The Fernweh-farer: When Creativity Threatens to Go Cold

Updated: May 20

This time last year, I was on the final legs of a creative trip that would take me around the globe over the course of roughly six months. Before I set out, I sneered at thought pieces and travel vlogs that would lament the challenges of young and healthy thirty-somethings (or younger) “staying motivated” while on the road. As a consumer of that content and fellow creator, taking pity on the full-time world traveler managing to avoid the “rat-race” to chase inspiration and satisfy cultural experiences seemed a reach.


My experience left me with an entirely renewed appreciation for the sentiment of this creative challenge, even if I remain at odds with the manner with which it is expressed and communicated. A more authentic approach would be bold-faced ownership of the short-term human condition that steers us all to do what is fun versus what is perceived as work. Even if that work means writing a blog post, editing or writing emails from a rather exotic location.

Candles of Kashueti St. George in Tbilisi. Creating often requires balancing multiple points of inspiration.

Here I am a year later and find myself uncovering a renewed sense of appreciation, only this time from the desk of my studio in Austin. Trust me, the balcony I was writing from in the Catalan city of Girona last year takes the lead in the “Places I’d Rather Be” race. 


The original plan was a spring spent in the midst of a similar trip as the prior-year — only this time the counterbalance would swing more to dedicated and focused creative endeavors (aka work) and fewer holiday vibes fueling the journey. You know the story from that point — no late February departure, no crashing in airport lounges, no street food in Sicily, and no first-person perspectives with locals in Vietnam.


Still, the current situation that keeps us in a tentative state of loosening restrictions, but still largely homebound, allows for an examination of the skills that inspire those of us who create and share. More importantly, moments like this one test and highlight our ability to use tools in our arsenal that keeps us creating — even under the most stressful and limiting of times.

There is always an opportunity to emerge and create something beautiful — keep advancing.

I still feel that the main inhibitor to creating is the same tripwire that snags people of every profession — procrastination. This is the “what” that is regularly identified incorrectly as a lack of inspiration and defined as “blocked.”

 

For every traveler documenting a phase of their trip, there are bound to be hurdles to overcome when creating along the road. Primary among them is the challenge to keep creating at all. Yes, travel is a life-changing luxury for those lucky and brave enough to drop the daily drudgery and hit the road for a prolonged period. It requires a support network, a ton of planning and even more luck.


I count myself fortunate on all fronts. A result of a disproportionately supportive family that has fostered and rarely questioned (at least to my face) my passion to repeatedly step outside my comfort zone — both physically and creatively. That support is key because responsibilities do not go away when you travel but, instead, shift.

Stewing over high heat in Hoi An, Vietnam

The great challenge when you uproot the normal cadence of life for a journey, be it a one-week holiday or a six-month trek, is direct honesty with oneself with regard to intention. Yes, it would be simpler to cast aside creative ambitions and sip Vietnamese egg coffees all day and eat all the things. For some, that goal of unplugging from the grind is the goal and perfectly acceptable. Know that, and own that from the outset.


For the creator and storyteller, the approach would be unbearable. Signaling indifference, a wasted opportunity and rendering the knife’s edge dull as hell for this traveler.


I do not return from journeys with trinkets and giftshop souvenirs. My chosen instrument for snaring memories and expression manifests in photography and words. The former has taught me to consider the world around me with closer inspection and instilled patience. A shot that is not deliberate and symbolic of something that provoked a feeling or emotion is nothing more than a blind shutter press.


The same goes for stories. An uninspired piece cannot find meaningful shelter under a canopy of fancy phrases or the best-formed sentences. Feeling comes across as we input each press of the pen or keystroke, so waste not.

High heat and copious amounts of meat. Creating bun cha in Hanoi.

All this shapes the resurgent subject on my mind the last few weeks. How to stay refreshed creatively during upending life events. Rather those events be an extended journey to far reaches or an extended state of stasis during a once in a generation pandemic. By putting off creation for a significant period, one exposes the process to a dangerously slippery slope where the mind tricks us into thinking there are so many days, what is one more spent not stretching ourselves.


