Break the Block

We all experience it; the drought, not having ideas, the feeling of being detached from our creative source, the lack of inspiration. Those down times are part of being creative. You just can’t keep flying high and be in constant flow. Sometimes you will have to land and just accept that you need some time to ground yourself again.

Yes, it is frustrating when you hit a creative block. Particularly if it lasts a long time. However, the more you experience it—and the more you create the more you will experience it—the more likely you will know that it’s a temporary state of mind. It seems like the muses have left you, but they will be back again. Maybe not today or maybe not even in a couple of months, but they will. So don’t lose faith. Don’t give up when it happens.

What you definitely should not do, is stop doing something. Just because whatever you do isn’t worth the energy you put into it—in your eyes, at least—it still important to trick the muses to show up again, and you do that with keep working, even if the result is pure rubbish. That’s how you get them back again. I promise.

If you can’t find anything you want to do in your usual endeavour, do something different. Just find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. I write a lot; articles, chronicles, blog posts as you see here and even novels, and every so often I do get stopped by a writer’s block. Then I leave my computer, and start doing something else. I might draw something, even if I am not good at it, I might start to construct a new part of a deck or repair something on the house—I will do something, whatever it is. For me, I find practical work to be a good block breaker. Eventually with enough energy put into this other whatever it is the writing starts to flow again.

Albert Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.

Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes. The Australian writer, poet and critic Clive James lost his flow and stopped writing. But after a long spell of this funk he managed to trick himself back to work—or more correctly, his daughter did. He lost it all after a play he wrote became an enormous failure. After that he thought he would never be able to write again. He almost ruined his family financially, lost friends and fell into a deep depression. It was only when his daughter much later more or less pushed him into painting her bicycle that things started to change. Not immediately—in the beginning he was rather reluctant even to start the painting—but after some time he found pleasure in colouring the daughter’s bicycle in new and imaginative ways. Finally he began to add hundreds of silver and gold stars all over the bicycle. Although his daughter first was a little embarrassed by the artwork, it didn’t take long before a friend of her asked Clive James to do her bicycle as well. Soon he had painted the whole neighbourhood’s bikes. Painting thousands and thousands of stars was a healing process for him. Finally he realized that one day he would write about this. He had found a way back to writing.

In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else. Or, to phrase the famous Stephen Stills song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”.

Go walk the dog, go pick every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, buy a colouring book and colour, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with bright colours and put them in a pile. You may think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t, it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave you arms. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

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Shooting Sideways

Those of you who follow me on a regular basis, know that I have my little backyard photo project. It’s an unpretentious project in which I seek to expand my vision and photograph in ways I usually won’t do.

The fact that it’s unassuming is very important. It gives me liberty and unrestrained freedom not having to create anything noteworthy. It’s a playground for me, a place to experiment and photograph sideways as the Canadian photographer Freeman Paterson calls it. What he means by that is shooting contrary to your usual routines. If you always compose meticulous then try to photograph without looking through the viewfinder. If you always photograph with wide-angle lenses, then put on your longest lens and give it a shot. If you always make sure that you have a fast enough shutter speed to prevent blurred images, then go for a really long shutter speed and see what the result will be.

Shooting sideways is a way to ensure that I, as a photographer, do not get stuck in my photographic vision, but rather seek new ways to express myself. The more experienced we become in our art, the more we run a risk of sinking into some standard routines. We know what works, and we apply this knowledge in our creative endeavour. And in so doing we actually stop being creative and our art becomes rather boring.

Thus my unpretentious backyard project. Using the backyard makes it easy to shoot whenever I have some spare time. Since it’s my backyard I can access it easily and at any time I feel like. There are no restrictions except what lies within the boundaries of the backyard. Most importantly is the lack of restrictions when it comes to how and what I choose to shoot. It may sound contrary then, that I often make a set of limitations for each time I go out to photograph. I do so because I want to stimulate my creativity—and nothing stimulate it as much as limiting it—and I want to make sure I don’t fall back on old routines and shoot as I normally would do.

