Listen to the Creative Flow

The act of creating is closely related to the ability to listen. Listening to our unconscious mind, or listening to the muses, or listening to the creative power of the universe that we are part of, or listening to our inner artist—whatever you prefer to call it.

We create not in a vacuum or out of our little self. We create in an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. By listening to what is always flowing through us as an underground river of creativity, we are able form work of art that expresses a deeper truth or communicate a universal human experience. It doesn’t matter whether we photograph, write, dance, perform, paint or sculpture or express ourselves through other kinds of media, by listening we create with strokes of unknown potency as if we are vehicle for a creative power must stronger than ourselves.

I think we too often forget to listen. Because of that, we often end up with a writers block or aren’t able to break through a barrier of mental obstacles that holds our creative back. We yearn to create something unique or something that expresses who we are, and in so doing, we try to wrestle it out of our conscious self. That’s not how it works, though. We need to listen instead of speaking—figuratively speaking.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes; “Art is not about thinking up. It’s about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.”

If we are trying to think something up, we are striving to reach for something that’s just beyond our reach, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives,” as Cameron puts it. On the other hand, if we try to put something down, there is no strain. We are not doing, we are getting. Something outside of our conscious self is doing the doing. Instead of trying to invent, we are rather engaged in listening.

The great Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” said Jackson Pollack. If you have been in flow, you know the feeling, that whatever it is you are creating already exists in its entirety. Our job when creating is to listen for it, watch it with our mind’s eye, and write it down, photograph it, paint it, sculpture it.

I think it’s nowhere easier to understand this idea or concept than in photography. As photographers, we are not creating a new world to photograph (well, if you are not a studio photographer that is). We take what is, we see—or we listen, figuratively speaking—and transform what we discover in this process into a photograph. We often talk about “taking” a photograph, which I find to be a somewhat imprecise phrase. It implies that the photograph is our doing, rather than we see and received what is offered us. The American documentary photographer Charles Harbutt often said that he doesn’t take photographs, photographs take him. The New York photographer Jay Maisel has a similar approach. He doesn’t look for specific photographs. Rather, he’s open, perceptive, and ready for what comes to him unexpectedly.

The thing is, in the act of creating, we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express. The making of art is like dropping down in this underground river of creativity. It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like this underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap into. By listening.

I have a good friend of my, a colleague in photography, who is staging his photography meticulously. He is in full control most of the time, and don’t let anything be formed by coincidences. Yet, he often shoots his most brilliant imagery when for a split second he let go of the control.

When you learn to trust the process, you will see that inspiration—whatever that is or whatever word you want to use for it—will come to you. You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right light for your photo, discover your David in the clay or hear the right tones for your song.

We must learn to listen to the creative stream. The more we practise the better we become at it. In the beginning, it might be difficult to quiet the mental noise that we impose on ourselves. One way is for instance through free writing or through free photographing as I wrote in my post Free Shooting a couple of weeks ago. That is, to create without thinking, just letting go and flow with whatever comes to mind without trying to modify or reshape whatever comes to you as you think it ought to be. This way of creating you can do in all works of art.

Listening is imperative in the creative process. Like in the good conversation, the one with the ability to listen will learn, while the one, who only speaks, inevitably will keep repeating him- or herself.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Nikon FinePix E900 with the lens set at 28 mm (the equivalent of a 128 mm full frame). The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.


90 thoughts on “Listen to the Creative Flow

  1. This is true. Sometimes my husband has a hard time trying to “think up” something. It never works very well. We always say, “If you have to force it, it’s probably crap.”

  2. Yet another great post, Otto! Your last articles are like short chapters in a book about creative photography, very good. The quote is excellent and so are your thoughts as well as the magnificent photo. Rightly, nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak. LISTEN and SILENT are spelt with the same words, I took this note several years ago and if I ‘m in a total silent surrounding, I find it easier to listen to the things I can’t hear. Eventually I hear a voice.
    I have been trying to do free shooting. We spent a week in very scenic parts of England and I used the camera a lot, but I find it almost impossible to let go and “forget” what I have learned and internalised. As Kandinsky said, first artists have to know and think a lot, secondly, when producing, they have to forget it all (but still it influences the act of producing subconsciously). With ICM the outcome is not so predictable.

