SANDBOXES, NOT BEACHES: THE VALUE OF CREATIVE CONFINEMENT

There's a common misperception about what inspires creativity, and how brilliant ideas emerge from the soup of one's mind: that open, broad, limitless space to roam is what a creative person needs to make something not only original, but inspiring. 

In my own experience as a creative, both as a writer and photographer, as well as my near decade of working with creative pros in advertising, there's nothing more stunting to the mind than a limitless arena to work in. 

Limits, not unbridled freedom, inspire great creativity. 

There's something about the way a confining challenge wrangles and pins the mind down that seems to produce novel thinking. 

For the tenacious, it's the fear of being defeated by something too simple. 

For the brave, it's the testing of grit to see what's deeper within. 

And over and over again when speaking with those who've made a profession out of making things with their mind muscle, you'll hear how important clear, defined objectives with limits are to the quality of their work. 

One such example came when I spoke with the owner and CCO of BFG, Gerry Graf. His fame as a creative in advertising came when TV was king. Now, it's more or less dead. The landscape has changed and the way we have to think about communication and marketing has needed to warp to fit small screens and four second attention spans. 

So I asked him how he was holding up while his famed medium of TV was losing to "less creative" media like banner ads, native content, and a tweet or an instagram post.

"It's the same task, different execution," he said. "What I need is the same as before: a clear problem to solve, knowledge of how the thing works, and a specific strategic and conceptual boundary for for me to work within. The get out of my way let me get to work. I'll still come up with something that'll blow your mind." 

He has a right to that kind of confidence

I left our chat with even more respect for greats like him, those who have towering egos but who aren't above tackling copy for a banner ad. 

I also realized that this is why it's always bugged me when people talk about "less sexy" creative opportunities (think CRM, display, and the other ugly children of modern digital advertising) as if there was no potential for original, bright thinking. If anything it shows a complete lack of imagination and allergy to tough creative challenges, not a refined attitude about the craft. 

When people heard that at one point I was asked to write 200 lines of headline copy for a display campaign, they asked how much I'd had to drink to endure the feat. Truth is I enjoyed having my ass handed to me by such a seemingly dull assignment. 

The reason I stayed enthused was because I was pressured by a tight client and creative brief, scant character limits, and only a few hours to finish. Despite it taking a year off my life, the value came through the fact that it forced me to scrutinize every syllable and every word (unlike this droning blog post...).

I had to clean things up, get lean, remember the basic, simple structure of S+V+O English, and to hunt down the sharpest, most interesting, brand-voiced verbs to drive an ad and catch attention. 

I didn't win an award, and the campaign, for the most part, has gone unnoticed. 

But the lesson remains that when you're hungry enough, there isn't a problem too small or boring not to find creative inspiration. 

The point I've been trying to make is this:

If you want to "inspire" creatives, don't be cute or flashy. And don't say "make whatever."

Just give them a sandbox, not a beach, and set them off to build castles. 

WORDS & PHOTOS: THE SERENITY OF staring at ordinary things

At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to stand and gape at this or that thing - a sunset or an old shoe - in absolute and simple amazement. 
— Raymond Carver, "A Storyteller's Shoptalk"

I crave mindless staring now more than ever. I think it's a subconscious, maybe even spiritual, reaction to having to pay attention to all the trivial-yet-urgent matters that come with living perpetually "online." What worries me most in doling out brainwaves for these things is not that I'll become a zombie, necessarily, but that I'll lose the ability to stand and gape, as Carver says, at ordinary things with simple, serene, even foolish amazement. 

And recently I noticed this habit of gape-staring manifested in my photographic style.  

After going through the hundreds of photos I've taken over the last decade, I started to see a recurring theme in subject matter and composition: open, negative spaces with either nothing at all or a single, mundane object front and center. Without quite knowing it, I used photography as anoutlet to practice the Zen-ish habit of appreciating the mundane scenes around me every day. 

Instead of reflecting a kind of vacant-staring, these photos show--at least to me--a fully-present, deeply-engaged stillness and awe at the foot of wonderfully regular things, which is pretty nice given the increasing extravagance and drama of the world at large. 

Oregon Trail, La Grande, OR

Oregon Trail, La Grande, OR

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Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Red Mountain, WA

Red Mountain, WA

Lost Creek Wilderness, CO

Lost Creek Wilderness, CO

There’s always an urge among writers to turn fleeting observations and momentary glimpses into metaphors and “material” as quickly as possible...rushing to notice never works, nor does trying to notice. Attention requires cunning passivity...notice what you notice and let it go.”
— Verlyn Linkenborg, "Several Short Sentences About Writing"
Bedroom Wilderness, HOME

Bedroom Wilderness, HOME

Georgia Pass, CO

Georgia Pass, CO

[While] Peter was gazing at a white heron in a treetop, a very large [Bonefish] began to chew on Peter’s shrimp fly...while the guide and I, being real fishermen, began to go nuts. STRIKE! STRIKE! we hollered.

But that white heron...

Each [the white heron and Peter], I believe, was owned. True ownership as I see it, occurs the instant consciousness is usurped by one of these Peter-Meets-White-Heron appreciations. And while true ownership lasts, nothing but the usurping wonder exists.
— David James Duncan, "My Story As Told By Water"
Wolford Res., CO

Wolford Res., CO

South Park, CO

South Park, CO

PHOTOS: Sun & Steel on the OP

This photo essay documents a few days floating the Sol Duc and Bogachiel Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula (OP) for steelhead. My guides were two childhood friends, brothers Phil and Luke Rudat, from my hometown in rural Washington. As a sort of reunion with them, I joined in on an annual trip they make up to the OP to tempt fate into granting a rare fortune for those parts: sun and steelhead. 

Our hope was answered with a 20 minute reprieve from the rain on our first day. During those twenty minutes, Phil caught two steelhead. But, as quickly as the skies opened, they closed again, this time heavier, and a bit more somber. It felt more like a tombstone than cloud cover.

For the next three days the weather gave us every bit of possible nastiness it could muster: tearing wind, torrential rain, piercing hail, soggy snow, and frigid sleet.

And we didn't catch another fish.

Always grateful for the chance to get out there, we still wrapped up with heavy sighs and made our way home. As they do every year, Phil and Luke, still wet from the rain in the cab of their truck. started the quasi-spiritual rite of crossing fingers, tying streamers, and praying that--just maybe--next year they''ll have better favor from the soggy-souled gods of the OP. 

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Outerwear that kept Phil, Luke, and myself dry and comfortable was generously provided by Mountain Standard