January 28, 2008 by Allen George
The question betrays a vulnerability I can’t ignore. “I can’t take any more photos … Anyone else get this way?” My first words are those of an advisor: improve your technique, leaf through a photobook or two, complete those unfinished projects of yours. But as my speech turns viscous and sentences fracture this image breaks down; these are no longer abstract thoughts, courses of action for an experience far-removed – I share his vantage point and am no longer talking to him, but me; have just exhorted him to be the ideal me: always plowing on.
But I’m not plowing on and it scares me. Scared – not by the emptiness itself, but what it could portend.
You see, at first I accepted the fallow period he described. Then a month turned into two, the borders on my viewfinder view of the world dissolved, and photos became unimagined – yes, that was the worst of it for the photos weren’t simply unrealized, but unimagined. I asked the obvious question then, asked if there weren’t something more to this, if there was a point for every activity where a break turns into avoidance, then abandonment, and we lose the doing of something through unacknowledged neglect. When does it happen? And why?
You ever asked yourself “Why?” Probably. Asked, maybe answered: “I’ve changed” – then wondered if it wasn’t just a way to explain away your neglect. Well, maybe it wasn’t that you’d changed. Maybe it’s because things aren’t as easy as when you began: advancements aren’t as rapid, efforts no longer yield outsize results, and somewhere along the line you’ve raised your bar for quality and no matter what you do, can’t seem to meet it. Or . . . maybe you’re hooked! – hooked on that the rush of achievement, that sense of discernible growth that’s constant companion to beginners – was it all so intoxicating that now you can’t live without it? That you can no longer stomach the middle-aged activity and instead crave the new and novel? Yes, it’s true – it’s at the beginning when expectations are low that things are the easiest; it’s at the beginning that you’re never overwhelmed with options, where every skill you learn opens up one, maybe two, paths – but now, now you’re faced with a world of choice, and boxed-in by time and effort can’t afford to explore each one in turn – so where do you start? And how do you know what’s right? There was a lot of company it seems, a lot of helpful voices when you were a beginner, but now the field’s thinned considerably. The advice you get is vague, it offers only the possibility of direction – and no sense of how to achieve it. It’s different, so different.
It’s that transition that hurts, that stuns in its shift from structure to…to something so much less defined. And that shift – we all know what it brings. Goals; failure; the need for focused effort, longer learning periods, plateaus . . .Why not take the easy way out – recognize the shift and simply end it there? Say “It’s time for something new,” and walk away?
That would be easier. But that’s the ‘quick results’ attitude – and it’s born in that avalanche of content delivered to us by RSS readers, blogs, forum posts, websites, all inundating us with work charmingly dissociated from the pain of conception. Every finished item promises that you could have done it, that the gap between potential and achievement is vanishingly small; consume the work, and then buy into a world miasmatic with the promise of effortless achievement where everything can be yours – easily. The urgency of application vanishes then; if it takes the barest of imagined effort to bridge the present and accomplished you, there’s no harm in putting things off. And delay has its pleasures after all: daydreaming is so much more facile than your quotidian tasks; failure will never be a gadfly; your ego remains sheltered. And if delay means you never make the transition you can remain as a Brobdingnagian among beginners.
This is not solipsism. We have been conditioned to believe that every challenge should be taken, and taken with zeal and insatiable desire to be the best. We’re supposed to want the challenge, as if the journey were its own reward – but who’s rewarded for the journey? You’re commended for results, not for the project after compromised project it took to make it there, not for the times when everything was shit, not for those interminable tasks of the everyday. That is after all, what no one speaks of: the real distance between dilettante and expert, and the world’s disinterest in how bridge it. This is the hardest time, and the loneliest time; the temptation to abandon your work for something, anything, that promises easy rewards is overpowering, and all that can keep you going is a belief that this – what you’re doing – matters.
And so I return to this man’s plea and think that I’d answer differently. I’d say: a break is good, it gives you distance; but it raises a question – don’t avoid it – and if more effort isn’t in the cards for you then let that be a mindful choice with no recriminations. But if you want to soldier on then prepare yourself for the unavoidable tasks ahead, for the journey whose end paralyzes with its distance; and if that’s the case I’d say: leave for a spell – but return.