    1. You took me aback here. I have never thought about the fact that listen and silent are spelt the same. I will have to sit quietly and think about it and listen to what the words say to me. May have to come back with a new post with whatever comes out of this. And I know, free creative doing is difficult if you have learned the craft. In terms of photography it helps with a small point-and-shoot camera put on automatic. At least for me. 🙂

  3. A beautiful photo and great observations of the creative process. A mentor of mine got me in the habit of repeating a single word, W.A.I.T: Why Am I Talking? It is a good reminder to slow down, listen and observe.

  4. This is so true Otto. When people start to force things, it usually does not work out. It is better to let things bubble up naturally. Like on the fantastic photo.

  5. Time spent with a subject before releasing the shutter is invariably hugely beneficial. It is the time when the dialogue between photographer and subject begins: Why have I stopped? What is it about about this object/scene that attracts me? What is it saying to me? What do I want to say about it? The ability to be quiet with a subject is a skill to be practised. Your photograph accompanying this post draws me into the sense of place and the atmosphere of the occasion. I can well imagine your inner dialogue.

  6. There is far too much noise in the world today -” you cannot even hear yourself thinking”. Thank you for a helping thought, Listen, Silent.

  7. Listen, we must do..there are too many electronic noises and inner rumbling or voices in our heads that block out our creative flow. I also take creative photos without much thought, it becomes distracting. Michelangelo considered himself a sculpture more than a painter. Seeing “David” for the first time this year, was unreal. The guy was pure genius.

  8. Great picture! The glow and the fog among darker mountain ridges give the mysterious feel and it draws you to find what is going on there.

    The creativity is as as mysterious. It seems it is something if we look to catch it then it never comes or you could never catch it. If you just wait and observe or listen then it comes.

  9. “It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness.”

    This is exactly what I should have said to all of the people who has ever asked me where my ideas come from. This sentence is more straightforward than my Artist Statement.

  10. I’m convinced that exterior silence begets interior silence — which allows that different, interior voice to be heard.

    It’s common to hear complaints about the world’s chaos and noise, but it’s easier than many imagine to create a quieter world for ourselves. Television, social media, and the media at large have value, but their value often is outweighed by the negative consequences they bring. For the most part, I’ve silenced them in my own life, and find I read more, think more, and have become more curious about the world around me since doing so. I’m constantly being distracted from certain goals I’ve set myself, but at least the distractions arise from my own interests, and not someone else’s!

    1. Distraction are necessarily bad. They can lead you astray, but also to new previously undiscovered gems. But you are right, too often and too much we immerse ourselves in the noise of TV, social medias and other external inputs.

  11. many good thoughts here, but the one that struck me most is the ‘not listening’

    i’ve never seen a society of non-listeners like we have today and they don’t want to be different

    i’ll never get used to it

    love the image

  12. Your wonderful lead image set the stage for thinking about creative flow, Otto. Harbutt’s idea that a photograph “takes you” struck home as did Michelangelo’s idea that David was released from the marble. Listening is a skill that is the most important challenge. Not only in the creative process but in the world at large. It’s something that, sadly, very few do these days. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  13. So many important points here, and the river metaphor is beautifully expressed in your photo. I like the reminder that creation is an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. You’re probably familiar with the Contemplative photography movement? The world can use more listening, and more tuning in to what is really in front of us, I think. But with so much competing for our attention, I think it gets harder each day, just as it is more and more needed.

  14. I love Julia Cameron. Artist as conduit, all the way. Virtuoso pianist and singer-songwriter Tori Amos is this kind of listener and artist. She refers to her songs as “girls” who have wills and personalities of their own. Referring to her ballad “Cooling,” which did not make it onto any of her records: “She decided she liked being played live . . .” Read Tori Amos’s memoir Piece by Piece for insight into a fascinating creative mind. Or, you know, just listen to her albums. My favorites are Under the Pink, Scarlet’s Walk, and of course, her debut, Little Earthquakes. Her album Strange Little Girls emphasizes the songs as beings concept, mostly with unique interpretations of vintage rock tunes.