The photos in this post was shot not long ago, and this time around I decided to photograph with a 400 mm at maximum aperture. It’s a lens (actually a 100-400 mm but in this case set at 400) I usually never use for anything except when I cover some news event.

If you don’t know my backyard project, here are previous posts with photos captured over time: Backyard Bliss, Experimental Backyard, My Photographic Retreat, My Backyard Project, My Personal Challenge, The World from the Backyard, Instagram my Backyard, Out of Comfort Zone and Challenge and Expand.

Embrace Your Oddities

One of the things we need to learn and embrace as creative human beings, is not being afraid to stand out from the crowd. It’s a very human reaction, isn’t it, to not wanting to be the one who protrude, risking getting everybody’s attention. What I am talking is not about being overly assertive or blatantly pointing the finger at ourselves, emphasizing how fantastic we are. No, I talk about not being afraid of who you really are and not hide that self behind the rest.

The thing is, we try so damn hard to blend in with the rest, being afraid of sticking out. Rather, embrace what is odd about yourself; be confident with your own skin. We simply need to find more self-confidence and embrace all those quirks and oddities that make each of us special. Because that’s where you will find your real artistic expression. You art will grow deeper and become more authentic if you draw the artistic expression from your real self, the one that you sometimes, or most of the time, try to hide.

Mind you, it’s not about trying to become different, but accepting what is already different. It’s certainly not about forcing some originality into your art. The desire to be original is actually counterproductive. When we hold on to such an idea as being “original”, we inhibit the creative process. In doing so, we are not creating anything original, but just trying to be different. By forcing ourselves to be original, we close ourselves down to what is, we see nothing with open eyes any longer, but apply a contrived and limiting approach to seeing.

Instead of thinking in words like different or original, I believe what is important is authentic. By embracing what is already different about you—and not trying to squeeze some originality out of yourself—and apply that authentic you into your art, will make your art authentic, too. Your distinctive, artistic voice springs out of what makes you as a person unique. Thus trying to blend in, will only silence or even choke your artistic expression.

So don’t be afraid of what make people smile of you or think you are odd. Those are your gifts, as strange as it may seem. Of course, I know it’s easier said than done. I for one have to fight this desire to blend in, not to be visible in the crowd. For instance, I know I am a pretty good skier, but I still don’t like to ski under or close by the ski lifts because there everybody else can get a good look at me. What if I did something really stupid and laughable?

It’s one of the many fears that so inhibits our art. Fear of success. Fear of not succeeding. Fear of lacking creativity. And fear of sticking out. We want to create original art, but don’t dare to stand out. We got to fight that fear. Rather than trying to create original art, we need to stand up for what we are and embrace our oddities.

Creating more Creativity


Trying to be creative is sometimes very frustrating. Sometimes it is as if the muses have died out completely, while we sit there waiting for some inspiration. In articular, it can be hard to get in touch with our creative self if we have been neglecting it for some time. It goes into hiding if you don’t massage it on a regular basis and keep it awake. If we leave the creative self hanging out to dry for even shorter periods—even if we have years of experience in the creative field behind us—it gets back on us but short circuiting the creative connection. The muses die out on us.

The reality is that nothing encourages and develops creativity more than creating—being creative. It doesn’t matter what field you are exploring creatively, be it photography, writing, painting, design, performances, music or any other creative activity. Whatever we do, we need to keep doing it on a regular basis. If we want to develop our creative skills, become better and more profound in what we do, we need to keep creating—all the time. And we need to work creatively even when the result is mediocre and not what we want it to be. If we stop and just wait for inspiration to come, we only stagnate even more. Even more so, when we feel we have lost the inspiration—that’s when you have to push yourself through the wall of self-doubt and discouragement. Make mediocre art if that’s what comes out of your creative self. And don’t worry about it—and certainly don’t whip yourself for it. It’s only a temporary state, anyway. At some point the muses kick in again, and you become inspired and your creative skills start developing again. It’s like playing on the beach. As soon as you start, it’s hard to stop.

