Collect and Save for Times of Sparseness


In your creative endeavour, have you ever had the feeling that you are staring into a blank wall? Nothing is wanting to be expressed through you. You have no idea what to photograph. Or you have a blank canvas or a white screen in front of you, and nothing, absolutely nothing will make its way from your mind to the medium—whatever the medium is.

I am sure you have. As everybody who is engaging in a creative adventure, has. I, for one, certainly have many a time. Not long ago, I simply could not take one single photo, it was as if all of me simply didn’t want to photograph, every muscle resisting even the thought of bringing out the camera. My mind was empty. Nothing. Nada.

That’s when collecting raw materials comes in handy. Over the last year or so, I had written down ideas for photo projects I might want to pursue one day. Now I dug out that list and found an idea that could be worthwhile trying out, despite my lack of creative energy. Before I knew it, I was thoroughly engaged in the process.

We have all heard of writer’s block. It happens to not only writers, but anyone doing any kind of creative work. One way to get out of the rut is to collect raw materials whenever you encounter something that seems interesting. Then, in times of emptiness and standstill, you have a list of ideas that can help you back on the creative track again.

Creativity comes from making associations and connections, and toying with convergences of thoughts; seeing things in a new way—extrapolating, expounding, and using different perspectives that allow new concepts to be seen. All those processes begin with pre-existing materials that trigger new ideas. Raw materials.

Raw materials are words, images, objects, concepts, structures, and other stimuli already in existence that give you a place to start and banish the bewilderment of blankness. Raw materials seduce you to take something in your own unique direction by rearranging, modifying, using an aspect of, repackaging, tweaking, springing off of it, and adding your personal twist. These actions are some of the most effective ways of being creative.

Like Twyla Tharp, the renowned American dancer, choreographer, and author, points out: «Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.»

Twyla Tharp collects boxes with anything she finds interesting, no matter whether it’s relevant for her present project or not. If something attracts her attention she collects it. This is almost like magical boxes full of unresolved ideas, available for her whenever she needs something to spring off from.

We can all learn from Tharp. Anyone working in some creative way should collect raw materials. It can be objects, words, thoughts, yes, anything; the important thing is to collect them when you encounter them. Put them in a box or write them down in your notebook or on your cell phone. Immediately. Do not wait until your mind is empty and you stare at that blankness.

About her boxes, Tharp furthermore says: «A box is like soil to me. It’s basic, earthly, elemental. It’s home. It’s what I can always go back to when I need to regroup and keep my bearings. Knowing that the box is always there gives me freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face. Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.»

Do you have a box—literally or figuratively—that you collect raw materials in for later use?

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Fujifilm X-10 with the zoom set 7.1 mm, equally to 28 mm for a full frame camera. Shutter speed: 1/400 of a second. Aperture: f/3.2. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

85 thoughts on “Collect and Save for Times of Sparseness

  1. Great writing and Yes, when an idea comes to me…often out of the blue…I now write it down and might act upon it some time later. Just writing it down, helps , in my case of old age, to remember when the occasion is there to press the shutter in a purposeful way!

  2. You betcha!!! I have hardly taken any photograph in the last six months, save for some assignment work.

    It was only recently, when I was reading a book on The History of Photography, that I got the spark for my next project

  3. Yes, I’m always collecting some things, usually meaningful quotes or lines from books or websites that inspire me. Then I forget where my ‘list’ is 🙂
    Unfortunately I don’t have the room to collect raw materials or objects any more.
    (and I’ve given away all my watercolours, sable brushes and pottery tools etc). I’m just trying to stick to one thing….photography.

  4. Ah, yes! When I moved home, I came across all sorts of stuff! Much of it too large to bring with me, but I have an old shabby railway trunk which has a number of small items in…I call it the ‘Toy Box’, and some of the items appear in Still Lifes every now and again…..

  5. This could not have come at a more perfect time, Otto. I have renewed my love of ink/watercolor drawing, but want to dip into it gently. Boxes! I have three box-like chests stacked on the floor in my den. Right in front of my eyes, yet I could not see. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

  6. Before I even read your post, I had a good chuckle looking at your photograph. I confess that I live in a state of clutter. Sometimes it inspires. I write down my ideas but they are all over the place on scraps of paper. They would make an interesting collage. Seriously, keeping track of one’s ideas does really help. Great post!

  7. As ever Otto an excellent article that we can all learn from. I don’t have a literal box but I do have a figurative box in my head. I have a memory that collects and retains and I’ve got all sorts of junk in there. I’ve been making observations around my home recently. I have an attic apartment in a big old 19th century house, lots of interesting shaped ceilings and I’ve been intrigued by the patterns, often quite ethereal, that the sun creates on the ceilings and wall, even on the refrigerator, through the windows of the various rooms as the day passes by. I’ve been toying with how to develop this into a photo project, I’m not there yet. These images will be abstract and minimal, a bit of a risk but that’s paid off in the past. These patterns and where they occur in my apartment not only change with the time of day but also with the season. This has a great deal of potential in my mind for a contemporary photography project. This is just one example of the ideas I have and store. This one will no doubt develop as will others in this dusty but very useful part of my brain. I love the notion that these are raw materials. Materials to be amalgamated and developed to create something new and interesting. Great stuff Otto! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Adrian. And I am impressed; a whole apartment functioning as a box to collect ideas in a completely unusual way. I love the idea and I look forward one day to see the result of the project. Simply fantastic.

