On finding creativity and growth in a barren landscape

written December 2, 2016

Before winter hit Utah in full force, before the light left, before the season roared with routine, a friend, Jonathan, and I traveled to Antelope Island for a day of picture taking and getting to know each other better. The intent was to shed artifice, to dig deeper, to bear something, anything.

As we drove down that long first stretch onto Antelope Island seagulls flitted by and distant mountains passed slowly to the left and right of us. Our windows were down for a little while until the stench of the Great Salt Lake overcame us.

It’s an ocean-like, rotten egg odor that coattails on thick breezes, carrying itself throughout the entire Salt Lake Valley at times. And though the smell does eventually leave the valley, it sticks around on Antelope Island.

While our noses adjusted our conversation continued. We reached the topic of rejection. Rejection in the form of being told we’re not good enough in some way, whether that comes from someone else or from within. To be told something like that can be a devastating blow.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t recover from that blow. In the face of that rejection, cultivate growth. Go through the motions of course. Feel the sadness, the anger, those are healthy emotions to embrace for a time. But let them out eventually.

Imagine a building that’s been bombed; its structure can only stand if there are windows large enough for the blast to escape. We need to embrace every last explosion in life. We need to build windows and doors within ourselves and let the pain pass through. Otherwise, we become shadows of ourselves.

Jonathan, instead of turning his rejection inward, let it pass. He found other ways to continue in life. In my own countless rejections I, too, forged a new path.

It’s kind of like coming across a barren landscape. When we’re faced with it we either 1) try our damndest to muster growth through different means 2) move on to new soil or 3) simply lie down and take it. While I won’t address the latter two I will address the former: trying our damndest through different means.

Far into the island we decided to stop just off the side of the road. After traveling miles of muted colors we gazed upon the sinking, salty, once-mighty lake. Fall was quickly retreating. It seemed lifeless.

Moments later awe had instantly washed over us. Aha! Life is found here after all.

Dozens of bison on either side of the road moved their weight about gracefully, ruminating on grass. How do these gigantic beasts live off nothing? Maybe there was more than what I could see.

The landscape looked barren, challenging. Still the bison found growth, even when the weather was rejecting all living creatures, they found a way to move on. So how do we find growth? How do we get creative enough to move on? I was faced with that very challenge as it came time to take pictures.

Walking out into the field, I reached for my camera, I froze with my hand halfway in. Mental block. No inspiration to create. I turned inward; I started to devalue myself with internal dialogue. Complete shut down. There was a barren landscape, both before me, and in my mind. I feared rejection within my imminent creative pursuit. I feared the possibility of not capturing what I set out to capture. I feared failure.

To be honest every time I’m about to film or take pictures I tense up a bit. I worry that I won’t capture the energy quite right or that I won’t give the person I’m filming or photographing due justice in all their vulnerable glory.

As I was in the midst of this literal and self-imposed barren landscape I saw Jonathan smile, then beyond him I saw a bison grazing. Many moments of silence later I let go of control.

What a great feeling; how spellbinding. It was as if a journeyman welder took every molecule in my body and fused them all together with one wave of his torch, uniting me whole. It was cathartic to say the least. It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, either. Though as a subject to the human condition I frequently forget and have to be reminded.

Is that the answer then, letting go of control? Is that the "different means"? For me it was, and is. From the rest of that afternoon on, I was swept up in that catharsis. It spread like wildfire in my mind, burning everything, leaving nothing but well, nothing. Clearing the way for new growth. Ideas came to me again. I felt confident in capturing the energy of our day, our conversation, our connection. I let go of expectation, thriving only on intention.

Letting go of control doesn’t mean giving up entirely. Letting go doesn’t mean falling to the ground limp and waiting for the world to swallow us whole. Quite the opposite. Letting go of control is a liberating, creativity-inducing feeling.

When we lose the exact details of how we want the future to look, our rigid expectations so to speak  – whether that means an hour from now or a year – we allow the space needed for all those little explosions. Nothing goes according to plan. If we get caught up in trying to control what went wrong, in trying to control rejection, in holding on to these explosions indefinitely, we lose ourselves in a barren landscape. We lose our creativity, our capacity for growth.

So open the doors and windows. Let the light in. Have our plans, yes. But realize our plans are just that, plans. And they don’t always go the way we want them to. Allow space for things to go wrong. In a barren landscape, let go of control.

When the sun started to set that day we took our last pictures, capturing every last bit of light we could. Then we packed up and rode back down that very same long stretch of road, only now sown with an abundance of creative potential.