Being creative encourages creativity. That’s why I have made it a rule for myself to do at least one personal photo shoot or project each week (I am a photographer after all!). I usually shoot much more, being assigned to do so. And that’s adding to the creative equation, too. But I want to make sure I develop my personal photography as well, and once a week is what I can spare of my time during busy weeks, and when it’s less busy, it still forces me to go out and be creative. It’s been a good way to keep my creative spirit going—and developing.

How do you keep developing your creative skills and staying inspired?

Every Child is an Artist


Creativity requires that we open up to our child inside of us again. As we grow out of childhood, we lose our ability to boil over with that spontaneous, childish creativity. As grownups we need to behave and we need to conform to the norms of the society. And in doing so, we lose this wonderful creativity that every one of us has experience and held in our souls as children.

«Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up». Those are the words of none other than Pablo Picasso; one who indeed was able to keep the child within him alive.

How do the rest of us keep that child in us alive? There is no easy answer to the question. But for a starter; let go of all those inhibitions adulthood has imposed upon us. Don’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself. Take joy in all those small moments life presents to us around every corner. Be curios. Be blissful. And express all your inherent creativity as often as you can, not thinking about what others will think about it and not thinking about whether you know how to do it or not. Create with joy and excitement!

«What most people need more than anything is to unlearn what they’ve learned, to be less serious about everything and anything that otherwise contributes to their stress, because they futilely attempt to achieve some ridiculously lofty standard.» This is Lorenzo Dominques and the quote is taken from his highly successful book 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about Photography…Life.

He continues: «When you can integrate play into your work somehow, when you can laugh at all your mistakes, when you find yourself smiling for most of the day, then you’ll find that you’re achieving something worthwhile. If you can’t whistle while you work, if you’re consistently miserable while you toil, than maybe it is time that you either change careers or change your attitude (at least, until you find a new job).»

Maybe you don’t need to change career. But if you want to get back to that blissful creative feeling you had in you all the time as a kid, it’s really time to bring that child out again, be less serious about yourself, and simply have more fun. Don’t you think?

Don’t Give a Damn!

A week ago, I photographed and did an interesting and inspiring interview with an artist, actor and acrobat. She said something that made me think. In many ways, simple and yet so relevant for anyone engaged in creative work.

Some years ago while she was rehearsing for a movie shooting, the director of the movie told her: “You are too much of a good girl, doing what you are told. Loosen up and don’t give a damn!” She followed his advice and suddenly her creative career took a giant boost.

I think in my younger days I was too much of a good boy, too. I did what I was told. Creatively I certainly didn’t draw outside the lines. I follow the “rules” and did what I was supposed to do. Although nobody gave me the same advice as this artist I interviewed got, slowly by slowly as my creative self matured, I started to care less and less about doing the “right” thing. Instead, I have become more like a rooky, creatively speaking (not necessarily in my interaction with other people).

I think we all need to be less nice or good and rather let loose and don’t think so much about what is the right thing to do. When we start to don’t give a damn, we enter into a different mindset, our creative thinking changes, we see differently and begin to discover new ways of expressing ourselves. Our creative voice will take a boost when we loosen up, if nothing else, because we start to create and do things differently from everybody else. Giving ourselves permission to don’t give a damn will be the first step towards a distinctive way of seeing and expressing ourselves.

Thus being bad isn’t always bad. On the contrary, we need to be a little more bad—and please understand me right when I say so. There is a Swedish saying that goes like this: “Nice girls come to heaven, bad girls can come as far as they like”. Unnecessary to say, it goes for both girls and boys.

On a different note, some of you may have noticed I have been absent from the blog sphere the last week or so. It’s just been extremely busy times and I haven’t had a chance to engage in social medias. However, I hope to be back now that summer on this part of the hemisphere is approaching and life may start to become a little less busy.

Are You Lucky?

Vision comes from within. That is sometimes easy to forget when we who create, fight against bad luck. Because we have all fought and been discourage by lack of luck. I know I have, and I know all my creative peers, friends and colleagues have. Some get over it and some don’t.

