The Pressure is On

Titi er søsteren til Clara

Do you sometimes find yourself running out of new ideas? I think it happens to all of us who are engaged in creative work. Of course to a greater or lesser degree. I see artists who seem never to run up against the wall, they just appear to be a cornucopia of sparkling ideas. Still, I am sure it happens to them, too, from time to time, the pressure of coming up with something new. Certainly I happen to go there myself – particularly after an intense period of creative work after which I might fall completely apart while thinking I will never come up with something as good as this again. And then slowly the sparkle ignites again.

This pressure of coming up with something new is very much related to what I wrote in my posts about being in flow – or more precisely not being in or finding that flow (se the posts Finding Flow and In the Heat of Flow). Carrie (Nienierza) commented about this pressure in my post Set Sail almost a year ago. She wrote: «After each blog I think how can I possible come up with something new as I hate to repeat anything. But just while taking a walk the other day and my mind was free to run creative thoughts through it with the image of some photos I had taken already and suddenly I could see the words start to come to me. It’s often when I relax and let go of the pressure to get a blog out that one comes to me.»

The interesting thing is there is never a shortage of creative sparkles – if we only don’t put ourselves in that corner of not believing in it and by so doing cutting ourselves off from our creative well. We get so uptight about having to find something completely new, that it drives us blind. We put the pressure on ourselves and feel we are running on empty. Carrie shows one way to get around the issue: By letting go. If we don’t force ourselves to make something spectacular, but just sit down or go out on the street (or whatever we do when we create), do the creative work and letting go of any aspirations or ambitions, then the new idea might just show up by itself. Often the thought of having to come up with something «new» makes us stall. The best thing is to let go of the pressure, as Carrie writes, and let the ideas come to you instead of forcing them to happen.

One thing is for sure; we shouldn’t get discouraged by not being able to come up with new ideas. It happens to us all – and eventually we will get out of that state of mind when suddenly the sparkles ignite again. The clue is somehow to find a way to let go of that pressure, it could be as it works for Carrie; going for a walk, or it could be something complete different, like reading a book, going to a concert or visiting a gallery. We all have different ways to deal with this pressure. How do you do it?

By the way Carrie has no less than three excellent blogs I truly can recommend to have a look at: God’s Garden of Nature, A Window to my World and Quotography by Here I Am Carrie.

In the Heat of Flow

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As mentioned in my post Finding Flow last week flow – or being in the zone as it is often called – is that inspired freedom of creativity when you lose yourself completely in artistic activities. Time, stress and artist’s block melt away, resulting in a unique voice and fully realizing your creative potential. Being in that state of flow in many ways resembles a trancelike state of mind. As Susan K. Perry writes in her book «Writing in Flow»; «you feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. … [When] in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself – or of the universe – that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state».

«Writing in Flow» – as I mentioned in the post – is based on a scientific study that Susan K. Perry conducted of more than 75 best-selling and award-winning authors. In the book she describes how the writers experience the state of flow; she dwells into five key elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative process and finally she writes about specific techniques writers use to make flow happen.

Although the book is about writing in flow, the general concepts and mechanisms behind creative flow is very much adaptable to any creative activity. I certainly found her ideas and suggestion very useful for my photography. As I am writing, too, I know the feeling of being in flow is similar when I experience it as a writer and when I experience it as a photographer.

It’s not possible to go into depth of her book in a post like this, but I will try to at least give an idea of what Susan K. Perry has found out. First, the five master keys that have an effect on the creative flow are partly a part of whoever you are, your whole self and the way of relating to the world. Partly they are concurrent to the actual creative process itself and come into play very near the time you begin the process as well as throughout the whole process. Having a reason to write – or if taken in a broader view; having a reason to do whatever creative work you do – is Perry’s first master key. On its simplest level it means you need something that motivates you to do whatever it is you are doing. It can be both external and internal reasons, although the latter often works as a stronger incentive. For instance I photograph because I want to tell stories about how people live in various layers of the world and the societies. I want to show both the beauty and the cruelty of human existence, and I so doing maybe be able to change if not the world, hopefully one or two persons along the way.

The second master key is to think like a writer – or an artist in any vocation you are working in. As for me, in all my professional life I have tried to learn and read about other photographers and how they think. The point is it’s possible for you to strengthen and bring to the forefront of your personality those aspects that will contribute to making your creative life more gratifying. It maybe opening up yourself to new experiences, it may be trying to take more risks, it may be trying to get yourself fully absorbed by your work and it’s certainly positive if you are able to build confidence in what you are doing.

The next three master keys are more directly related to the creative process itself and in some ways more self descriptive. Of course there is more to them than that; based on the study that Susan K. Perry did she offers a lot of insights to the hows, but let me just quickly mention the last master keys here. One is loosening up, another is focusing in and the last is balancing between opposites.

Let me end by saying that «Writing in Flow» is a book that inspires and explains. If you are interested in other creatives’ take – and certainly writers’ take – on working in flow, or would like to know how to enter this state more often, this is a must-read.

Finding Flow

Hjem etter en lang dag på markene

For all artists the ultimate creative experience is when you lose yourself in your work, when you immerse yourself so much in some creative activity during which time cease to matter, when you forget yourself and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when you are in flow. I have compared this experience with the feeling of being in a tunnel (se my post Tunnel Vision some time ago), while others call it «being in the zone» or just «in flow». As a matter of fact flow is a term used in psychological studies, of which University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to examine.

