Finding Opportunity in Creative Ruts

The Dreaded Rut.

We all experience it. (...if you don’t, I consider you not a human and I need to know your secret. Seriously.) 

It's probably one of my most frequently asked questions: Do I ever hit a creative wall with my photography? Um, yes. Of course.  More than you know.

Sometimes it only lasts a few days… Sometimes it's much longer and more intense. I tend to experience a 2-3 month hiatus in my work every year, usually during the late winter to early spring months. I suppose it makes sense in a way, when everything’s dark, cold and rainy for days on end (in Vancouver at least), and my mood adapts with uncanny similarity to the weather. Or maybe I just use the weather as an excuse to not feel bad about laying on the couch and eating chocolate all day.  Either way, among many other things, those drearier months can certainly affect my willingness to get outside and create.  But that being said, every time I have pushed myself to get out there and create (even if the photos didn't turn out as I had hoped), in all honesty I’ve never regretted trying – not once. I have to remind myself of this often.  Sometimes pushing one's self to get out there and create is enough to ignite the inspiration again.  

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And sometimes, it's not that simple.  When I can't seem to force my way through and out of a creative rut, I tend to take a step back and look at it differently… I've recently discovered that creative blocks can be a strange gift in a hidden form. Lately when my yearly photography hiatus hits, I’ve taken to accepting it as a time to step back and reflect on life not through a camera lens. Sometimes this means slowing down and taking time to re-evaluate what’s important. More often for me it means trying something entirely new, maybe outside of my comfort zone, to bring a new perspective to life.  A couple years ago when I got stuck in the rut, I left all my camera gear behind and went on a solo 900km walk across Spain with just a sleeping bag and toothbrush. I didn't know what I was doing or what I was in for, but it ended up being an experience where I felt more present in every moment than I ever have in my life before, and I came back refreshed and inspired, with a mind absolutely reeling and ready to pour back into creative activity again.

And then I got stuck in the rut again, last year. This time though, I couldn't seem to shake myself out of it no matter what I did.  I continued shooting for clients, getting out for refreshing adventures, spending solid time with friends and family. But I still couldn't find the will to do any of my personal creative work, and this stretched on for almost 10 months... for me, that's a very very long time.  And although I can't pin it on any particular reason, I know there were a few cycling thought processes that surely contributed to my lack of motivation:

The comparison game:  As silly as it sounds, I often get nervous that my work isn't good enough. Not beautiful enough. Not epic enough.  I am easily prone to falling into the comparison trap of social media, scrolling endlessly through other people's life highlight reels. Lately, instead of taking away inspiration from social media, I find I am just feeding the side of me that wants to be more like everyone else and less like myself. Not an ideal mindset to have. 

And then, there's the If Onlys: a series of pointless/poisonous thoughts that bring myself down about what I don't have instead of being grateful for what I already do have.  If only I had a vehicle to get to more cool places. If only I had more money to get a vehicle. If only I wasn't so self conscious. If only I was better at reaching out to people/companies. If only I could do this or have that, I would be more motivated again.  Every year I have to remind myself that these thoughts won't get me anywhere.  Gratitude, and still working within these situations, is key.


I did finally climb back out of that latest rut in September of last year. I spent so long waiting for a reason to snap back into creativity, but in the end, my creative mindset was slowly rekindled simply by hearing one sentence from someone - The words of which I must have subconsciously known all along, but never fully registered until they were spoken out loud to me: “Just put it in your work.”

Those words hit me hard. And yet, it was so obvious. I had my reason all along, my reason to snap back into creating: The reason is me – the root of my own creativity.  I am here, my thoughts, my emotions, excitement, sadness, guilt, peace, all of it. It’s very real, it’s very me. Yet here I often am, laying defeated in the rut and wondering why I can’t summon the energy to work harder, be better and continually create epic mind-blowing images... And now I realize, perhaps being stuck in the rut gives us the opportunity to find value in the reality of where we're at.  I could be creating something just as important and powerful as anything else by being real with myself, by gently pouring my current feelings into my work, however that might look.  This kind of work doesn’t have to be amazing. It doesn’t have to have thousands of views and likes and comments. It doesn’t even have to be shown to anyone else. This is our art, perhaps in its truest form. Just me, just us - a glimpse into our souls, plain and simple and extravagant as they are. 

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To this day I’m still learning how to deal with creative ruts. Do I push myself and keep trying to create anyway, forcing the spark to return but maybe also risk further burning out?  Or do I step back and find a different perspective, take a break and try something new?  Or… do I acknowledge the lower feelings of being “stuck”, embracing them and perhaps creating something personal within them?  I don’t know for sure, and I think I'm realizing there is no wrong answer. But I am realizing a creative rut doesn’t have to be rut – It’s an opportunity. 

What will you do with it?

 

*Article originally written for OFFBEAT community