Creative Routines

If you want to stand out as photographer (as any artist, as a matter of fact), you need to put in the work. Simply put; it takes a lot of work to excel. Often enough I have written about the necessity to work hard. However, almost as important is developing good habits.

As Twyla Tharp, the dancer and one of America’s greatest choreographers, concludes in her book The Creative Habit: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.” Tharp wakes up every morning at five-thirty and takes a cab to the gym—a trite ritual but, as she writes, “a lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they begin their creative day.”

Most renowned artists have and continue to develop good habits for the creative work. Frédéric Chopin played Bach preludes and fugues. Beethoven took a walk with a sketchpad to jump-start his mind and jot down rough notes. Novelty in creative endeavours usually arises from routine—you have to be familiar with something before you know what is novel.

In his book The Accidental Masterpiece, Michael Kimmelman writes about the artist Philip Pearlstein—as one of many artists he highlights in the book. Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, followed Pearlstein’s process when creating one of his paintings and in so doing, observe the routine of his life. Pearlstein’s paintings are unusual and provocative. He paints in a style that has become recognizable his own. As to his work routine, though, he does essentially what most of us do whether we are in an office or teach in a school or we drive a truck or we raise children at home: he follows pretty much the same schedule, day in and day out, trying to make something constructive of it. Contrary to the myth that artists are eccentrics, leaping from one peak of inspiration to another, Pearlstein exemplifies the greater truth that most artists live as they work, incrementally, day by day, in the same way that they build up a canvas or chisel a sculpture. According to Micheal Kimmelman.

Kimmelman also refers to the artist Chuck Close who makes prints out of small, nearly identical dots. Close’s work is painstaking, repetitious, and methodical. As he says to Kimmelman: “My favourite analogy is a brick building. Stacked up one way the bricks make a cathedral, another way they become a gas station. Having a routine is what keeps me from going crazy. It’s calming. My working methods are almost Zen-like, like raking gravel in a monastery.”

Daily routines are also essential for Julia Cameron. She has inspired plentiful of artists and artists in coming by her book The Artist’s Way. The book describes a program for how to open up the creative self and become more in touch with one’s muses. An essential part of her program is what Cameron calls The Morning Pages. As the first think every morning, you sit down and basically empty you mind onto three pages of handwritten notes. The routine will help your artistic development and spur the creative drive.

Good habits create space for creativity. It frees up your mind and inspiration, when you otherwise might get bugged down by the mere thought of what could end up becoming insurmountable chores. Again, to quote Twyla Tharp: “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing.”

One way of developing good habits for a photographer is doing what the photographer and teacher David Ulrich calls Your Daily Record. In many ways it’s similar to Cameron’s Morning Pages, except instead of writing it encompasses photography. Ulrich describes Your Daily Record in his book Zen Camera (which I reviewed in my post Zen Camera).

The baseline for Your Daily Record is acknowledging that it’s imperative to photograph regularly and frequently if you want to strengthen seeing, improve your ability to discover potential subjects and become a better photographer. You need to develop photographic habits. Your Daily Record is similar to a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions—like Morning Pages. You let go of conscious thoughts on how you ought to photograph and let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. Ideally, you dedicate time for daily shooting. It doesn’t have to be time solely for shooting; use off time if you have a change. Shoot while you go for your daily walk, or shoot while commuting with bus or train, or during your lunch break. Now just see and record what you see with you camera (or cell phone). Don’t worry or think about making good photos. These are only sketches. Take photos of everything you see and that strikes you enough to make you become aware of it. Photograph anything and everything that ignites any kind of response or resonates with you. Just captured images without thoughts and any worries about composition, light or technique.

Reviewing the images is just an important part of Your Daily Record as the shooting itself. This is how David Ulrich describes this second part of the process: “Organize your photos and view them daily. You can do this at night or odd times throughout the day when you have a free moment. You want to look for recurring themes and core forms or shapes that appear and reappear. Study how you use colour and form, and your magnetic attraction or revulsion to certain subject matter. Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.”

