Beating the Block: Taming the Muse

As I alluded to in yesterday’s post, muses are fickle creatures, coming and going more or less on their own schedule. If you wait around for inspiration to strike, you could end up waiting a very long time, which is bad enough. What can be just as difficult is when your muse just won’t shut up. I know that for a creative type, that sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s not always. So how do we deal with these cycles of feast and famine?

As I’d also mentioned yesterday, one way of getting around the famine that is a creative block is by simply, stubbornly, plowing through it. That works surprisingly well some of the time. At other times, however, you’ll need or want a bit more structure than you’d get by just “winging it.” When that happens, it helps to have a little something saved up, as it were.

I say this because in my own experience (your mileage may vary), ideas don’t often come one at a time. They come in clusters, or clumps, and sometimes they take on a life of their own, with some ideas spawning other ideas that lead to still more ideas… Before you know it, there are actually too many ideas, too much stuff for one person to do in a day, or week, or even year. Even when we’re working at full capacity, other things (work, food, water, sleep, social activity) have to be taken into account sooner or later.

And if you have a good idea, or even just one that’s got potential, why let it go to waste? If you can’t get to it now, save it for later:

  • Write it all down. If you do nothing else on this list, at least do this. If you’ve got just the bare bones of something — a title, an overarching concept — get that on paper, but if your mind takes you farther than that, follow it, and jot those thoughts down as well. You may not need these ideas now, but if you hit a dry spell later, this can be one of the things that gets you out of it.
  • Prioritize the list. Your ideas, mine, or anyone else’s, aren’t all good, and even the good ones aren’t equally good. It will be easy to picture some things as completed projects or fully realized ideas, while others may be only half-baked or might only be the vaguest starting point. Depending on what you need, or what you’ve got the time for, go to that part of the list.
  • Revisit your list from time to time. Some things that seem blindingly obvious to you when you first think of them may not hold up quite as well given a month on the shelf. Others may have barely made sense when you wrote them down (you did write them down, didn’t you?) but might make more sense now that your subconscious has had the chance to mull them over for a bit.

And by the way, if you have ideas that have nothing to do with what you’re doing now, write them down anyway. The reason I bring this up (and actually, the genesis of this post) is that over a period of about a week some time ago, I got ideas by the dozen for several different visual projects. This was before I’d ever picked up a camera, but I wrote every last one of them down. Hey, you never know when you might change directions or want to try something new; you also never know when you might come across a collaborator (or a friend who’s blocked), and you might find that you’ve already got the seeds of something, just waiting to be planted.

Do you have any proven “cures” for the dreaded block? Let’s hear ’em!

Rule 39: Beat the Block

Lend me your -- Wait a Minute, Get Back Here!

As a writer and as a photographer, I’ve experienced dry spells (the dreaded writer’s/artist’s block). I don’t mean a few minutes spent staring at a blank (or sometimes even partially-filled) page or into a viewfinder waiting for the right subject. In fact, maybe “block” is a bit too coy. That makes it sound like a speed bump or a DUI checkpoint, instead of a friggin’ wall in your path, something that seems too high to go over, too low to get under, and too big to get around. I’m talking anywhere from a couple of weeks to even a couple of years at a time of having any and all creative sense feel like it’s left you. And that, let’s be blunt, is one shitty feeling when who you are is tied up in or even just informed by what you create. It’s like a part of you has gone missing and left no forwarding address. Your Muse, that fickle and capricious being, has headed for parts unknown and didn’t even invite you along for the ride. How insulting!

At that point, you’ve got two choices; wait it out, or attack it head-on.  Every so often someone, usually trying their level best to be helpful, will tell you that it will “pass.” Well, yes, it does, and will. But if you’re of a certain frame of mind — impatient, wanting to create but finding yourself frozen in place — waiting may not seem like (or, if you’re on a deadline, may well not be) an option.

What to do, then? Whatever it is that you’d normally do (writing, photography, pottery, balloon animals), keep on doing it. But we’re going to add a little twist: before you begin, you have to do one very important thing. You have to give yourself permission to be mediocre, or even terrible. Switch off your usual critical voice. Forget your technique, screw the rules, say to hell with even your craft. Your only mission, for one day or one hundred or however long it takes, is to “fake it ’til you make it.”

And when I say to ditch all your usual methods of working, I mean it. Put it — all of it — aside. Change up the times at which you work, your usual subject matter, your usual judgments and preferences and gear.* You only shoot landscapes in medium format at sunset? Not now you don’t. Remember, doing your “usual” was what got you into this rut in the first place. Shoot cars at high noon with your camera phone. Shoot cat pictures on your lunch hour with disposable cameras from the drugstore down the street. Take snapshots — yes, snapshots — of clouds or hot dog vendors or that lady at the greeting card store who looks like maybe she does whippets on the store’s helium tank. Take anything you want except landscapes with your medium format at your appointed time, until you have a very clear idea in your head of what you want — maybe even need — to shoot.

So. Wait it out, or attack it head-on? I’ve tried it both ways, and I can tell you from experience, I will not wait again, nor do I suggest that you wait. The facepalm-inducing feeling you get when the block finally lifts (or when you finally figure out how to lift it yourself) and you realize all that you could’ve been doing, could have been creating, in that lost time just ain’t worth it.

From time to time, I’ll be sharing some tips and strategies that have worked for me in getting past my own blocks (in fact, I’ll be sharing a personal favorite tomorrow), and I’d appreciate if you’d share yours too.

*This also applies to any non-photographers/writers who might’ve wandered here accidentally, by the way.