Most of us believe that luck is random and arbitrary. But the fact is, we are all in position to channel good luck. Studies and stories of people how have turned the dime to their advantage, are many. We all have the ability to amplify or diminish how luck strikes us.

Study after study reveal that lucky people have a special quality about themselves and how they see the world. They are like metal detectors that are always turned on. One who has studied luck is Richard Wiseman, head of the psychology department at the University of Hertfordshire. According to him, lucky people generate their own good fortune by following four basic principles. They create and notice chance opportunities. They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition. They create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations. Finally, they adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

This may all sound very good. However, when you stand in the middle of period when nothing seems to work out, it’s not easy to keep expecting things to change to the better. It’s much easier to give up. I know, I have been there myself. Some time ago, I had put in a lot of effort, money and time into preparing a project that everybody told me was going to be a success. I was selling the idea for the project to a big national institution in hope they would finance it, in fact they had asked me to propose the project. The people at the institution were all positive and made me feel like it was only a formality before the project would be accepted. But, when it came down to the final decision, my project was turned down. Instead, money was given to another project that seemed to have nothing about it at all. Later on, I heard that it came down to connections. The person behind the project that “won” knew the people on the board of the institution. It was a devastating blow to my self-esteem. I was about to give up.

When you are there, it’s not easy to be enthusiastic about anything. Nevertheless, enthusiasm is really what makes things change and creates luck. Enthusiasm is raw energy for life. It’s a powerful force. It draws luck like a magnet. When you do something out of passion and enthusiasm, out of yourself, things will start to change. You start to create luck and those self-fulfilling prophecies that Wiseman points to. Making luck happening is not about fate, really, it’s about finding your life’s call, or to put it less pretentious, to do what you love. If you take the chance on what you believe in, and don’t give up, good things will start to happen. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success”.

Your unique view of the world is your most valuable asset, regardless of what you do. “Don’t ask yourself what the world need. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who come alive.” That’s according to the African-American author, Howard Thurman.

So maybe luck has less to do with chance and more to do with how we live? In the international best-selling book The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho crafts an allegorical narrative around this idea. The main character in the story, a young man named Santiago, works as a shepherd until he has a dream that awakens him to a deeper calling for his life. Fear holds him back from responding to the call, but the dream persists. Eventually, Santiago musters up the courage to follow the path for which he was meant. Leaving his comfortable life behind, he journeys into the unknown and is invigorated with the possibilities of this new path. Following his path seems to have some generative power, almost like a gift that fills him with strength, enthusiasm, and good luck.

Patiently Painting Walls


Each and everyone of us have a desire to become recognized for the artistic work we do—at least to some extent—whether we are professionals or amateurs; whether we are photographers—like me—or performing artists or something else; whether we are pure craftsmen (or -women) or genuine artists. We all want others to see, hear or feel our work, and we all want to be praised—at least that is what I think—for our artistic quality and originality. At the bottom of all this then lies the desire to become great artists—whatever that means.

That’s all fine, as long as it doesn’t become the motivation in itself for what we do. And it’s all fine if this desire doesn’t make us impatient and give up because we feel we get nowhere. I am not going to talk about what is success or not, or what it means to be a great artists or not, but I think we all hope for a certain development, artistically, and for our artistic reputation as well. I certainly know how frustrating it can be when you feel you have an idea or a great vision, but aren’t able to manifest it through your craft, simply because your craft isn’t developed enough. It takes time to understand the underlying rules of your craft or how to bring your creativity to life, it takes time to develop your artistry to a level where you feel comfortably able to express your vision. It might be a frustrating time of development, but just remember that’s how it’s been for all artists, even the greatest of all times.

There is no instant or fast success with creativity. It takes time. And that is part of what makes some artists so expressive, they let time work to their advantage. It’s also part of what makes being an artist so fulfilling; you never stop learning or improving—that is if you don’t make yourself stop.

