Sharpening Your Creative Knife

Let me talk about something that is taboo: success. I have been successful in my career. Mind you, I was also saying this when I had not made any money yet, so my opinion may not be of sound mind. I remember when I got my first gallery show. I lost money, no one bought anything, and I had just quit my job with the starry-eyed belief that I was about to be wealthy from my art. Despite that not happening, I felt successful in all the ways that ever mattered to me. I have always felt trapped by success, too. When I created my very first image I remember feeling indebted to that vision. I believed that I had to continue creating like that to remain popular, successful. As time went on that feeling only got stronger. My art evolved, but safely.

As I found more success (again, this is very subjective), I found more trappings holding me back from where I knew I could go. As I made more money I felt reliant on those ways of earning. As I saw reactions to my art that were positive I felt a pull to create more of that positive feeling. As I became known for something, I felt fraudulent should I change directions. This is what no one talks about with success – how very suffocating it can be.

That last statement is precisely why this is a taboo subject – what about people who aren’t successful? “Are you so elitist that you’re going to talk about success?” Before those statements get shouted about, let me share why this is so important.

  1. I want you to succeed massively.
  2. I believe we all succeed in big and small ways. (The ways I have succeeded will be big to some and small to others, it is a matter of perception).
  3. I want to redefine success in a healthy way.

Over the past 8 years of business, I have gone from losing money to earning money, from creating art that I love to art that I didn’t love and back again. I’ve experienced genuinely incredible people who have helped me and genuinely horrendous acts of selfishness. I’ve been lost and found so many times I should create a box on my shelf labeled “Lost & Found” to make things easier. I’ve been obsessively committed to my work and I’ve pushed it away.

Over those 8 years of running a business, I’ve learned a lesson that only just sank in. I was 22 years old when I became self-employed and plowed forward to carve a career. I thought that what I did in that moment would define the rest of my life. I thought that the choices I made then were the choices I would carry with me until I died. I had no perspective. I had no sense of the world and how massive it is, or how willing the world is to forget. I thought I had made my bed and I was prepared to lie in it. And I was so, so happy doing that. I love the choices I made, I love the life I live, and I am not ashamed to say that it is wonderful. But, it is incomplete.

We contain multitudes, said Whitman. We contain multitudes that allow us to be/do/see/explore/create so many things. And herein lies the problem with success: it tricks us into thinking that we have found the one thing we are good at and that we must gently rest in that place forever.

I am not accustomed to resting, just ask anyone who knows me.

Joesph Campbell found that all stories are the same – the hero goes on a journey, discovers something about him/herself and the world, battles his/her dragons and then comes full circle to tell about it. And then that hero goes again on another journey, and another, and another. What we are doing right now in our lives does not have to be what we always do. In fact, I would argue, it shouldn’t be. There are too many unexplored curiosities, too many multitudes.

The fear in exploring unknown places is in thinking we will leave behind what we used to be. Never, ever is that true, nor a possibility. We take what we have learned and done and sew that into the fabric of our new lives.

I am still happily a photographer, but one day I may not be. Who can say? What I do know is that all I have learned from this path so far will bleed into the next, and I will be better for it.

You may feel that where you are in your life right now is where you will always be. You may feel like you are trapped or held back in some way. I hope you will join me in recognizing that our worth is not necessarily tied up in what we do and how we define ourselves; it is evident in our willingness to change and the belief we must have in our abilities to do so.

What is success, then, if not money or status?

  1. Success is the forward momentum of your dreams.
  2. Success is recognizing when your dreams are changing, and chasing them anyway.
  3. Success is moving boldly on your path without concern for who follows you.

This is the lesson I have learned: Rarely are people buying the art, they are buying the soul of the art. We put labels on our life so that we can better manage them, like “photographer”, “educator”, “writer”. Where, though, do those labels come from? What makes us choose one over another? If we back away from the labels and ask ourselves why we are drawn to those things that we do, the answer is clear. If you constantly follow your WHY, your greatest passion and the reasons that come with it, your life can never be defined by a single label. When WHY is more important that HOW and WHAT, you have found your genius, your muse, your inspiration. You have found yourself.

I took a trip to Argentina last week. For the past 10 years I have talked about traveling to Patagonia and it finally happened. I went with no intentions of making images there. I needed to be entirely outside of my norm. And, after I finished hiking and exploring, the most interesting thing happened. I wanted to create. I deeply desired to play with my camera and make something, even though I had expressly given myself permission not to.

This is the interesting part of allowing yourself to do what you want or be who you want to be: you will always end up completely, authentically YOU. I found myself in this creepy, run-down Airbnb apartment. Though it was a little undesirable to sleep in, it awakened my passion. I had just seen glaciers and snow-capped mountains, scenery like I’ve never witnessed before, yet there I was, in this little creepy apartment, and all I wanted was to create there. Just as I started out in my own small, rather disgusting little apartment, I found my creativity awakened.

