I declared 2018 my year of NO travel, and that will be true…after June. So far I’ve spent a month away in India, Sri Lanka, and Florida (that sounds a lot less exciting after the other two). Soon I’ll be heading to Tennessee and Wisconsin before going to Greece and Maine. That’s all by the third week of March.
With that pace it is extremely difficult to keep up routines. I find myself in airports, hotels, Airbnbs, grandma’s houses. I move so quickly from one place to the next that they barely have time to stick in my memories. When your circumstances change, how can you keep a routine? I do my best. Yoga everyday, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Lots of water. Emails every morning. Reading everyday. Outside of that, nothing is the same.
I’m home for a few days in between trips, exhausted from traveling, body aching, but all I wanted was to create – freely, without interruption. Instead of pushing myself beyond what is wise into the cold for a photo shoot, I searched my computer for long-forgotten images. There I found the spark of something interesting. I didn’t know what it was, just that it could be.
I found an underwater image that struck me as graceful and full of emotion. I had already edited those up for the most part, wasn’t interested in redoing them. I wanted something new. I started to look at the image differently, thinking that the bubbles looked like stars. And so I began creating what I knew could be something interesting. Watch the editing process here:
It is wildly important to act on our creative urges, in whatever way is available to us, in whatever way feels right. I find it necessary to keep motivated. So often we talk about what is recommend to stay healthy: good food, exercise, fresh air, etc. But something I vehemently believe we need to add to that list is creativity. An outlet for our imagination. And I would put that before most else.
How often do you exercise your imagination, release your creativity and make something for yourself?
I’ve spent a long time letting go of the word “good” in this context. I bet everyone here has had the experience of not creating because what you were making didn’t seem good enough. Now that I’ve had some distance from my process of creating, from my body of work, I can see much more clearly. There are works I create that are good and bad. Some that will remain, others that will be forgotten. In the moment they all feel so important, and they are. But what is important is not how they are judged, but how they made you feel while creating them.
When was the last time you did
something completely for yourself?
Do you notice a change in your health
when you set your imagination free?
I am a selfish artist. I have no problem admitting that, as well as the ways in which I am selfish.
I create for myself. I am interested in satisfying my curiosity.
I create by myself. I like to work alone.
I create because I love to test my potential.
I create I hope people will like what I contribute to the world.
Up until a certain point, those were my reasons for creating. I started noticing a pattern in how I was working. I was rushing to get an image finished, excited to see the finished product, ignoring the idiosyncratic pieces of the process. I was addicted to sharing.
When that realization hit me, I had to take a step back from what I was doing. I realized just how un-lasting that finished product truly is. It may stand the test of time, or it may be gone with a hard drive crash. It may be remembered in museums or forgotten in a matter of days. Once you finish your art, it is released. It is not yours to control, it is for the public (if, of course, you are sharing your art at all). What remains, despite anything, is the process.
That was when I began thinking about CREATION in a different way from CREATING. One puts emphasis on the product, the other on the action.
In no way do I think it is bad to enjoy the product of your efforts. You should.
ART SHOULD BE SELFISH.
But, what about cherishing the in-between? What about the moments, minutes, hours, days, months, years it takes to create your art? As time moves on, even the mundane experiences build up to influence what you create and how you create it.
How often do you find yourself rushing through the creating process to get to the creation? I’ve done it hundreds of times. Hundreds. I’ve rushed through thinking deeply, rushed through creating with care, overlooked editing mistakes, and all so I could congratulate myself for making something. Tangible. Physical. Finished.
What an error in my judgment these years past. What an error in my life.
Over the past nine months I’ve been planning a new photo series. For most of that time I didn’t have a single vision that stuck, not a single sketch made that would lead to something finished. It scared me. I felt like a fraud. I felt like a lair of an artist. I felt like an imposter.
I mean, look at the facts. I am an artist who has created quickly, churning out a lot of work in short periods of time. I became addicted to the pace, to the praise, to the CREATION. It was time to learn how to love CREATING.
So I had a talk with myself. It went something like this:
Brooke (Subconscious):Slow down. Let’s take a while to think through what you need to say as an artist. Brooke (Conscious):Nope. Let’s make something every single day to prove my worth as an artist. Brooke (Subconscious):Wouldn’t you rather find your worth by creating meaningful art? Brooke (Conscious):Nope.
It was somewhere around month 5 of thinking about my new series and coming up empty that I had a breakdown. I felt like such a failure as an artist. I felt I had let myself down.
