The New Canvas, The Empty Frame, The Blank Page: GO!

Every time I sit down to write these photography essays I start with no idea what to write about. I have nothing but a blank page. (It’s actually a blinking cursor at the top of this WordPress page, but you get the idea.) What to do?

I don’t know.

If you don’t know either, welcome to the club of creatives. I may have to thank the muse for writing these words because they keep coming and I didn’t plan on writing any of these.

I’ve written screenplays and theatrical plays before and I often said that once I got started in a scene, I might have an idea for what the scene’s about and what I want to have happen, but when I sit down to write, suddenly the characters take me for a ride. A left turn. I didn’t plan to have that happen but what I wanted the protagonist to do, she didn’t have any interest in doing.

So, what to do? I listened to her and let her lead me. What do you want then? I’d just write like I was watching a movie in my head, and simply typing what I was seeing happen. I felt completely out of control of the story. Like it was writing itself. (Kind of like this article is doing.)

When I would tell people this, they would look at me like I’m crazy, but all fiction writers know of this experience. When the characters refuse to make the phone call you had planned to write and instead simply go out the door. Where are you going? Watch and see.

When the muse is working, I find myself working fast, fearlessly, not thinking about the next word but just writing. My fingers are working as quickly as they can. The ideas are flowing.

And when the muse is gone, I can have an idea, and like a lead anvil, it just sits there and I can’t get the first sentence started. I have nothing. With the muse I can write several pages without effort. Without her, getting a half-page written is like pulling teeth. Nothing feels right. It’s all bad.

So, I always say invite the muse, but when she comes, keep working. Don’t give her a chance to leave. That’s when time stops. Or more accurately, flies. I have no sense of time because I’m 100% in the story. I’m just typing and putting down words as quickly as possible.

When I go out to make photographs, same thing. I don’t always know where I’m going or what I’m going to find. But I know I have a chance of finding something by going out looking, and a 100% chance of doing nothing if I stay home. So, out I go.

How did I get to meet a 91-year-old and photograph him with my Graflex 4×5? What were the elements that had to align for me to be there exactly where he was walking, to be in the spot where he normally turns around, not 100 feet back, and to have the camera attract his attention enough to start a conversation. That’s the muse making that happen. I didn’t need to do anything but step out with the camera and a film holder–the picture would present itself, and that’s exactly what it did.

We don’t always get to make what we’re seeking. But we get opportunities to make something we could never imagine by going to work.

I was on a photo walk with friends and we photographed throughout Boulder one Saturday, and as we were leaving, not having found anything terribly interesting, this man steps between cars and I ask to photograph him and make this out my car window.

The camera just happened to have the right focal length on–a 50mm. Luck? Or the muse?

I didn’t go out to make this portrait. I went out to shoot street. The opportunities arise when we are out working, available to see and seize opportunities. That’s all the muse at work.

Fingers flying. This post wrote itself. Twenty minutes ago I had no idea what to write about. That’s the power of getting started. When you need an idea, the muse knows, and an idea comes. Need makes it so.

So, don’t think. Don’t worry. Don’t mind the blank page or empty frame. Just get to work anyway. Go for a walk and see what you see.

I remember being in a town just north of mine, Berthoud CO, on a late afternoon. I had finished dinner at a Mexican restaurant and saw there were very few people out, so I didn’t think the town lent itself much to street photography. But the sun was getting low in the sky and I wanted to walk so I took off into the alleys between houses.

That’s when this showed up in front of me. A little stumble on her part to make the photo. Kids being kids, out playing together. Americana.

Same with this around another corner. All I had to do was walk by and shoot one frame.

I love that there’s no way to know if that ball went in. And see the fridge and bar inside the garage? Another slice of Americana, dad and son shooting hoops in their driveway.

None of those would exist if I had gone to my car and decided, with no one walking through this quiet town, there was nothing to shoot. Instead of these photographs, I’d have gone home with nothing.

Take the chance. Go for that walk. You don’t know what you might find if you don’t go out and look. You’re guaranteed to find nothing if you don’t go.

You don’t know what you might write if you don’t start typing. Now, here I am 27 minutes in and this article has been literally writing itself. The words just flow.

Embrace the muse. And while she’s here, don’t stop working. You don’t want to easily let her go. Because when you do pack up for the day, no telling if tomorrow the words or pictures will be painstakingly difficult to find. You’ll have to hope you can lure her back to your side the next time you want to be creative.

But trust. She likes to work. So get to work and you’ll find her.

30 minutes total–it’s like I was simply taking dictation.

2 thoughts on “The New Canvas, The Empty Frame, The Blank Page: GO!

Add yours

  1. I’m tempted to say “aMUSEing”, but that’s a misspelling. Rather, I should say “amazing”. Interesting and mysterious.


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