photography, The Creative Life, Vacations

How I Keep My Creative Mojo Going

Currently, I’m in the middle of reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (aff link), and even though it’s not quite as life-changing (for me, anyway) as every reviewer has seemingly made it out to be, it’s still given me some good things to think about.

For starters, now that I’m over halfway through with the book, I’ve finally come to an important realization:

I am a creative person.


This probably shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, but I’d always hesitated to put “creative” together with my own name because there are so many artistic things in which I am most definitely NOT endowed with any measure of talent, drive, or motivation (like sewing, almost any DIY project, crafts of any kind, most kinds of artwork…).

But as I’ve been going through and reading about Gilbert’s creative process and how she’s realized certain cycles she goes through during that process, I’ve found myself unconsciously nodding along and thinking, “Huh! So THAT’S what I’ve been doing—I’ve been going through the creative process! I’m not totally crazy!”

Take my photography, for example—

I will often vacillate between extreme pleasure over having gotten a shot I’m proud of or having learned a new skill in Lightroom, to extreme frustration/depression/anxiety over shots where the lighting didn’t turn out well or pictures where my editing was slightly off (and I don’t want to go back and fix it since I’ve already published it to my social media or the blog) or the lack of positive feedback from anyone (especially the subjects themselves of the pictures), which must mean I have absolutely no talent whatsoever…

Well, after reading over half of this book, I have now concluded that apparently all of that crazy up-and-down stuff is NORMAL.

Who knew?

(This revelation reminds me of the time that I first heard the theory that when running, you will hit certain “walls” at certain points in your workout and once you’ve forced yourself to push past them for a certain distance, those “walls” disappear. This was revelatory to me because I always figured I’d just pushed to my limit and that was that—I never dreamed that if I just was willing to push through the fatigue and boredom or whatever, that things would totally change around. Once I figured that out, longer distances ceased to scare me like they used to because I realized I just needed to keep on pushing through the walls when they came up.)

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned a few times lately, my creative mojo has been flowing much more freely this summer due to my having more time and energy, but I’ve still had my moments (oh, so many moments) of self-doubt, of feeling stuck in a rut, or of just being uninspired in general.

When that happens, these are some of my go-to things for getting that creative energy going again:

1. Travel somewhere–anywhere–where you’ve never been before (or at least to where you don’t go very frequently).

New places and experiences are a feast for the senses and for the brain, and an adventurous vacation can create fodder for many a creative project to come. Also, as a bonus, when you finally do return to reality, it’s almost like you’re seeing everything in your life with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, and that can be creatively stimulating in its own right.

2. Take a page out of the kids’ playbook.

Next time you’re around kids, take some time to observe them at play, and you’ll notice that creativity comes naturally to kids (which means that all of us have that spark of creativity in us, but that it might just have been in hibernation awhile). If something doesn’t work, kids try out something else. If they come across something new, they’ll study it and manipulate it and try it out in lots of different ways to see how they best like it. And finally, kids don’t take their play too seriously. Sure, sometimes they might get frustrated or upset over something, but they don’t wallow in that–they just keep on creating and trying things out and enjoying the here and now.

So, when I’m feeling stressed out because I’m not The Most Amazing Creative Person Ever or when whatever I’m currently working on isn’t matching the vision I have for it in my head, I try and bring some fun and some silliness and some low-stakes play back into the situation. (And–bonus!–this often helps me to grow a ton in my work, even though that wasn’t my intent.)

3. Appreciate the creativity of others.

Sometimes it can feel like if someone else is good at whatever it is you’re trying to be good at, then there’s no hope for you to be good at that thing, too. When I’ve gotten to that point, I know it’s definitely time to take a step back and reassess my thinking patterns because a mindset that tells you that there’s a limited amount of talent or success in the world is simply flawed.

So if I’m starting to compare my work to others and am feeling negative about my sliver of the pie in general, I remind myself that there’s really no pie involved anyway and that only those who are humble enough to realize they don’t know everything can really learn. And then I let myself study the work of others, marveling at how differently we might approach the same subject, or I try and really dissect a photo that I particularly like and try to figure out how it was captured.

About half of the photos in this post were taken by my husband, and it never ceases to amaze me how we approach the same subject matter in completely different ways, and how his photos continually surprise and delight me.

4. Take a walk out in nature.

I’ve heard it said before that Charles Dickens, after writing for several hours, would take long–and I mean LONG–walks that would sometimes last all night. I’ve heard that 20- or 30-mile walks were a regular occurrence for him, and that he once said that if he couldn’t walk, he would “explode and perish.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all take up walking twenty miles a day, but I absolutely know for certain that when I’m feeling uninspired or anxious about my work or overly self-critical, a long walk outside often seems just the ticket to get me relaxed and motivated again.

5. Take a break.

Sometimes when you’re so burned out from constantly working on the same project, the best thing to do is to just take a break from it all. Sure, there are times to push through (see note above on the idea of running through the “walls”), but there are also times to just give it up for a little while and let yourself read a book or go out with a friend or take a nap or throw yourself into washing all that dirty laundry.

The key is to know yourself well enough to realize when a break is the prudent thing to do rather than simply a way to procrastinate the hard work of creating.

6. Try something new, especially something that scares you a bit.

Growth rarely happens in our comfort zone, so find ways to try out something totally new. If you’ve always just taken pictures of yourself or your close family, offer to do a family shoot for free for someone or see how you like doing landscapes. If you’re a pretty decent cook but baking scares you, try making a simple pie or tart this weekend rather than just sticking with what you’ve made before. If you’re used to doing sketches in pencil, try using charcoal or chalk or pastels next time. In other words, give yourself permission to try out something totally foreign and not be any good at it at all. If you go into it without pressure, you’re more likely to relax enough to learn the most you can AND enjoy yourself in the process.

7. Relax!

In Big Magic, Gilbert says this about the central paradox of creating:

“The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: ‘My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).'”

She goes on to say that as a creative person, you will go between the two extremes frequently, and that you must become completely comfortable with those two contradictory concepts.

I totally agree.

So, when you’re trending towards the side of the paradox that is caring *too* much about your work, then it’s time to relax and get yourself comfortable with the other side, which is that your work mustn’t matter at all.

In the end, the creative process goes through highs and lows, and no one can be “on” all the time. But I know that for me personally, many of my creative ruts are self-inflicted, which means that in many cases, I can get myself out of them.

And that was a pretty significant thing for me to realize.

How do you keep your creative mojo going?

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