force this; do what you can to become calm and Zen-like about the whole thing and realise that you can’t push the river, but must let it take its own time and make its own way forward. It might not be what you want to hear at that point, but this is how it tends to work. Take the pressure off yourself and allow what’s happening (or not happening) to happen.
2. Try morning pages It helps if you can do something to get out of your own way. For a long time I resisted the idea of Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’. If you haven’t heard of this, the idea is that, first thing in the morning, you scribble down three pages of stream of consciousness writing. You write whatever comes into your head, without thinking about it or censoring it. If nothing comes into your head, you write ‘nothing’s coming into my head’ over and over until something else does or you’ve done your three pages. Don’t even think about grammar or spelling or punctuation – just get it down. I regard it as a kind of brain dump – all the rubbish and angst and limiting thoughts you have get dumped out on the paper. Write as if no-one’s ever going to see it, and make sure no-one does, because if you’re anything like me you’ll sound like the world’s most neurotic person ever. It’s best not to read back through it either unless you’ve left quite a bit of time between the writing and the reading, but it can be quite interesting to read back through it at a later date.
I didn’t really believe this process would do anything, and only tried it out of pure desperation one day. I was astonished to find that within the next day or two I had three of the best ideas I’ve had for some time. I’m not sure it always works that quickly, but it does clear your head so that other things can get in.
I do find Julia Cameron a bit prescriptive about how you’re supposed to do this. She says you must write your pages first thing in the morning before you do anything else, write them in longhand with pen and paper, and do it every day without fail. Well I don’t do any of these things and it still seems to work. I’m not ready to do anything first thing in the morning except read something enjoyable while I drink my morning tea; I can type almost as fast as I can think, so I find doing the pages on computer works much better for me than writing by hand; and I only do them from time to time when I feel the need. I tend to rebel if someone says I ‘must’ do something a particular way and if I had to do them Ms Cameron’s way I’d probably never do them at all. It works just fine however you do it, I’ve found.
3. Fill the well If you’ve emptied the trash out of your mind but you’re still empty of inspiration then you need to fill yourself up, but you also need to be careful how you do this. What works best for me is to look at other kinds of art than photography. If I look at great photographs when I’m in this state it just tends to depress me, as the void between them and me seems too huge for me to have any hope of even beginning to bridge it. For that reason I find it much more helpful to look at other kinds of art. Go to art galleries, look at art online, look at beautifully made things in sophisticated craft shops, go to a sculpture park or trail, watch some art films.
It doesn’t even have to be art. Get out in nature and look at natural things. Don’t look with a view to photographing them, just look and enjoy. Go to something you’d never normally think of going to – dog racing, perhaps. Try something new – anything. Novelty wakes the brain up, and will help get you going again.
Another thing that works for me is to read some kind of inspirational book. I don’t necessarily mean you have to dig out the Tao Te Ching or whatever – it could simply be a story of someone overcoming a problem or a tragedy, or maybe a book of interesting quotes. As long as it’s life-affirming and not cynical it will help and it doesn’t have to be about photography (in fact it’s probably better if it’s not).
4. Take up a different form of art or creativity Something that can also help quite a bit is to take up a different form of creativity. If you normally take photographs, try painting or drawing. (If you think you can’t draw, try Zentangles – everyone can do these and they’re a lot of fun.) Or avoid visual arts altogether and have a go at drumming, or dance, or knitting, or origami, or making bread, or writing poetry. You won’t put the same pressure on yourself as you would in your primary creative outlet, and doing something else will satisfy that part of you that misses being creative. I find that writing helps me when I can’t do photography.
5. Hang out with the right kind of friends Many of us have at least one person in our lives who sends us away buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas after a chat over coffee. Ring this person right now, and arrange to see them. Hopefully you’ll be able to do the same for them at another time. (And thank you from the bottom of my heart, Eileen, because you’ve done this so many times for me!)
What helps you get your photographic mojo back?