Life has a funny way of pulling you back to your roots, of making you question why you do what you do. I found my answer sitting in that bed. I create to show beauty in darkness, and I’ve been learning all about how to create beauty through a camera. But now it is time for the darkness, and oh, I’ve been learning darkness, too. I’m ready to create. I don’t know what to call what I’ll do next. I haven’t figured it out.

But it’s December, and I’m sharpening my knife.


  • December 1, 2017 - 10:42 am

    Amy - Yay! I’ve heard you talk about the new work you were struggling to accept creating, and I am SO SO excited to see it! I believe everyone should create with their whole heart, as honestly as possible. Without fear. I can’t wait to see where your heart is now. ♥ReplyCancel

  • December 1, 2017 - 11:28 am

    Judith E Barat - Hello Brooke,

    Your words resonate through me, like a inner- body earthquake. I am almost 72 years, you would think the journey phase of my life was over, not so. Photography has been my passion for 20 years but only now am I beginning to reveal my deepest emotions through my images.

    Thank you for going to the dark side,

    • December 2, 2017 - 12:09 pm

      Ann Vargas - Your comment gives me hope. I’m 62 and constantly worrying that I’m too old….ReplyCancel

    • December 3, 2017 - 9:54 am

      Julie - Brooke and Judith,
      Thank you for this article and your comment, Judith. I just turned 59 yesterday and your messages about creativity, trusting the ebb and flow of life, and not being too old are a balm to my soul!ReplyCancel

  • December 1, 2017 - 1:51 pm

    Tiina - Oh,how I love your words. You make me want to be brave! Can’t wait to see where your creativity takes you next <3.


  • December 1, 2017 - 2:45 pm

    Carrie Lopez - I’ve been feeling every ounce of what you described. I’ve had 20 years in my journey as a nurse. My heart is pulling me somewhere different. As a nurse, I’ve paid bills and raised my kids thus far but I want to experience more, to learn more. Last year, I saw how fast our flames can be snuffed out and I want to be remembered for something more than monitoring bowel movements and passing pills. There’s obviously more to the honorable job as a nurse but the creative beast within beckons my attention elsewhere. Loved the blog post and so happy you had such a great experience! Hugs.ReplyCancel

  • December 1, 2017 - 4:10 pm

    Anna - How I needed to hear these words. So much truth. Also the theme of “Your Why” is everywhere for me. Thank you for sharing your beginning and how you found inspiration in the Patagonia and created. I am a big fan of finding beauty in darkness – always have been. Thank you 🙂ReplyCancel

  • December 1, 2017 - 4:21 pm

    Leesa Voth - I am grateful for your post. Many of my colleagues and I struggle with what a “successful” creative identity means. Unfortunately, labels stick early on, usually encouraged by well intentioned teachers and mentors encouraging folks to be rooted to brand identity and a narrow scope of expression to motivate success. In addition, proficiency takes time, so artists are afraid to make changes once they reach a comfortable level of success. But the natural order of life is change and when artists fight against that to feel safe, their creative energy withers away. They become chained to their past to meet expectations of future performance. I am happy you are evolving and are willing to share as you explore the multi-layered nature of your artistic expression. In other words, you rock – thanks for the continued inspiration you offer the community you’ve nurtured, and for the beautifully haunting images.ReplyCancel

  • December 1, 2017 - 7:14 pm

    Gallagher (Fit BMX) - Good to see your new post.
    It is wonderful to hear you got to take your Argentina trip, I have never really seen photos from there before, and now I want to go! LOL
    It sounds like such an inspiring place, even the ratty apartment.
    Love the photos, all of them!!! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • December 2, 2017 - 5:31 pm

    Karen Olson - These words come at the perfect time for me to hear. It is, in fact, December and I am sharpening my knife as well. Ready to head in a new direction. Thank you for words and inspiration. I look forward to whatever your heart desires to create.ReplyCancel

  • December 3, 2017 - 6:53 am

    Kathleen Wright - *happy tears* I love you so much even though I’ve never met you. Your words always connect so fully with my soul it’s like therapy for me. ReplyCancel

  • December 3, 2017 - 12:25 pm

    Ruth Gordon - I love this blog. I am a photographer and love the act of taking and editing photos, but become terrified and paralyzed at the thought of selling them. People have bought my photos,but not because I put them out there with any gusto. It just happened. The business side of art is scary and I don’t really know why. Thank you for your insights and your knowledge. I truly appreciate it.ReplyCancel

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