What I had really done was let myself go.
I let go of the artist I was. I let go of the expectation I put on myself. I let go of the expectation I felt from others.
And I opened my mind to the idea that thinking is an art form in itself. That being with my thoughts and letting them play their course is just as valuable, and often more so, than churning out work.
That was when my mindset changed. I no longer wanted a CREATION, I wanted to CREATE. I have never felt more clear in my intent, more centered in my message, more secure in myself as an artist.
Do you create for the product or for the experience? (This is a really difficult one to admit.)
I’m in a small room in India – West Bengal. Outside the horns are blowing like crows, attacking. People are yelling down the street, their voices drowning together, indecipherable. This is a place that envelopes me the moment I step foot outside the airport, but it challenges me, too. The sounds, the people, the food, the smells, the stories. The stories.
When I listen closely through the mountainous shouts I hear cross-sections of lives; one man tells another to be careful crossing the street, not through his words, but through his body language. A woman kisses her child while a hundred people push past her, tenderness going unnoticed.
In my workshop I’m teaching self-expression through photography and movement, aided by Kolkata Sanved. The young women that sit in the room with me have pasts that I cannot imagine. I try, but it feels wrong to imagine my life with the same difficulties; disrespectful, somehow. I am ill-equipped to feel what they feel, at least precisely. My life has been vastly different and that shows in every minutiae when I travel in India. In the ways that I get irritated by people bumping into me, when I feel exhausted by the crowds, and especially when I feel trapped by the buildings and pollution. That is life here, though, and I am unaccustomed, even after five years of coming.
Today in the workshop we are learning storytelling. I explain why this is important – because, after all, their story is theirs. It is for them to tell, not me. I never felt comfortable photographing people whose lives have been so uniquely different from mine, using my way of telling stories to tell theirs. This is for them to share. Instead, I teach storytelling. I teach how to use a camera. I teach self-portraiture. I teach them how to tell their own stories.
And so they do, effortlessly.
Because storytelling is the culture here. This is a place where stories pile on top of stories so that every object, every location, is imbued with the deepest stories.
Even more than stories, though, is the hope that permeates.
I’m in the Kolkata Sanved office and day one of my workshop is almost over. We are talking about our stories, but not in literal terms. I never, ever ask someone to share their past. Instead, we speak in symbols, in emotions. I ask them to bring me an object that represents their past. We learn symbolism in art.
They bring me water, as a symbol for constantly moving. They bring me a rock, a symbol for heaviness. They bring me a dead tree, a symbol unto itself. A box, to show entrapment. A match, to show danger.
We photograph those objects, and they learn the camera.
I ask them to choose an emotion that represents how they feel now that they have had education, now that they have found safety. Shanti, they say: peace. Aasha: hope. Curiosity. Learning. Happy.
As I listen to them sharing a symbol from their past, I do not have to use a lot of imagination to understand where they come from: darkness to light. The story is there, the details are not important for me to hear.
As I hear them share their emotions, representing who they are now, I see the shift from sadness to joy.
Everyone that I meet here is so open.
YES, I have had hardship. BUT, now I am free.
This is not true for so many. This is why the power of self-expression is so vital. When we give voices to those who feel they cannot speak they realize that their story matters.
It breaks me to think about how many people are living in poverty, enslavement, abuse, and more. How can we help them? I don’t know, myself. It is a problem the world may still be trying to solve a thousand years in the future. But, how can we help those who have been rescued, who have come out the other side? How can we heal them, give them strength, hope, determination? Empowerment. Education.
We give them a tool to tell their story. Because, so many – too many – have had their stories taken from them. Here, in this workshop, we try to give it back.
I have done many of these workshops over the past five years. Always, they say the same: we have come from ash and we have rebuilt ourselves. They tried to break us but we would not be broken.
There is hope. There is always hope.
This is a culture of light. Where there is darkness, light permeates.
I show them a camera. I show them a window. I show them a dark stairwell. The choice is theirs. Always, the image is the same: we reach toward the light.
They take their self-portraits. “Represent your dream for your future in a single image”, I tell them. A heavy thing to portray. They have never taken pictures before. And yet – beauty, hope, determination. The word of this workshop is: POWER.
“I am powerful!” one girl shouts as she takes her self-portrait.
“I am confident!” another girl says as she poses.
And finally, at the end, someone says: “I have learned how to tell my story. This is my story to tell.”