Creativity and creation are mental muscles requiring just as many trips to the gym as the physical self. To ignore those workout leaves one stale and reduced.


So, here are some methods I have successfully employed in my photography and writing practice to get my reps in — mostly during travel but also while at home. All are simple approaches that introduce a slight shift from the norm — that is all it takes.

Always practice your craft and know your tools.

“Camera Away Day”: Precisely as it states — take one full day on your trip and leave the camera at the homestay or hotel. The first hours in a new place are meant for sensory adjustment and establishing bearings. Images lack significance if they are void of an accompanying story. I find a proportionately positive relationship to time spent in a city and resulting images I care passionately about. Photography also gains intentionality with increased familiarity. On my first trips, the initial day in a new place was spent snapping away at everything — afraid of missing out and unaware that an even better angle existed around the corner. Don’t cap the experience. Do not let the irrational fear of “missing the shot” cripple the time to take in your surroundings. Trust that mental processing of an image also has undeniable value and can present an opportunity to share and reflect through other mediums. As photographers, we frequently get cozy with the camera as a safeguarding system — like Linus and his blanket. By moving through the experience of a day bare-handed it forces engagement of a different nature. Remember, there are truly image worthy moments across the spectrum of days and locations.


Move slowly and deliberately: For travel, fight the innate desire to notch comparative victories by seeing more and doing more. You will fondly remember that week leisurely exploring, and truly getting to know, the Andalucia region versus the blur of an overnight pitstop that does little more than carving a notch on your country count. I am a huge proponent of slow travel. Setting up for a week or more in a location to allow for the time to get beyond the must-see spots. It is freeing of stress to squeeze too much into a limited timeframe. Every traveler has been there — lamenting you only have so many days left mere hours after arriving. In my experience, less stress equals a better mindset, patience and freedom for creative expression. Same for intentionality at home. Try shifting the structure of your goals into weeks instead of days. This makes for a more realistic, and less anxiety-inducing, perch to view successful benchmarks along the creative path.

Find inspiration and learn from the masters. Livraria Lello, Porto.

Take a tour: Sign up for a tour very early in a new location. It immediately familiarizes oneself with the blueprint of a city. It also provides an opportunity to tap into the underlying stories and knowledge of an educated and, often enthusiastic, local. We all love food tours, and they are both valuable and tasty, but be mindful of other possible guided experiences. Try a cooking class or a local crafting class. Take a cultural walking tour or a brewery tour. Explore a tour that focuses on a subject you would otherwise not consider in your interest sweet spot. These force the formation of new mental exercises and catalog fresh memories and images. They also require thoughtful questioning about the local influence and history behind the muse you are calling home for the stay. Finally, do not just limit tours to holidays or travel — check out the domestic tour options in your city as well. I guarantee you do not know everything you think you do about the place you call home.


“Phone Home Day”: This is likely to be the most contentious and “courageous” move to refill the creative fountain. However, this tactic can result in some of the most meaningful and lasting impacts. By leaving your mobile device in your accommodation, or back at home, you push yourself to explore the old-fashioned way — speaking to locals and stumbling into delightful experiences. Many of us have become numb to the physical and emotional tethering of the cell phone age. It has become so pronounced that twelve hours without it produces a real shock to the system. Opposite of the prescribed tour timing, do this later in the trip. With a few days under your belt, a high-level directional understanding has registered — especially relevant when considering areas to avoid. Not having a phone and GPS at your immediate disposal will lead to an increase in “happy accidents” along the way. It eliminates the social safety net we all retreat to in uncomfortable times — pulling out and staring at our phones. Furthermore, the absence of the most readily accessible camera will remove an impulse to take a snapshot of every mundane sight, meal or drink course throughout a day. Instead, the lack of a handheld device forces time for contemplation and cataloging those mental memories. Practice common sense and only undertake this if you have a foundation of savvy travel skills and try it first in destinations that do not present clear safety concerns. Perhaps try it in your home city first?