According to the science flow happens because we make it happen when our mind or body is voluntary stretched to its limits, in an effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. The question is – especially for those who have yet to experience flow – how do we make it happen. In workshops I teach I often talk about this feeling of flow, but I always find it hard to give concrete advice how to make it happen. My recommendation has been to work hard; that flow will eventually happen if you do the work. I think that is true, but it’s not necessarily a very satisfying answer. And just doing the work isn’t always enough for everybody who is seeking flow, neither. Last time the question came up for me was in a comment to my post Diving into Unconsciousness, to which more than a mere description of experience itself I really wanted to come up with some thoughts about how to get there.

Imagine my excitement when just afterwards I came across a book investigating in depth what being in flow means. The book «Writing in Flow» by Susan K. Perry is based on a comprehensive study she did on 75 best-selling and award-winning authors for her doctoral dissertation. As indicated by the title of the book, it deals with being in flow while writing, but a lot of what Perry points to is valid for any kind of flow-experience. I certainly recognise her thoughts and recommendations for my own work as a photographer.

I am still in the process of reading the book, but already now I can say «Writing in Flow» is a book that gives an exciting glimpse into the creative process. Even more so it gives concrete input and ideas about how to get into flow. I will get back to the book and quote some of the concrete advices that Perry bring forth in a later post, but for now I just want to mention six requirements she believes is necessary to be able to be in flow.

First your activity must have clear goals and give you some sort of feedback. You need to want to do whatever you do for some reason which can be as simple as wanting to show the beauty of nature if you for instance are a nature-lover. In addition it needs to give you some satisfaction of some form, it could be nothing more than just being able to accomplish the task or being praised by the work afterwards. Secondly for flow to happen sensing that your personal skills are well suited for the challenge is necessary, giving you a sense of potential control. Thirdly you need to be intensely focused on what you are doing. Fourthly when in flow your sense of time is altered, with time seeming to slow, stop or become irrelevant. Lastly the experience needs to become self-rewarding.

As I said I will get back to a deeper review of the book as soon as I have finished it, but already now I can easily recommend «Writing in Flow» – even if you are not a writer.

Tunnel Vision


When we engage in the creative process – if we are lucky or have experienced how to do it – we enter a state of mindful connection with the subject we are photographing or with the situation in which we submerge ourselves into with the intention to photograph. It’s like a breaking point when it happens. Suddenly everything seems to come forward, things happen almost naturally and very brightly. And your own awareness reached a level that almost surprises yourself. You become a participant more than a spectator.

When this happened for me first time, I was studying in New York, and I went down to cover the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown. Suddenly I lost myself in the event. I became one with whatever happened on the street, and my camera became an extension of my senses. In a way it was as if the camera became my seventh sense. My reactions were canalized through the camera – both ways. I literally got so engaged that I lost track of everything but the celebration in the streets – even myself. I was no longer in control of myself, but was lead around by the eventful activities happening all over Chinatown.

The result – photographically speaking – was different than anything else I had done up till then. Despite the fact that I was completely unconscious during the photographic process; the pictures were fully loaded with my soul and at the same time showing the event with a detachment that made them interesting for others, too.

In his The Widening Stream, the photographer, teacher and writer David Ulrich says: «In spite of our conditions to the contrary, we must try to give our full attention in the process. We strive to be present, to stay in touch with the relationship between our inner energies, those arising from our bodies, mind, and feelings, and the work itself. As we begin, it feels flat and lifeless. Something is missing. As we continue and try to bring a quality of attention to both ourselves and the activity at hand, something begins to open, a fluidity emerges, and a deepening connection to the process begins to take place. We enter the flow».

That’s exactly how it felt back then in Chinatown. I started out photographing without any focus, I didn’t get involved and I felt I wasn’t able to make anything with my photographs. I was rather thinking about my own photography – and rather badly so – instead of putting my attention to what was happening around me. I was about to give up. But I still kept shooting. And then suddenly something changed. I entered the flow as Ulrich put or got the groove as a jazz musician would say. I got involved. Instead of focusing on myself, I started to focus outward. I actually started to focus in the moment. It was all now in this very moment. I got a sense of timelessness, a sense of vital energy and a sense of freedom. Everything – life, myself, the event, the universe – felt important.

Again according to Ulrich: «Like the moment in athletics when endorphins are released, entering the stream of creativity vitalizes us with a sharp inner clarity and buoyant feeling for ourselves and our activity. We feel a spacious inner joy, a vibrant inner stream, which as it begins to flow, attract more of the same much like a river slowly widens its course. Yet, to avoid dispersal of these energies, we must contain them, nurture them, and focus them. Again, as in athletics, the great pay-off of entering the zone, the flow, can only take place through energies that are connected in a desired direction».

For me that afternoon in Chinatown was a leaf turner. It changed my way of photographing, brought my soul into the creative process for the first time. And I learned that I could enter the zone, the flow or get the groove when I was photographing – even when I started out feeling disconnected. Still today my intention is the same whenever I go out shooting. Find that breaking point and loose myself. Back then what happened to me felt like being absorbed by a tunnel and spit out three or four hours later, completely wasted, but intensely happy. And that’s always how I have pictured that part of the process. Entering the tunnel. The pictures from the Chinese New Year celebration probably don’t hold up today, but personally I have a special relationship to them. They showed me how to connect with my creative well in the moment of photographing.