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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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.

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».

Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it may be yourself? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. Maybe not right away, but at some point I do get at myself for not having done my best. More often that I like to think.

When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel—which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting—when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration—I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently—and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself—at least not without playing it safe for the majority of the shots. It’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves a slap in the face. You say to yourself: Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough! Remember last week’s post about how destructive perfection can be?

Rather, we should say to ourselves: Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time—in all aspects of life. No big deal. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like—others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.

Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

If Only

Sometimes when I am down and feeling miserable, I wish that my life would be different. We all do, don’t we? How often have I not thought; imagine if only I had been one of the big stars in the photography world. How would my life not have been then?! If only…

Some time ago, I proposed a photo story for a weekend edition of a major newspaper. It was a story about the drug scene in my hometown, which had changed after a park where drug addicts and dealers had been gathering, was closed down. To my dismay, the proposal was turned down. I had been sure I would get the assignment.

When the idea was rejected, I felt as if my creativity had been belittled and discredited. I started to think what if the former editor who knew me had not just been replaced with a younger yuppie? If only I was a renowned photograph, surely he wouldn’t have turned me down, replaced or not?

Craving for success and acceptance for our creativity is a very human reaction. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. However, the trap is falling in under us when we don’t see the difference between our creative abilities and the world’s reaction to it. When we don’t get the acceptance we crave, that is when we start to think if only… True creative people, though, don’t use “if only” as an excuse.

Creativity has always been about making the most of what you have. Sometimes creativity thrives when you are having fun, and other times it flourishes when you have your back against the wall. The latter was the case with a young man named Johannes who lived in medieval times.

Johannes was ambitious but short of funding. He got help to make what he called “holy mirrors” for religious pilgrims to buy. When the mirror was held up to a relic, it supposedly captured and reflected the glory of God. However, Johannes business idea flawed, among other factors because a severe flood delayed the pilgrimage until the following year. Johannes didn’t give up after this failure. Living in a wine producing region he was acquainted with the process. Suddenly he saw a different use for the traditional wine press. With a few modifications, he transformed the press from making juice to printing words. In so doing, Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press that changed the course of the word. The press was first used to print the bible and thus Gutenberg was able to provide people with a way to experience the glory of God, even if his “holy mirrors” had failed miserably at first.

Creativity is never about wishing things would be better or different or disasters wouldn’t happen to you. Creatives don’t use “if only” as an excuse. “If only” focuses on what might have been. Creatives focus on making the most of the raw materials that they have and under the circumstances that surrounds them. Taking these materials and combining them into something new is where creativity becomes art.

We should never forget that the creative path itself—creating—is what makes photography, or any creative endeavour you may embark on, such a fulfilling undertaking. Too often, we forget this simple truth as our desires for mastery, for recognition or even monetary gain possesses us.

Yes, we all dream of getting worldwide recognition, to become the next Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith or Ansel Adams. However, do not let this desire get in the way of your photography. Enjoy the process, move down the creative path with open senses and an open mind, breath, live, be one with your art, and do not get caught up with desires that may well turn you away from the path. And don’t use “if only” as an excuse.

I reworked my story proposal of the drug scene, sent it to a different magazine where it finally got accepted. These days a new issue of the magazine is out, with my story spread over 14 pages.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 10.9 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm for a full format canera). Shutter speed: 1/60 s. Aperture: f/1.7. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Do you need some ideas to improve your photography and not having to spend a lot of money on new equipment? My eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera might be what you are looking for. It’s an inexpensive eBook full of inspiration, and it’s available on my website http://www.munchow.no.

The Two Faces of Creativity


The creative process often seems to have much in common with a spiritual experience in that the artist often appears to be blessed with a godlike vision into new insights. We all stubble upon those moments where new ideas just seem to be raining down upon us, although, truth be told, a lot of the time the connection with the creative source seems broken or even completely cut off. Opening up this connection and staying connected with the creative well has often been the theme of my posts on this blog. For any artists there are a number of methods to encourage creativity in ourselves, and it’s absolutely necessary to be aware of these methods and use them in order to develop this creativity of ours.

Creativity simply doesn’t come by itself. Most importantly I believe—and this I have pointed out before—is to do the actually work. As artist we need to keep creating, we need to transform our internal vision into something concrete, be it a photograph, a painting, a sculpture, a video, a performance or playing with our kids. The creative process thus consists of two faces: Creation and Execution. The creation is the mental or spiritual part of the process but if we don’t execute the idea, in the end we have not created anything at all. Eventually if we keep omitting the execution of the creation, our creative ability languishes and we will be cut off from our creative source. There are moments in the creative process when creation is present, but there are many more moments when it is not. Often the execution doesn’t involve creativity; it can even be boring in that we just have to implement the creative impulse; for instance as photographers applying the right technique in order to get a pictures as we had envisioned.

Sometimes creation and execution goes hand in hand, for example again as photographers trying out different settings in Photoshop. But without any execution, creation will only be but an idea. For that reason I find it useful to distinguish between creativity and creating. Creativity usually refers to inventing something new. According to Webster’s Dictionary creativity is defined as «creative ability; artistic or intellectual inventiveness». On the other hand create is defined as «to originate; to bring into being from nothing; to cause to exist».

So let’s go out there and create, let’s encompass both creation and execution. Besides, I hope you keep enjoying the summer (or winter—if you are situated in the southern hemisphere).