We recognize that someone has found their voice when their distinctive spiritual or emotional core becomes an inseparable part of their art. Reaching that threshold means letting the concerns and influences of others fall away, so that your own voice is heard clearly. It takes a whole lot of dedication and conviction and hard work and talent and luck to make that happen—but most of all it takes time. ~Ted Orland
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, a 19-year-old cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus, feeling at odds with his military duties and yearning to write poetry, wrote a letter to the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke seeking guidance and encouragement. Rilke initially declined, but ultimately yielded. Rilke’s letters to Kappus, now collected in a book titled, Letters to a Young Poet, offer some of the most articulate, intimate, and insightful advice that anyone with a poetic soul seeking expression may hope for.
Rilke did not limit his responses to unconditional encouragement and empty platitudes. Indeed, much of his advice came in the form of “tough love.” Addressing Kappus’s initial inquiry, Rilke prodded to see if he was truly cut out for the life of a poet and if his imagination and conviction were up to the task. When it came to worthy subjects of poetry, Rilke admonished, “…turning to those that your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and your faith in some kind of beauty—describe it all with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and use it to express yourself, the things that surround you, the images of your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor to you, do not blame that: blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor and unimportant place.”
I mentioned in previous writings the psychological state of flow, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (emphasis added).
I believe that investment of time and intellect in creative work, and daring to tackle challenging and complex tasks with the knowledge that the occasional failure is a real—and ultimately, inevitable—possibility, are indispensable conditions to reaping the greatest rewards that one may get from the practice of photography or any other creative pursuit. I also believe that these rewards cannot be accomplished without considerable investment of time, attention, and effort—not by technology; not by shortcuts, tips and tricks; and not by peer recognition (be it awards, titles, “likes,” or celebrity).
It is often acknowledged that creating good art, and being a good teacher, require skills in art and in teaching, as well as creativity and imagination on the part of the artist or teacher. It is seldom admitted, however, that the same dedication and willingness to invest effort in learning and understanding are needed on the part of the student wishing to create or appreciate art (especially art that aims to be more complex than just “look at this pretty view/thing”) and to get the most out of an educational experience. Similarly, some proclaim to seek a meaningful—dare I say, spiritual—experience in communing with the landscape and/or in expressing their thoughts and feelings in art, but are deterred by minor inconveniences, or come to the experience preoccupied with distractions or prejudices they are unwilling to let go of, and thus fail to find what they sought.
To anyone who is hoping for inspiration, education, or personal insight in art, but who refuses to invest time, labor, or intellectual effort in the endeavor, and instead seeks easy shortcuts, ultimately falling short of his or her desired experience or outcome, my opinion agrees with Rilke’s: blame yourself. You are not poet enough.
However, with no disrespect intended to Rilke, I also believe that blaming yourself when it is unwarranted, especially if ensuing out of a misplaced sense of guilt or unworthiness, may result in discouraging and equally misplaced expectations. Not all frustrations with art ensue out of laziness or demotivation, nor lack of imagination or ability. And not one of us is unworthy or incapable of creative thought or of making meaningful art. It is, therefore, the task of a conscientious educator to not just demand an investment of effort but also to convince those seeking guidance that such investment is worthwhile; that creativity and imagination may at times be suppressed for various reasons, but they are never entirely absent. Like any learned function—whether physical or cognitive—creativity, imagination, and artistic skills can be acquired, improved, and honed through learning and practice.
Too many resources aiming to help photographers advance beyond their current level focus on knowledge and technique, which I collectively refer to as means of expression. But what good are means of expression without having things worth expressing? I believe this is where photography has the greatest power to influence lives—that of the photographer and those of his or her audience. Just knowing how to write will not make you a great writer; just knowing how to run is not enough to complete a marathon; and just knowing how to photograph does not mean that your photographs will be creative and meaningful. Intent, desire, courage, and grit—the ability to keep at it despite failure and resistance—are what makes the difference between someone capable of meaningful accomplishment and someone who just knows about meaningful accomplishments.
If you are among those struggling with finding the “next thing,” don’t blame but rather congratulate yourself! Blame should be reserved not to failure, but to unwillingness to try. So long as you believe there is more to be done, to be learned, to be expressed—even if you find yourself in the throes of a creative block, a personal struggle, or in search of meaning yet to reveal itself to you—don’t blame yourself. Keep trying. Take a break, if needed. But don’t give up. Accomplishments are rewarding but the rewards are short-lived. To live creatively, to constantly seek meaningful expressions, to try—those are the things that reward every single day.