It is a culture of light.
And, can’t we all use that? No matter where you are right now, remember the beauty I have seen here. I need you to see it with me. I need you to feel this. The light demands it. Their stories demand it.
Will you try to reach for the light,
even when it is difficult?
What do you consider to be ethical storytelling?
How do you prefer to tell your own story?
I am currently in India teaching self-expression workshops to underprivileged communities. These workshops were developed by myself, Blossomy Projects, and Kolkata Sanved to blend movement with photography. I travel here to Kolkata, India once a year to help end gender-based violence and aid in the education and empowerment of those effected.
I am leaving for Sri Lanka in the morning to continue this work before returning home on February 2nd.
What is the longest time you have ever spent thinking about a project?
I spent the past 10 months thinking about my new series. I created other images in that time, but this new series felt too important to bang out quickly. I knew, from the moment it felt crucial to create something relevant to my life, that it was going to be more important than anything else I had created before. In March 2017 I decided that I must create this new series. In May, I had my first breakthrough as to the specific subject matter of the series. And, for the months following, I felt that I didn’t have a single other good idea.
I had the usual panicked feelings about time (Am I wasting it? Shouldn’t I be more productive?) and about artistry (Am I a good enough artist? Does that matter?). As time pressed on, more and more people asked me where that series was that I teased. They asked what it would look like, what point I was aiming to make, where I would shoot, who would be in it, and the list goes on.
I didn’t have a single answer to a single question.
By September I started getting worried that this series wasn’t meant to be. I started to think deeply about TIMING, and waiting for the right moment to tell the right story. Was this my time? Or was I rushing something for the sake of productivity?
By November I started to calm down. I came to terms with, perhaps, this not being the right series in this moment. I started to let go of it, just a little. I loosened my grip on the need, the anxious compulsion, to create.
And then everything changed.
It wasn’t until one week ago, after ten months of trying to visualize and conceptualize this series, that it finally made sense.
I went on a long hike with my Love, as we do several times a week just to brainstorm, and it felt so clear. I had been so caught up in precise details that I failed to look at the big picture. And then there it was.
Ten months ago I had an idea. I’ve had so many ideas I’ve lost count. Those ideas got turned into pictures, films, sketches, poems, short stories, books. My ideas have been done and redone and cried over and laughed at and loved. Why was this one different? Why did this one take ten months to scrap together?
And this, my friends, is my greatest lesson in creating this series…which I have not yet even picked up my camera to shoot:
Not every idea is ripe for the
moment you want to create it.
I feel, strongly, that my waiting to make this series was to make room for new experience, for distance, for growth.
I am a young artist in many respects, without tallied life experiences and heartache, without the type of inspiration that hurts to create from. This year I found a piece of that tortured inspiration, and it took longer than I realized it would to digest. More importantly, I realized the need for distance from our inspiration. I realized the need for deep thinking in art. And I realized how few people do that, myself included.
I grew up in this must-have-it-now culture. I grew up with internet in my house since I was 10 years old. My first screen name was based on the Pound Puppies, because I was a child, and therefore I learned that what I want now, I can have now – a lesson that buoyed me to a fast-paced career and self-centric decision. But, also, a mentality that gave me the undue urgency to create fast, to share fast, and to repeat.
Slow progress in creating art allow for concepts to emerge that might have been overlooked. It allows for more daring and evocative imagery to take shape and hold, without fear or shyness there to stop it. It allows for my own feelings to see them from a distance. And most importantly, it allowed me to grow with my ideas, not just to move ahead of them.
When I return from a two week trip to India and Sri Lanka in February, I will begin creating immediately. Locations are being booked, props being made, models contacted, and I’m ready. I feel certain I am ready.
1. What idea are you brainstorming right now?
2. What is holding you back from creating?
I started my career and worked completely alone for 4.5 years. It came to my attention that I was about to fall apart into a million pieces, so I hired an assistant. Things got a lot better. I felt that, while the workload was lessened a bit, the real benefit was feeling less alone. I felt like I had someone to share the failures with and the highlights, like someone really cared about my business other than me (and my Love, of course). And then, a year ago, we stopped working together and I’ve been back on my own since then.
I was nervous about how it would go, since my business has only grown over those years with a lot of different balls in the air. One big thing changed though, from the time I hired someone to the time that ended: I fully realized what having a business is all about.
I stopped seeing business as transactional
and instead saw it as community-driven.
