Turning Around Your Creative Jealousy

Yay! You’re doing something creative.

We can all probably remember the moment when we first realized that we could create cool stuff. That moment when we looked at or listened to something we’d made from scratch and not only were we not disappointed by what we created, not only were other people impressed by what we created, but we actually liked the work we’d done. And – perhaps most importantly – we wanted to do it again. Whether what we created was a painting, a photo, a song, a lyric, a stanza, or the opening line to the book we’ve been meaning to start, creating something from nothing, something that wouldn’t exist if we ourselves hadn’t created it, something that other people respond to, is, let’s face it, a really, really cool thing.

Celebrate the Small Successes!

As we begin and continue along our creative journey, we may take notice that the more time and effort we put into our work, the better we’re able to bring our vision to reality and as such, we may eventually begin to share the work we’ve done with a small group or friends and family members. From that point, if the response is welcoming, we may begin to share our work with more and more people, putting it up on the myriad social media platforms where if the response continues to be welcoming,

Wait a second! People are doing things and doing them better than me!?

I remember the moment it happened. I had been posting some of my photography online for about a year and was feeling pretty good about myself and my work. Within my relatively small market, I was quite happy that my work was being compared to some of the local artists that I’d looked up to when I first picked up a camera. It was, to be honest, a pretty satisfying feeling. And admittedly, I reveled in it.

Sometime later that year, feeling somewhat creatively blocked, I began researching artists outside of my market. Sure, I’d briefly heard the names before, and I’m sure I’d seen their work once or twice, but I never really put too much thought or time into it. People were doing great things outside of my area, of course they were. But it wasn’t until I looked – really looked – at what was going on outside of my market did the full effect hit me. And the impact was immediate. Within seconds of browsing, I both blow away and humbled (and quite a bit embarrassed), by what I found. The work, their work, everyone’s work, was incredible. It wasn’t just what I thought I’d like to shoot, it was exactly how and what I wanted to shoot. And I will admit, I wasn’t inspired, I wasn’t’ motivated, I didn’t go and woodshed some new techniques. Instead, I shut down the computer, gave my camera a look of disgust, and locked up my Facebook albums. In short, the creative jealousy was I felt was paralyzing.

Ah yes, the rage quit.

Quick! What makes you unique? 

I didn’t actually quit, but the next year or so was a blur. Whether it was a conscious decision or not I can’t say, but after my initial rage quit, I went through a period where I attempted to copy every style that I came across. And sure, in the process, I developed my own style, got some good photos, met some amazing people, and traveled around a bit. But looking back at the work I produced, it’s easy to see that although it was my work, I was essentially shooting my interpretation of someone else’s vision. The good feeling I had about my work was replaced by a shallow, empty feeling, as though I’d taken a birthday present someone had given me and simply sold it off. I felt bad about myself and my work and I realized it was time for a change.

I  decided that it was time to shed the creative jealousy, take a step back, and think about what makes me unique. What do I bring to the table? What aspects of my life and my personality show up in my work? What are my influences and what are my hopes? What did I want to do? What did I want to be? I didn’t actually expect to have answers to these questions, but one thing I knew was that what I wanted to be, was happy with my creative output.

And I wasn’t.

Off to the woodshed I went.

No really, what makes you unique..

I’m not suggesting that my experience should be used as a lesson for anyone, or that you should or shouldn’t be happy with your own creative output. Some people find themselves very happy and/or in very lucrative careers copying the work of others. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for me, holding myself to the standard of others and constantly comparing myself to them was, as it turned out, detrimental to not only my creative well-being, but to my overall health  as well. In shedding my creative jealousy and focusing on my own artistry, I found that I was able to work with a much clearer head knowing that what I was creating was mine and what they were creating was theirs. Are there some aspects of my work that are influenced by the work of others? Absolutely. Will it show in my work? Of course. Art, regardless of the medium, cannot exist in a vacuum.

The creative journey is truly an amazing thing.  As humans, we allow the world to seep into our subconscious, to influence us, and to shape who we are. As creatives, we take that influence, allow it to spark  something inside us and, if we’re lucky, see that vision through to it’s physical realization. It is truly a wondrous thing. I’m not one for hyperbole, but would it be too much to suggest that in this sea of over seven billion people filled with follows, likes, tweets and retweets, that perhaps the last stronghold of our individuality is to look upon what we’ve done and with a mix of childish wonder and pride and say, “I made this.”

On the Importance of Dabbling…

“I mean, it’s not like I started out wanting to be a photographer.. it just sort of…clicked”

If we’ve ever spoken about photography, you’ve probably heard me say those words. And, bad pun aside, it’s the literal (and figurative) truth. I never wanted to be a photographer. Instead, I wanted to be (in chronological order), Luke Skywalker*, Luke Duke, The Bandit, Don Mattingly, Shell Silverstein, Kelly Slater, Bruce Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Kerouac, Hemingway, Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Matisse, Pollack, and then finally, when photography entered my life, there were more than a few photographers whose respective bodies of work I wouldn’t have minded copying and calling my own.

Still wouldn’t.

Finding a new hobby is like falling it love. It starts small with, “Oh, I liiiike that, maybe I should try…” or “so-and-so has been putting out some great work, I wonder what will happen if I…” And we try. Slowly at first. And perhaps we give it our best. Investing time and money and sacrificing friendships and relationships, and perhaps it works for us. Perhaps we fall hopelessly in love. Perhaps we find our calling, and perhaps our work is well-received and loved the world over.

Perhaps.

Or, perhaps, which is more likely the case, we are limited in our time and are only able to pursue it for brief moments, trying it here and there, in our free time, on weekends and holidays and/or when the significant other allows. Maybe growing resentful for the fact that it’s not working for us and eventually losing interest and moving on to something else.

