The Creativity Cycle

When we are angry or depressed in our creativity, we have misplaced our power. We have allowed someone else to determine our worth, and then we are angry at being undervalued. – Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold

Over the years I’ve noticed that my creativity goes in cycles.  Sometimes I’m prolific – I can’t wait to go spend all day with my camera.  I’ve visualized shots in my head, have tons of ideas and am totally in the zone.  It’s as if The Muse herself was whispering in my ear.

Other times…not so much.

During those times, I’d beat myself up over it. “Why aren’t you going out with your camera?  Don’t you love photography anymore?”.  When people would ask me on Monday if I shot anything good over the weekend, I got ashamed and made up a lame excuse.  Internally, I’d get angry.  Hell, I’m supposed to be a good photographer, right?  Don’t good photographers have that passion every day?

Psst…here’s a secret.  They don’t.

Whew, just knowing that is a bit of a load off, right?  Everybody goes through dry spells.  Let me repeat that – everybody goes through dry spells.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  If we knew how to turn it on and off, we’d be machines, not artists.

So what do you do if you’re in a dry spell and want to get out of it?  Well, there are a few different things, but here’s what works best for me.

Do nothing.

Or more specifically, do something other than photography.

If you want to be a better photographer, be a more interesting person – Jay Maisel

That quote is from an interview Jay Maisel gave to Chris Orwig (and if you don’t have Chris’ book Visual Poetry, you should).

Go do something else.  Go to an art museum, look at how painters use shapes, light and color.  Go to a baseball game, go for a walk on the beach, go play with your dog, go meet someone new…anything.

While you’re doing “Something else” though, be open to light, shapes and colors.  Just notice them, don’t analyze it too much.  Notice the emotion that certain things evoke in you.  If it’s visual, ask yourself why you had that reaction.  Just make a mental note and file it away.

After a while, your mind will start to make associations with your art – how you could turn that emotion into a photograph, or even a series of photographs.

Give it time.  It’s okay to not do photography for a while.  Really, it is.  The Muse will return when she feels you’re ready to invite her in.

What if you want to push through the low cycle anyway?  I have a few ideas and things that worked for me, but I’d love to hear from you.  What do you do to stimulate yourself photographically when you’re in a low cycle?

I’ll share mine next week.





  1. Thanks for posting this, Mark. I’m in a creativity slump myself right now and, as with all the others, it follows a period where I was pushing myself to make photos daily.

    I was thinking about your post while I was walking between buildings this morning and it hit me that this is how photographic projects help: when you have a well-defined (or maybe even not so well-defined) project, that becomes its own motivation in a way.

    But for me that project needs to be about the images or the result, not about the process. So it can be about making photos of fall leaves, for example, but it cannot be about taking a picture every day. And I need a clear, crisp way to know when a project is done. Projects with no end date are no good for me at all.

    I have never been interested in photo projects before and have given them nothing but disdain. But thanks to your post, you got me thinking both about a way out of my slump and about the way to make sense of photo projects.

    Thank you again for writing this.

  2. Photo projects are a great way to help with this. I’ll toss out some ideas about the various types of projects I know about in my next post. I agree with your comment on the “every day” approach, that doesn’t work well for me, but I know other people have had success with it. I think the trick is to think of one that you can live with and excites you.

    Thanks for the nice comments too!


  3. Great post Mark. I had to think about how to say something for a day or so. I have been making ‘stuff’ for 40 yrs so have had plenty of ups and downs on the idea front. It has been an observation that many new to being an ‘artist’ take the downtime way to seriously.
    Ideas and creativity don’t come from thin air, they come from observation and the thinking that goes into that observation. I have notebooks full of ideas that came when the ideas where flowing faster than I could write, I also have a lot of time between where nothing comes no matter how bad I want it to. Patience and perseverance, sometimes walking away and getting a new perspective is all it takes to bring it back. Doing something totally unrelated helps. Experiences and total immersion in them helps.
    I agree that projects can help as well, they have a tendency to focus the thought and vision to one thing instead of looking for ‘random creativity’. Flexibility on an idea is important but I don’t expect much when I just go out to take pictures. Focus and direction generally bring out the real creative ideas, have something to say first then say it.

  4. Hi Mark..Just a short note to say Hi and let you know I’m a big fan of your Work/Blog.Even though I’m an amateur, right now I’m in kind of a creative slump.I think the best thing to do sometimes is just sit back take a deep breath look at other people’s work,visit art museums and do a lot of writing when you come up with ideas and don’t push it..
    I think alot of it has to do with the fear that we will lose our love of photography but that’s not true.It will always be there….

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