Volume 5 • Number 2 • October 2012
Surviving a Creative Impasse
Surviving a Creative Impasse
by Huntington Witherill
Being stalled at a creative impasse is surely one of the most frustrating conditions that any serious photographer is likely to face. Because of the curious and often symbiotic relationship between creativity and productivity, a creative impasse carries with it the potential to bring the entire artistic process to a grinding halt. In the absence of creativity, productivity suffers. In the absence of productivity there is no forward movement. As my mentor, Steve Crouch (who rarely minced words) put it: If you’re not moving forward, you’re just spinning your wheels. Let’s face it; the creative process is definitely not a standstill proposition.
While a creative impasse normally presents only a temporary setback, I’ve seen the condition lead more than a few serious photographers to permanently throw in the towel. It takes genuine passion (and a fair amount of patience and persistence) to work through this particular conundrum. And, it’s a situation that virtually all artists are destined to endure at one time or another.
From my own perspective, I’ve always contended that maintaining unwavering passion for the actual creative pursuit – rather than passion for the results of that pursuit – will serve to insure my eventual release from the perils of stalled creativity. Despite repeated attempts I’ve never been able to intellectualize myself out of this particular prison, nor have I been able to alleviate the impasse by introducing any form of self-imposed constraint to the creative act itself.
In a 2008 blog post titled: "Creating Inside the Box", written by Jim Kasson (who is not only an accomplished photographer and respected colleague, but also a personal friend) Jim wrote: “Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, said in a recent Business Week interview, I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. Replace “innovation” with “creativity”, and “frugality” with darn near any constraint, and you have a truth that has been demonstrated over and over to me. Limitations drive creativity. It seems that the tighter the box, the greater the unleashed creativity. The opposite is also true: when I don’t set limits for myself, I get lazy and take the easy way out, which, by no coincidence, is the way of most photographs...” [edited for clarity. Jim's original post: here.]
Jim seemed to be suggesting that placing some form of self-imposed constraint on the creative process made it easier for him to work through a creative impasse. And, he further reinforced this idea in a more recent post, in 2012, by stating that: “…working with constraints can be a creativity enhancer.” [Original post: here]
Now I don’t doubt that Jim’s prescription actually works for him. However, I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that, under most circumstances, placing any form of constraint on the creative process itself might well be a recipe for disaster.
If I were pressed to apply a catch phrase to help explain some of the intangibles that drive (or even encourage) creativity, rather than suggesting that “limitations drive creativity” I might invoke the old adage: “with freedom comes responsibility.”
Photography (like any other artistic pursuit) is all about decision-making. In performing an act of creativity, a myriad of choices lead to resulting decisions arrived at through careful consideration of any and all possibilities able to be conjured by the imagination. The cumulative effects and consequences of those decisions help to frame and define the overall nature of that creative expression. Does it make any sense to begin the creative process by limiting or constraining the possibilities inherent to one’s imagination?
Perhaps some might feel more at ease with self-imposed limitations because those limitations can help to mitigate the cumulative level of responsibility that one must take for their own decision-making. (Obviously, the more limitations one faces, the narrower the scope of decisions that one is actually able to make, thereby effectively reducing the overall level of responsibility.) In his original blog post, Jim may even have suggested the possibility of this prospect when he stated: “When I don’t set limits for myself, I get lazy and take the easy way out”. Now, I know Jim well enough to know that he is definitely not a lazy person. He is also not the type of person to abdicate responsibility for the decisions he makes. So, what’s going on here?
My take is that if one is able to exercise some self-control (i.e.- take responsibility) and resist the tendency to become lazy, having unlimited freedom at one’s creative disposal is a far more optimal condition for driving creativity than is the act of placing any form of self-imposed limitation and/or constraint on the creative process, itself.
Of course, having unlimited freedom does not necessarily assure expedient and/or meaningful creative success. But, in my view, restricting one’s creative freedom does nothing more than to restrict one’s choices. Once you’ve restricted your choices, you’ve done little more than to handicap the creative process, itself. Again, taking responsibility is the key. Don’t limit yourself. And, don’t be lazy. Enjoy your freedom and exercise it with a sense of responsibility. Choose wisely, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If you do, you’ll find your creativity knows no bounds. Limit yourself, and you’ve done nothing more than to stifle your own creative potential.
In this discussion we might be better served to focus on the differences between creativity, and productivity. Rather than suggesting that limitations drive creativity, I might suggest that limitations may well drive productivity. Introducing self-imposed structure to one’s creative life can sometimes help to foster increased productivity. Brooks Jensen (editor of LensWork) has elaborated on this idea in an excellent 5-part series of podcasts titled: “Structure in the Creative Life” [original podcasts available here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
As I alluded to earlier, creativity and productivity do share a somewhat symbiotic relationship. However, that does not mean that creativity and productivity are strictly synonymous. I’ve always thought of productivity as being more a practical function of the conscious mind. Creativity, on the other hand, seems a far more mercurial pursuit that we often associate with the unconscious mind and those ethereal whispers of our muse. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found my conscious mind to be far easier to manage than my unconscious mind.
Regardless, I’ve found that creativity and productivity both require liberal use of an active imagination. And I’ve also found that problems associated with stalled productivity are often far easier to manage than those of stalled creativity. For example, placing practical limitations on a specific photography project (the photographic “assignment”, if you will) may indeed result in more focused and efficient productivity. And come to think of it I often use the tactic myself when it comes to issues related strictly to productivity. But introducing any form of limitation and/or structural constraint to the creative process itself seems only destined to limit the free exercise of one’s imagination. And, that just doesn’t make much sense, to me.
Will removing any self-imposed creative limitations assure your own release from a creative impasse? Unfortunately, there appears to be no “get out of jail free” card, here. Suffice it to say that whatever it takes for me to move beyond the impasse, that is what I endeavor to do.
As the consummate actor, Chief Dan George, so wryly quipped in the cinematic masterpiece: The Outlaw Josey Wales; “endeavor to persevere”. I endeavor to focus on the process of being a photographer rather than focusing on the results of being a photographer. And in so doing, I’ve happily discovered that the occasional creative slump has now become a far less intimidating, frustrating, and worrisome challenge than it used to be.