And while the decision to start a new hobby or pursuit is usually a conscious one, the decision to stop and move onto something else is almost always an unconscious one. Suddenly one day’s layer of dust becomes two, becomes five, becomes a month, becomes a year and then we pick up something else and the process starts all over again and then, hello Craigslist.

In short, we dabble.

Looking back, with our current infatuation and/or obsession in hand, we painfully remember (or are obnoxiously reminded) that for each of those above-mentioned attempts there was the associated cost, whether it had been in time, money, relationships, sleep, work, life, etc. there was something to be paid, something of value that had to be given up. And in seeing these and looking at these as failures, it’s easy to see why anyone would be hesitant to start up something new – or why a significant other may think twice before willfully encouraging or supporting a new endeavor.

But in all this loss, isn’t there anything to be gained?

Absolutely. In dabbling, we expose ourselves to every possible outcome. We open ourselves up to the possibility that our hobby might become an obsession, might become a vocation, might become a career and/or the fulfillment we receive might be enough to make it through another week. Remember the excitement when you unboxed that new camera? Or bought home that new set of brushes or paints? Or scooped up a grounder with the new glove? The possibilities on what you might create or what you might become were endless. Tools in hand, you were standing at the beginning of a most excellent journey that could have, quite literally, taken you anywhere.

Everywhere. I mean, it could have taken you everywhere.

And that’s the beauty of dabbling. We never know who what where or when our hobby is going to click for us – when it’s going to go from singing quietly into a tape recorder in our darkened bedroom, to playing for crowds, from hanging paintings on mom’s fridge to hanging them in galleries, from shooting our friends and family to shooting next month’s cover. We keep trying new things because we never know. Sure, someone could try to argue that obsession and “for the love of the game” is good, but that it’s raw talent that takes you from hobbyist to working professional, there is just as much truth about how far our we can go based on our motivation, our love of what we do, what and how much we’re willing to sacrifice, and most importantly the unwavering support of those around us.

Rudy…Rudy…Rudy!

It’s not that we shouldn’t continue to try new things because we’re only going to eventually give them up, it’s that we should continue to try new things because one of them might work, one of them might click, one of them just might actually happen to change your life.

But we’ll never know unless…

Thanks for reading

– John

*I now openly admit that Han Solo was so much cooler than Luke Skywalker.

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Giving away your secrets is the best thing you can do (no, really)

“Give it away, give it away, give it away now..”

About a year ago, over dinner somewhere, I listened to a conversation between two friends of mine. My first friend was jokingly chastising the second friend for showing a younger, less-experienced  photographer how he had edited a set of photos. “Why would you  tell someone how you edit your work?” he said. “That’s giving away your bag of tricks!” The younger friend seemed taken aback for a moment, as if he’d never considered what he was  doing to be such an offense. “I never thought about that,” he said. “I was just helping someone out..” The conversation carried on for a few more minutes and he, the second friend, ultimately agreed he shouldn’t be giving away and/or sharing his secrets, especially in a industry which relies so heavily on one’s own creativity.

As I drove home that night, I thought about our conversation. And to be honest, something didn’t sit quite right. Later, I found myself looking through some of my own old photography albums. Focus, tone, and composition issues aside, what I immediately saw was that while I was coming up, someone else (of lot of someone else’s for that matter) had shown me their secrets. I continued to look at my work and noticed, with no small sense of pride, how it grew and changed and evolved over the last several years.

As I sat back and pondered about what posterity would eventually name the separate periods of my work, I realized that I’d lost touch with a few of the photographers who had shared with me along the way. And looking back, I began to wonder how closely my work had come to matching their work. Did I get it? Did I come close? Was my work a copy and/or an obvious derivative of their work (which I would have very happily accepted back then), or did I take what they’d  shown me, add in my own flavor, and produce something entirely my own?

A quick Internet check showed me that not only was our work very dissimilar, but the work they were putting out now wasn’t even close to what they had been doing back when we were in contact. And thankfully, neither was mine.

As artists, we’d grown, changed, and our work had taken exciting new paths. We were still the same people, but our interpretation of the world and how we reflected it had changed.

So, fast forward to a  few months ago and we find ourselves again at the same table. I mentioned to my friends that a younger, less-experienced photographer had messaged me and told me that he really loved a couple of the photos I’d recently posted and asked me what my process was for shooting, retouching, and toning a few specific photos. I explained that not only did I show him what I’d done, but I offered to give him a couple of the presets I’d created, free of charge.

My friend’s jaw dropped.  I went on to explain that by giving away what I knew, I was purposely emptying my current ‘bag of tricks’ which I would would then have to refill with newer, more elaborate tricks. Imagine if every magician always did the same set of tricks? It’d quickly become a dying art, no? Better yet, imagine having a bag of apples and feeding a few people; when the bag is empty and everyone is fed, you don’t give up, find a riverbank and wait for a slow death. No. You start looking for something new to eat, be it apples or be it a hamburger with a side of sweet potato fries.

Sweet potato fries…

The thing of it is, there really are no secrets and there aren’t any tricks. This is not the ethereal world and we’re not wizards (sorry). We each use what we know and have available to us at the time. And when our style and our tastes change, we move on to something new. What we’re giving away aren’t secrets and tricks, they’re just shortcuts we’ve learned, mostly likely from someone else and tweaked to make our own.

So, when we give away what we know, and our “bag of tricks” is depleted, and others have jumped on the bandwagon of our work, it’s our job as artists to push forward, to go on a journey within and create something new; a new style, a new look, and a new direction.

And then, when we’re comfortable with it, and people recognize us for it, we should give it away and start over again.

Thanks for reading

– John

 

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