Self Care for the Creative You

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One of my favorite books on creativity is a children’s book called “What Do You Do With An Idea?” by Kobi Yamada.  I love it so much that I read it out loud at Off-Call in 2015 to kick off my keynote talk (see photo by Birth Blessings Photography). I feel it is must have for all creatives! It cleverly illustrates for both children and adults what it’s like to nurture your creative ideas. A small excerpt:

“This is MY idea. I thought. I decided to protect it, to care for it. I fed it good food. I worked with it, played with it. But most of all, I gave it my attention.”

Not many people think about “caring” for their creativity. We take it for granted, we try to control it, or force it to perform when we want it to, and train it to do as we say. This might yield good results at first… but it will ultimately send us on a hunting frenzy for the next high. “Hustle hard” they say. “No pain no gain” they say. But what is at stake if all we ever do is push? Can creativity be forced? And while we are at it, what happens to us physically, mentally and emotionally in the process?

Do you ever take time off from your creative endeavors? Set the camera down? As someone who’s tendency is to be pedal to the medal, I am here to offer some encouragement to nurture your creative self, and therefore YOU. It is not too far into 2019 to set some new goals. This is the perfect time to infuse new life into your work! 

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee) talks of a state of creative process called FLOW. Flow is that state of being completely immersed in your creative ideas. Any artist, photographer, performer or creator knows this feeling. When flow happens, time stands still. We don’t eat. We don’t sleep. We don’t shower. WE WORK. And it doesn’t even feel like work because we are SO IMMERSED.

The thing with flow is, you can’t chase it. It can be wooed, but not pursued. According to photographer David duChemin, author of A Beautiful Anarchy, “Flow is not just the coming of the muse, but when she arrives with such force that she blows the doors off. Flow is a groove that channels out energy and allows us to put our foot a little harder on the gas without spending quite so much energy worrying about the steering.” Creative flow comes and goes.  Because the very essence of flow is temporary. We may think we are in a groove, but end up wearing down the path, because we are chasing flow… back and forth, back and forth. Where does that leave us? In a rut. Here’s where we realize that what we’ve been doing has gotten old, or lost it’s charm. The result is we feel either feel stuck, uninspired or disenchanted. Excitement and motivation all but gone.

Ruts are caused by imbalance, or as I prefer to call it, poor prioritizing. Are you putting yourself first? Your family? Work? They can’t all be first. And yet there are certainly times where one must take precedence over the others. Burnout is real, and something all photographers (listen up, birth photographers) experience. Our lives are complex enough without the stress of being a small business owner who’s life is scheduled 24/7 around their clients. If we are giving away too much of ourselves all the time, be it at work or at home, then we are left with no time to nurture our creativity or ourselves. And the ruts win. The rules of hydration tell us that you will only experience thirst once dehydration sets in…. so we have to learn how to refuel and replenish what’s been used up before its used up.  It may seem idealistic, but if you’re pacing yourself, the ruts are avoidable. If not, thankfully there are ways to recover.  

Time is the first and most obvious weapon against the dreaded rut.  Time to yourself, time with your family, time with your friends. Which means you have to schedule time off. I pick a few months each year where I don’t take any births, and try to be caught up on editing so I’m actually getting the space I need. This doesn’t mean I’m not working at all during those months. Sometimes I use them to get caught up on menial tasks (blogging, correspondence with former clients, price restructuring, marketing).  But I take a legitimate amount of time off and have no guilt about it. Many photographers are now in recovery mode after busy season. I can say with utmost certainty that if you do not not schedule time off regularly, you will hit a rut!

It took me a long time to feel confident that time off would help rather than hurt me.  But once I raised my prices, I didn’t have any excuses. Do you regularly raise your prices? Undervaluing yourself is SUCH a common rut. Do not let your competitors determine your value. Somebody has to raise the bar, or you will always be stuck. Be the person that leads everyone out of that rut.

When you do slow down, take some time for self care. When is the last time you read a book for pure enjoyment? Took a nap just because? Enjoyed your family? Your friends? Exercised? Spent time on a hobby outside of photography?

Inspiration is another effective weapon against ruts and comes, for me, from many sources (not all of them photography related). I can be out shopping and be struck by the ingenuity of a window display (I’m looking at you, Anthropologie). I can be at the movies and hear a line that really gets me thinking. I can be reading a book and have a total a-ha moment. Perhaps it’s the perfect cup of tea or a beautiful afternoon outdoors or music that refills my creative cup. Without the allotted time off however, I don’t notice much of what could be feeding me, or nurturing me.

I am nourished by the brilliance of other photographers/artists as well: GK Sholanke, Lennart Nilsson, Mark Mabry, Cory Richards, Joan Miro, Pablo Picaso, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange (to name a few).  I also find motivation in the work of my colleagues. I don’t believe in not looking at your competition’s work. It’s healthy to admire (and encourage) the work of those working earnestly alongside you!  Especially in birth photography. Birth photographers are in the beginning stages of something big, and to keep things moving in the right direction I am reminded of the old African proverb that states “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  

David DuChemin reiterates that inspiration is more likely to hit us when we allow space for it. “Doing the work leads to new ideas and on those rare occasions when the idea comes out in the shower, its only because it couldn’t wait until you got around to the day’s work.” I know I rarely get ideas while sitting in front of paper, pen in hand. Creativity cannot be forced nor can it be stifled. But we must woo it. We must nurture it. And we must be kind to ourselves in the process. The power of positive self talk is huge and we do far too much of the opposite! “The words ‘this might not work’ are probably some of the healthiest words in the lexicon of anyone who wants to live creatively. They indicate a certain humility and openness to what comes next. Whether that is failure or success very much depends on how you define it. ‘This won’t work’ is defeatist. ‘This probably won’t work’, is self-fufilling. ‘Let’s see what happens’, is ripe with possibility.” Yes! How you speak to yourself can make a huge difference.

I know all too well the complexity of putting all this into practice. It takes a lot of planning ahead to get time off, particularly for birth photographers. Here are some small tips that might make a difference:

•Try hiring out for editing in order to free up your time. If you’re not making enough to have a budget set aside for this as needed, you need to raise your prices.

•Be sure you’re using an organization platform like 17Hats to streamline your busy work.

•If you haven’t invested in a laptop so that you can work on-the-go (hello motherhood), I suggest you do so right away.

•Use a backup for your next birth. Do not try to be superwoman and shoot 3 births in 5 days. As your own boss you can say to yourself “Self, you deserve and need some down time.” It’s that simple! 

•Give yourself a little more turn around time where needed. An extra week or two so you can produce your BEST work for your clients.

•Revisit your boundaries with your clients. Are they taking advantage of you or your time? What about your hours? Perhaps you could reset them for a few weeks to give you a little time off.

•Furthermore, are you tied to your phone 24/7? Consider buying a smart watch that will give you a little distance from your phone once in a while. I love mine merely for the fact that I can go to the bathroom without taking my phone with me. But it also allows me to, say, eat dinner with my family free from any distractions. I know they really appreciate this, too.

•Take a step back from social media, or streamline it. Loop accounts together where possible so you’re not posting the same images in multiple places.

These little things may add up to be just enough to get you through to your next slow period where you can actually relax. But be sure to schedule a legit period of time off as well. If you’re overly depleted, a couple weeks just isn’t going to cut it.

And if fear of missing out, fear of falling off people’s radar, fear of losing momentum, fear of seeming lazy or selfish is stopping you… know this. Something with far greater impact on your business will suffer in the long run, if you don’t start pacing yourself now… be it the quality of your work, your client relationships, your family/personal life or worse, YOU.