I try to shoot and follow the guidelines by Ulrich on a daily basis, although I don’t always manage to set aside time for Your Daily Record. Nevertheless, I notice how it has sharpened my awareness and even increased my effectiveness when I photograph an assignment. I am quickly able to get in flow. The photo following this post was shot one morning some time ago during a walk while shooting Your Daily Record.

For the record, Holly who writes the blog House of Heart, recommended The Accidental Masterpiece to me. She creates beautiful poetry. I suggest visiting her blog.

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Good Habits

Sometimes being creative is extremely demanding. Sometimes I have to push myself to get going, whether I am writing a text, photographing, doing post-production, making a blog post like this or something quite different. Sometimes it’s hurting almost physically to try to be creative.

There is no easy way around the fact. However, good habits can help. As Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, concludes in her book The Creative Habit: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.”

These last couple of weeks, I have been making good habits for myself. I don’t say so to brag, but maybe it can be an inspiration for others who might feel overwhelmed by the demands of being creative—or trying to be.

I usually work a lot, but can also be good at procrastinating, particularly chores I would rather not do. As strange as it may sound, creative tasks might sometimes belong to that category, at least until I get started. The point is simply to get started, at least for me. For instance, I find writing more demanding than anything else I do. I love to write, but I hate to write, too. Or; I love to photograph on the streets, but it scares the shit out me, too. It’s all a big contradiction, but isn’t that what creativity often feels like?

Good habits have saved me from complete disaster this last month. I have been buried in plenty of work, which generally is good for a freelancer if you want to survive. But can also cut you short of drowning. My weeks have been juggling between making interviews, photographing for the same articles or some other assignments, writing the texts and editing the photos. It’s been hard not falling behind with the work.

My way to dealing with the load of work, has been to organize good habits for myself. When I have gotten up in the mornings, I start the day with reading the day’s newspapers. As a journalist, I need to know what is going on, so it’s part of the job. When done with the papers, I went to my desk and started to write whatever article I had in the working. There was no way around it. Every day, writing would be the first thing I did. Part of it this, is the fact I pointed to already; that writing is such a demanding process for me. By getting going with writing as the first thing each day—and not allowing myself any excuses doing anything else—I would be working much more efficiently than otherwise. My habitual schedule would be to write up until lunch. From there on, I would organize interviews or photo shoots if needed and/or processing images. Finally, at the end of the workday I would do the odd jobs, like sales taxes, answering emails or other office work.

The key for me has been getting started with the writing and forcing myself to write no matter what. And, yes, some days I felt empty and not able to write anything inspiring. I would still write however boring it would come out, accepting that it would have to be edited at a later stage. As I noticed I was able to keep up with the work, it inspired me to keep going on like this. I think I have been more efficient than I often am. I usually work long hours, starting the day at 7.80 am and not ending work before 7 pm. (It must be noted that included in this time frame, is reading the papers as well as physical training, as I see the latter as equally important as my work and thus need to make sure I create room for it).

Nevertheless, there it’s still plenty of time for work. That has sometimes been part of the problem. In the morning, I might think there is no hurry since the day is still long in coming, so I find ways to postpone what I don’t want to do and end up wasting time. And suddenly the day is gone.

With good habits, I keep pushing and don’t allow myself much breaks before the work is done. Instead, I might end the day earlier and have a longer evening off for pleasures or doings not related to work. It’s really been exciting when I notice I have been able to keep up with all the work needed to be done. Before this last weekend, I was completely adjourned with all work up until then, and for the first time in very long, I could take the weekend off with a clean conscious—despite the workload hanging over me three weeks earlier. Usually, there is always something I could do or ought to do in the weekends, but this time there was nothing to do at all. This weekend I felt light and keyed up realizing I could do nothing if I so wanted. Even if I didn’t, just knowing made me thrilled.

Good habits create space for creativity. It frees up your mind and inspiration, when you otherwise might get bugged down by the mere thought of what could end up becoming insurmountable chores. Again, to quote Twyla Tharp: “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing.”