Artistic development is like painting a house. When you start out you know you have hours—or more like days—of work ahead you. You keep at because you know that’s the only way it will get painted. You long for the day when it’s all done, but just because you aren’t able to do more than half a wall one day, you don’t give up, and you don’t give up even though you know you will have to give the house three coats of paint. You know that one day the house will be shining beautifully and newly painted. So it is with art and the artists. If you only know that your work won’t be shining from the first day, you will not give, up, but have an incentive to keep developing, to keep working. In reality it never stops. Just like painting. Because, of course, next year it’s the garage, and then the deck, and then the cabin by the sea, and before you know it, you are back painting that house again. It just never stops. And so it is with art. It never stops. You never stop developing as an artists, and isn’t that really what makes creative work so exciting?

You could say, I don’t like painting houses, so I hire someone to do it. Fine, no problem. But would you rather start buying art instead of making it yourself? You know what the really good thing about the cycle of painting your properties is? Next time around you are so much better and proficient than the previous time. And so it is with creativity and artistic work. In the end the development in itself is the reward for those of us who seek to express ourselves creatively or artistically.

Finding That Balance


I want to pick up the thread from my post two weeks ago about finding the right balance between the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative process. This time, though, I will try to be somewhat more concrete by drawing on my own experiences in trying to find this balance.

I believe most people often find it hard to combine the two forces of the mind. Some have a problem using the rational part in the creative process. Instead they flow over with inspiration without thinking too much about craftsmanship or technique—the conscious part of the process. For others it’s the other way around, they know all the ins and outs of using a camera (if speaking about photography), but lack the creative vision to bring a picture into being something more than a plain reproduction without any depth or emotional or visual interest (this is by the way where I started out long time ago).

In a more general perspective I think most people are able to somewhat easily learn the craftsmanship, the technique, how to plan and execute an idea—and yes, just learn. Some might find an inner inhibition or a lack of interest for this conscious part of the creative process, but they would have no problem doing it, if they decided to do so. On the other hand finding inspiration or opening up for the unconscious mind at will is much more difficult; it’s like being consciously unconscious. So let me start here, with some strategies for opening up the unconscious mind.

It’s all about letting loose, not letting the rational mind take control when creating. One trick to boost the unconscious part of the process is—again if we talk about photography—to put your camera on all automatic and let it handle the technical parts by itself. Then go out on the street or in Mother Nature or wherever you feel drawn to and start shooting without thinking. Whenever something makes you react, photograph it in that same moment without any analysis or considerations as to composition or technical aspects. Just do it. Or pick a colour and go out and shoot anything with that colour that makes you react—and shot the same way as just mentioned. Plain reactive shooting. Or go to an event where lots of activity is going on and again react with the camera. And don’t ever look at the screen on the camera to check what you have gotten, that turns on the conscious mind! Of course you will come home with lots of unsharp, badly exposed and uncomposed pictures. But by carefully looking through the whole bunch you will most likely find jewels and strong emotional loaded pictures that you would normally not have taken. Takes these and put them in your mental notebook for later use.

The more you do it, the more you train your unconscious mind to take control during shooting. How then do you get the rational mind to play alongside so that exposure and composition will actually be part of the picture? By training of course! But now you only practice the craftsmanship without worrying about necessarily making inspiring pictures. The more you shoot practising this part of the photography process, the more it will become ingrained in your backbones, too. And the more you learn and put into practise the more you will improve upon your craftsmanship. The point is to get the rational part of the shooting becoming almost as unconscious as the reactive part of it. Whenever you need to stop the flow of photographing to think about lens or aperture or composition or light, you break the flow of the unconscious mind and you lose that very important part of the creative process. So if you are starting out as a photographer you will have to train each mindset separately and let time and practise make them merge together.

For writers, doing morning pages is one way to boost unconscious writing, but it’s also good training for photographers and everybody else who is creating even if they don’t believe they can write. It’s not necessarily about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and becoming an integral part of creating. For painters, starting to paint on the canvas without any prior planning and just paint whatever comes to mind is a way to practise using the unconscious mind. Again it most likely won’t end up being a masterpiece but it’s all about training to be unconscious almost at will.