The moment I started seeing every email as a real person with feelings, it became much easier and more motivating to keep up.
Let me just say: running a business can be lonely.
Most of the professionals I know have assistants or even teams to help out with odds and ends. I’ve always been a loner and prefer it that way. I like to know that I am the one doing the work. I also have trust issues, as I feel many people who have started a business do. I don’t trust that others will do the work as well as I can. Delusional? Probably. Maybe. Eh…
Going into this past year I was worried. I really feared that everything would fall apart. I feared I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the emails or remember all of the things I used to forget. So, here’s my report, and my lessons learned.
My 24 hour email policy has been incredible. I’ve been able to respond to emails honestly, efficiently, and in half the time it used to take me.
I’ve never, in all my career, assistant or not,answered emails
as thoroughly, thoughtfully and quickly as this past year.
The only thing that changed was a commitment to the people behind the emails. I wanted to show them that I care and that my responses hold heart. I wanted to show them that their words are important, no matter if they are offering me a job or not, kind words or criticism, or if they’ve sent 3 emails to bypass the word limit. I see you…
Here is a great example of how my organization and emailing has helped my business. Years ago, you would be lucky if you heard back from me within a month, let alone a day. Even with an assistant, emails would get missed and never remedied. But now, since I started my new email policy, I get an email at least once a week solely to say how grateful the writer is for my quick response and professionalism. I’m not saying this to assert that my business is somehow better; but for me, I’ve grown leaps and bounds, and it is showing (and bringing in more business recommendations). That really means something.
I deal with emailing creatives a lot. I have to, to invite speakers for my Promoting Passion Convention. Only about 1 in 15 people will email me back within a 48 hour period. Maybe about half will write back within two weeks, and half will never respond. I am astounded at how difficult and alienating it is to get in touch with creative professionals, so dealing with emails in a quick and professional manner can really go a long way.
Another thing that I’ve decided to do this last year, which was easier than years past, is to say no better. I’m still absolutely awful at it. I’ve already agreed to 5 things in the first half of next year that I’m regretting. But, I did get better. I’ve turned down about 25 jobs (some big, some very small) for this new year in the past few months alone. First, it has been easier because I’m not paying an employee, so I had the extra financial wiggle-room. I know this is a luxury and I very much appreciate what a fortunate situation that is to be in. Second, I started to truly value my time more. Life is for living, let’s not forget that.
I started noticing that there is a very direct correlation between my organization and my health. When I am organized (for example, finishing taxes on a monthly basis instead of all at once, or keeping my office clean), I feel more clear-headed and ready to be inspired. When I can easily settle into a routine without worrying about all the loose-ends, I am so much happier.
My business has never been better. Period.
As a creative, that is important for health, wellness, and sanity. Most importantly, it is essential for my inspiration. To reiterate, these are the ways I managed to do it all on my own (after years of practice, mind you):
Behind every email is a person. If you met in a coffee shop, chances are you’d feel a lot more kindly to that person, so imagine every email is a coffee shop encounter. A really good one. And respond as though you were standing there in person. Emails can be annoying. And not every email is worth the time. But most are, because most are really nice people with kindness in their hearts. Call me a hippie, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are good to each other.
Say no so that you carve your career into what you want it to be, not what others want it to be. That will lead to a healthier and happier life, and will earn you more expertise in what you want to do.
Give priority to organization so that your creative brain isn’t distracted by clutter.
Write a comprehensive, timed to-do list at the end of every work day for the day ahead.
The past year has been transformational for me in these regards. With that daily to-do list, for example, I am hyper focused. I also feel a greater sense of accomplishment as I work my way through my day.
I’ve become really good at taking care of
myself without feeling disadvantaged.
I used to look at other professionals and whine that I don’t have help and therefore I can’t achieve what they can. Yes, that is a valid argument in some situations, but not most. I’m a one-person show and heck yes, I’m proud of that. You should be too, no matter where you’re at.
Let’s face it – most of us are not in a position to have a team of people working for us. And, something I’ve come to terms with is that right now in my career, I have no desire for that. I’m much happier when I’m working alone on the whole. I don’t aspire to hire a team. Maybe in the future I will, and I’m open to that mindset changing. But for now, I’m going to keep blasting the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack in my little office while chain-drinking tea and smiling dreamily at my imagination. Alone. Because as entrepreneurs, we can do that.
What changes have you made that give you a healthier creative life?
Will you take any of these changes and apply them to your business?