  15. yes, i hear you, but while i was courageous enuff to be quiet and listen when i was young, not so much anymore… anxiety, meh… very well written, Otto!

  16. Otto, your posts – if possible – just keep getting better and better! What a comfort it is to read what you share – oftentimes mirroring what I’ve experienced, yet you put it into words.

    Am still very short on internet time – a gift to the creative flow, yet sometimes comes with guilt of not staying current with what others – like you – have to share…. Thanks, as always – logging off for the next segment of unplugged life!

  17. Thank you Otto. Love reading your posts. I always loved writing and I just started with WordPress so I am trying to figure out what people want to read. I can write about what I remember but it seems like it is always full of holes. If you have any ideas please let me know.

    1. It’s really hard to give any advice in general terms what anybody else should write. But I would start from you passions. Write about whatever you are passionate about and don’t think too much about what people want to read. Give of yourself, that is always what makes for a good read. Good luck with blogging.

  18. Hello Otto, I think your writing is becoming more beautiful every post…
    This is such a stunning, fluid essay on the creative process and how we must listen and be quiet long enough to hear the stirrings of our heart.
    I so much believe that is the case for me. It’s part of why I’m not blogging at the moment because my mind is not as quiet since arriving over in London. Life has become more busy settling in and just saying yes to everything possible here.
    So yes, this was very poignant for me.
    Thank you for your thoughts on this topic Otto 🙋🏻💐💐

    1. “Be quiet long enough to hear the stirrings of our heart” – you summarize so poignantly what Otto’s post is about! And then there’s “life”. Isn’t this combination of out heart-strings with our everyday life what creativity can do to help us live? Your comment moves me.
      P.S. Excuse me for intruding 🙂

      1. Hello Ellington, you are certainly not intruding. Quite the opposite…you have made my day with your beautiful comments about mine. Thank you so much, and yes, creativity adds sparkle to our day to day lives and really is essential. Even people who say they ‘aren’t creative’ can express themselves through their own means.
        Thank you again. You are welcome in my comment 🙋🏻💐💐

      1. Oh I love it Otto. And I’m adjusting my creativity to accommodate that side of it all.
        And your welcome re- the comments about your post 💐✨✨

  19. Gorgeous cover image and wonderful post. Wise words about creativity that I related to how I feel when I am alone and in the ‘zone’. Self-expression is an important ingredient for me.

  20. Otto,
    This post is very inspiring and it gives food for much thought. The near holiness of the sources of inspiration that you mention have been much criticized by critics in the USA while I want to defend your perspective on creativity. At the same time I think there are aspects of creativity in art that need further discussion. So here’s my reply to this post: (it can be read in Swedish, and I’ve also provided a link to my own English translated version).

  21. You write vety interesting Otto. We all have unconscious mind the seventh sense.
    We can practise it to tell you what the tings.

  22. Your insights in this piece are profound, Otto. Learning to listen is one of the most basic skills — both on a human level in our relationships, and also in our creative pursuits — but paradoxically it’s also one of the hardest to master. For me, meditation has been a great tool for learning to quiet the background noise of my busy little mind and better focus my attention. But your post on “free shooting” made me wonder whether perhaps I’m being a bit *too* contemplative! In the end it all boils down to being present in the moment, I suppose, and open to the possibilities that present themselves. And thanks to you, this is exactly how I intend to approach the day ahead of me. Thank you so much for this instructive and thought-provoking post, Otto.

    1. I think listening, particularly to stillness is very hard for most of us. It’s as if we can’t take too much quiet. As you say meditation is a great way to practice listening, but also to be present in the moment. May you have fun opening up to whatever present itself. Thanks for the lovely comment, Heide.

  23. As always, your advice is insightful. It is so difficult to let go and to embrace not being in control. The listening, as you say, is so important. Observing and listening to other creatives provides me with inspiration in that “river of creativity.”

  24. Another wonderfully insightful post, Otto!
    I also am very struck by Dina’s comment with regard to “listen” and “silent” containing the same letters. Something I never realized, and so very pertinent to this post. A wonderful observation on her part.
    Thank you for always giving me something new to think about.
    Have a wonderful week!

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