This is often the hardest part for most artists, being inspired at will. We have all experience the agonising vacuum where inspiration seems to have vanished. And the more we try to make it happen, the more it just slips away. Inspiration is a play by the unconscious mind and you can’t really force it to happen. But you can make circumstances favourable for inspirations to come (for more about this I recommend the book The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry). And to some extent you can push on by just starting to photograph, write, paint or whatever you do. I often experience when I am photographing and I feel uninspired, that if I still start shooting, at some point if I just keep going, the inspiration or the flow will come.

To round it up: My usual way of working and balancing the powers of the unconscious and conscious mind is like this: I will start to plan the project by doing as much research as possible. I will think about what kind of pictures I need to get and just pick up ideas from anywhere about how to resolve the challenge in a best possible way. This part is mostly conscious. Then the shooting starts and the unconscious mind takes over. I might have to force the shooting process into momentum by conscious control, but the sooner I can let go of the rational control the better, and usually when I get caught up in the shooting process, I lose this control. At this stage I don’t think about technique or light or composition, but trust my backbones so to speak. I don’t even think about all the research I did but let my unconscious mind play with it at the moment of shooting. It’s really all instinctive play at this stage of the process. Afterwards when the editing starts, I turn to my conscious mind again. Now it’s about analysing the result, to understand what worked and what didn’t work, so I can do better next time—and of course to pick out the pictures that will become the take of the shoot and sent to post-processing. And here again the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind starts all over again. But that will have to be for another time.

A Balance between Eros and Logos


The creative process, when it blossoms into its most fruitful expression, will always be a play between the conscious and unconscious mind. We need both when we create. We cannot force creativity into being by pure conscious force—just as we cannot solely depend on the unconscious mind when we want to express whatever we envision.

The conscious mind helps us with the craftsmanship, with planning, with execution of the idea, with knowledge, and, yes, at times also with forcing the creative process into its initial stages. But the conscious mind will never spring into life the new idea, the new expression, the complete new vision; it will not be the creative force as such. That’s where the unconscious mind comes into play. The unconscious mind will suddenly make us see things in a different light, it will act through our instincts and make us do something we otherwise wouldn’t have done, it will make us do errors that might turn into expressive and complete new work of art; the unconscious mind is the creator within us, but it needs the conscious mind to bring the idea into life.

We have all experienced how our unconscious mind can help us solve a problem we have been struggling with. We can bend our mind over without finding the solution, but then when we give up and go to sleep, next morning the solution suddenly appears out of nowhere. That’s when the unconscious mind has done the work for us—while we were sleeping. First time it happens it’s quite a revelation—and a delightful such.

As artists or creative beings we need to find a balance between these two paired processes. And we need to acknowledge both as inseparable elements of the creative process. For me this is another example of the polarity between Eros and Logos from the Greek mythology. I have previous used these terms to describe the creative process; such as in the posts Like Roots to a Plant and A Tool for Our Heart and Soul. Here and now I use Eros and Logos more in a Jungian understanding, although the first Greek origin is still valid. According to Platon Eros motivates all living beings to act upon their desires. The original understanding of Eros is «love» although Eros has also been used in philosophy and psychology in a much wider sense, almost as an equivalent to «life energy». Logos on the other hand was by Greek philosophers, especially Heraclitus and Plato, used to mean something akin to the rational structure and order of the universe. In the psychologist Carl Jung’s approach, Logos vs. Eros was represented as «science vs. mysticism», or «reason vs. imagination» or—as I use it here—«conscious activity vs. the unconscious».

In his book «Widening the Stream» David Ulrich view Eros as passion and Logos as the discipline required to cleanly embody our insights. He writes; «as soon as our attention can expand to embrace these opposing, alternating forces—our passionate longing and our disciplined intent—we come into a greater alignment, activating our creative energies and attracting a new quality of heightening being».