  8. “…write them down in your notebook or on your cell phone. Immediately. Do not wait until your mind is empty and you stare at that blankness.” Oh such excellent advice. I can’t believe what extraordinary ideas have seized me at an inconvenient moment. Surely I’ll remember THAT! But I don’t. I never do. They are wasted stars. I have tried to write those things down, but I’m haphazard and lackadaisical about it. I have notes on my phone, my computer, my iPad, but they are strung out in a bazillion different files and apps. I really need to corral myself and develop a SYSTEM!

    1. Definitely seems like you need a system. I have a friend who is writing down any idea he has, in his little notebook if he has brought that along, and if not, in anything he has at hand. Every evening before going to bed, he transfers all those written ideas and thoughts into one computer site where he has systematized his idea. Maybe something for you to embark on…

  9. When I am gone, my children will find all those beautiful notebooks I bought to hold my ideas. Some are full, some are just started…and some are empty. But the ideas are alive.

  10. If I see an interesting building in a magazine or newspaper I cut it out and keep with a view to perhaps visiting. When out with a camera in a city I am now getting into the habit of photographing a building or other object that looks promising and the road sign so that I can re-visit when the light is better or when I have the time. In these ways I have a store of images of ‘things’ that look like worth visiting or re-visiting and crucially…I know where they are.

    1. I do also cut out anything that looks like something I could be interested from papers or magazines. I like the idea of using the camera as a mere recorder of interesting subject to return to.

  11. This post just hits a nail on me. I am in the exactly the same situation. I am still trying to get out of this..

    The accompanying picture is nice. It’s mostly white with odd items decorating the wall. Some of them even in the shade of white. For some reason, I like the this color tone of the picture and the dog wagging the tail.

  12. Otto, I love your posts on creativity, such as this one, most of all. I don’t have a “box” — or rather, I do but it’s only in my head. I’m trying to remember to write things down, because those “genius” ideas that suddenly come in unexpected moments disappear just as quickly. Thank you for the reminder and the inspiration.

  13. Another thought provoking commentary…I collect ideas in notebooks, on my iPhone, iPad, but have been using post-it notes for eons and eons. It’s a great way to capture the immediate and then act upon it at the right moment.

  14. Otto, this is a wonderful post. I couldn’t have put it any better than this: “Creativity comes from making associations and connections, and toying with convergences of thoughts; seeing things in a new way—extrapolating, expounding, and using different perspectives that allow new concepts to be seen.”

    Or, as John Steinbeck said, ““Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

    I use the ability WordPress gives us to keep draft files as my “raw material box.” Right now, I have 158 drafts in my files. Granted, some of them are only a title. A few are quotations, with attached musings. There are the beginning of stories, an Etheree waiting to be completed, an outline for a longform piece, and just plain ideas. About every three months I look over the whole lot, bump whatever seems of most interest to the top, perhaps discard a few, and get started again.

    Another thing I try to do is keep two or three posts that aren’t time-sensitive in my files for weeks when my work schedule, or ennui, or flat mental exhaustion leave me feeling less creative. Time after time, that little bit of breathing room makes it much easier to get back in the groove.

    1. I great idea on how to use WordPress as a”box”for collecting ideas. We all have times when we don’t have the energy to write a new post. Thanks for sharing, Linda. And I love the quote by Steinbeck.

  15. when i was a computer programmer i always used to say ‘i’m not creative, i’m a problem solver, i can’t start with nothing, something has to be there for me to work with’… but now that i have read your post i realize that i was always creative, and perhaps that’s why i choose photography as my medium, because there is always something there for me to play with… tho i am a writer too, and that’s a bit of a different process haha

      1. well said, Otto! I was just thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’ and how she described it… that’s why i said writing is ‘different’ lol

  16. Wonderful thoughts. Staring at a blank canvas is daunting. But the idea of your “boxes” in whatever form, makes concrete something most of us probably have swimming around in our heads. Now to collect purposefully.

  17. I very much like how you say raw materials have the power to seduce us ~ they do have this power. Finding something simple and interesting, and then with the raw material, there is only one way to go in terms of creation – up 🙂 There is no way to fail, as you are starting with the raw material and the fun is being able to expand on it. Love this thought ~ and very accurate I think in how to jump start a creative process. Cheers Otto, enjoyed your writing (and photo) very much!

  18. i go through creativity block all the time, but in addition to that, i actually make graphics and/or take and process photos and then they don’t seem worth posting or using. i look at them from time to time and think, “that’s really pretty, but who needs it ?”, so i move on without doing anything. it’s like being paralyzed in the pursuits of life. i’ve also made the lists and jotted down notes and then thought the same thing about those ideas. i’m my own worst enemy. i think i’ll force myself to act on an idea today.

  19. Oh Otto I hear you about not feeling creative some days! Then when I have an idea, I jot it down on paper until I have time to fully express it in poetry or another form of writing. Great post!

  20. Så bra att du tar upp detta ämne Otto. Fick mig en ordentlig tankeställare här. Innan jag började fota och skapade mest i textil samlade jag på allt som kunde vara bra att ha och skapa av. Skissade och skrev ner ideér. När jag började fota med macrot så hade jag stor nytta av det men nu gör jag det bara sporadiskt. Tack för intressant inlägg och för påminnelsen.

    1. Det gjør egentlig ingen forskjell hva medium du jobber med. Uansett er det nyttig å samle på ideer og gjenstander som kan brukes på et senere tidspunkt. Jeg er glad for at du hadde nytte av denne artikkelen.

  21. Oh, do I have boxes! Many of them, and drawers, etc. And I do think I will, one day when the light is bad outside or I don’t have the inspiration to go out, delve into the collections and pull things out that connect, and photograph them in interesting ways.
    Tharp – I love her – what a ball of energy!
    Do you know herman de vries? An interesting artist whose collections are central to his work.

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