Death by a Thousand Colors

Wandering the grounds of Edith Wharton's estate, a writer friend and I became involved in a discussion of creative blocks—the motivations of both writers and photographers to create, how they differed, the similarities, and the differing approaches to overcoming  impediments to the creative impulse.

A woman walks the grounds of The Mount.

At the root of it all, "writer's block" is the inability to produce. The spark of creativity is not something within conscious control, and the loss of that spark is a painful experience for any creative person. The desire to make something is there, but the "what" is gone, and seemingly unretrievable. It's minimally frustrating, and at its worse can lead to madness. 

Writers live in a different world of creative production than photographers. Writing projects tend to be long, many-stepped affairs, which are often outlined and diagrammed and table-of-contensed. The writer has control of the project because the story is within the writer's mind. 

In contrast, even when a photographer is working on a large project the events which present themselves as opportunities for images may or may not work out for reasons beyond the photographer's control: the light could be off, the action might not fit the concept, or there just may be nothing interesting to see. These are blocks to creative production, but the blocks are external. For the photographer, the solution is to keep moving and look for a better situation, a better angle, better light. 

Where photographers experience something more similar to writer's block is when the ability to observe suffers. Sometimes there are too many distractions, or stresses, or the consciousness is too absorbed to allow the mind to see well (like when one is having a conversation about creative blocks). Then, it matters little what the event is or where the scene takes place—if the mind can't see, then images don't get made.

It's frustrating to experience any kind of creative block, but the answer is often the same: to shock the mind back into action. Which led to the question I asked my writer friend: "How much would you pay to get rid of writer's block? $100? $1,000?" When the mind has gotten stuck, it's a fair bet that a person would pay quite a lot in whatever form to be able to move forward again.

Which takes us back to why it's called "writer's block" instead of "photographer's block." Photographers are always looking at new situations and unfolding action, which does a fair job of preventing the common form of the block in the first place. It's harder as a photographer to get bogged down in a concept or a particular idea, because things will change if you merely wait, and that change will help clarify the thought. Changing events are the photographer's visual friend, and those changes also spark new ideas.

However, photographers can fall into creative ruts like writers do when the motivation to observe wans. Creative lows are often the result of boredom--shooting the same thing too many times makes it difficult to see anything at all. (This is why you'll often see more pictures from a vacation than from home life: familiarity breeds blindness.)

Keeping a high level of creativity going means constantly allowing new situations and new perspectives to enter the mind. Some of those we choose, and some of those are foisted upon us. In either event, taking a positive perspective can keep the creative impulses firing. That's true even if some of those situations end up costing you $1,000.

So it was after a recent studio session, when I started to import the images from the Canon 20D into Lightroom. Rather than be greeted with the thumbnails of RAW images, I was instead treated to a version of the Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Everything breaks. Everything fails. Given enough time, even mountains crumble. And so, too, did the Canon 20D succumb to time, in a way that is part of the mysteries of electronics that only HAL could hope to explain.

But in keeping with my thesis that the way to avoid creative blocks sometimes costs a fair bit of money, I've embraced the change and upgraded to a 70D. A few new functions, buttons in new places, a different approach to operating the machine—all these things disrupt the consciousness, compelling me to look a different way. Maybe I've suffered the effects of planned obsolescence. Or maybe I've preempted a creative block. Considering I've got no options, it just seems simpler to go with the most optimistic interpretation.

So as we wind down another calendar year, remember that to prevent those nasty creative blocks, you just have to embrace the change. 

Even when it's imposed.