Mix in a path of the opposite direction for a diametrically inspiring vantage. Palermo, Sicily.

Walk the opposite direction: We all fall victim to the comfortable routine that breeds familiarity. After a few days in town, we know the route well and our confident stride means, damn, if we don’t resemble a local doing it! Newsflash, the locals still know you are an interloper. Take a day to wittingly go in a contrary direction? Again, this is meant to encounter new sensory experiences, that cafe or bridge you have yet to cross. A new set of sights, sounds and smells will undoubtedly get the mental juices flowing. Plus, no one wants to be back at the office after an otherwise remarkable trip and think, “what if I had turned left that one morning?”


Pick a theme, any theme: Select a day and adopt a theme for your creative pursuits. For a photographer, this might be a day concentrated on analog imagery, architecture or candids. Perhaps a more granular approach to focus on a specific primary color palette for the day and make this the subject of your images. I once devoted an entire Amsterdam day to modes of transportation — focusing on the quaint automobiles, motorbikes, trams, bicycles and canal boats. By defining your focus and seeking a precise field of view, it actually breeds another level of imaginative freshness. Each subsequent image builds on itself as you conjure self-imposed challenges to go beyond or complement the series, with accompanying images. Similar thematic focus can be used for creative writing — focusing on a broad subject like gratitude or challenges to set you down a path.


Prime time for a Prime Day: One of the most tried and true weapons in the photographer toolkit. Leave all the lenses accumulated over the years at home and grab one fixed focal length prime lens like a 35mm, 50mm or 85mm. It will force reconsidered perspective, composition and light. No longer can zoom save you precious steps composing the perfectly framed subject. Instead, you now have to actually move and position yourself to frame the shot. It demands a more judicial consideration for moments deemed worthy of capture — reminiscent of traditional film days. I have a prime day on every stage of my journey and, without fail, come back to my accommodation with a third of the photos to upload and edit. A discerning eye is a photographer’s best friend.

Choose a title…very carefully. Municipal Library of Prague.

Read something…anything: The escapism and style variance derived from reading other author’s works is a great tool for your writing. Mix in different short-form and long-form styles to challenge your preconceived notions around effectively structuring a piece to communicate your intended subject. Similar to regarding other works of creative expression, do not view it through the lens of competitiveness but instead through the lens of sharing and growth. Reading also engages other areas of the mind and provided a slight recess for that which outputs your own thoughts.


Step away: What is that you say? I will never surrender! I appreciate this might seem odd to the strident hustler — I struggle often with unplugging. However, it is absolutely essential to take occasional time off entirely from creating. Put the camera on the shelf, set down the pen, close the laptop and simply allow open-minded wandering for a time. Our brains need an intermittent break. Structured periods of mental repose are rooted in intentionally and motivation, not laziness — designed to re-energize. When correctly approached through that lens, it avoids creeping procrastination into projects. This will not fit every creator or traveler. Sometimes external timelines are out of our control and trips of shorter duration my justify condensed itineraries (try to avoid this by adopting tip #2!). Just like our muscles require rest days to heal, so does our mental capacity for meaningful creation. A break approached correctly is worth it!

There is always time if you make it.

My experience left me with an entirely renewed appreciation for the sentiment of this creative challenge, even if I remain at odds with the manner with which it is expressed and communicated. A more authentic approach would be bold-faced ownership of the short-term human condition that steers us all to do what is fun versus what is perceived as work. Even if that work means writing a blog post, editing or writing emails from a rather exotic location.


Hopefully, these suggestions prove helpful in some form and offer some practical application in the current situation. Do not let the forces that naturally pull against creativity, and there are many, serve as a disincentive. Ultimately, each of us can prioritize production along with the time and energy for expression. Find it, exercise it, and happy creating!

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© 2020 by John C. Jordan Photography