Spin Creativity Book Club: The Darkroom

Before I changed my college major to something perfectly useless, I was a journalism student. And at least in those days, journalism students were required to study photography. Also in those days, there was no such thing as a digital camera. My photographic experience to date had been with a Kodachrome Instamatic. Film was loaded as a plastic cartridge, and if used indoors, you attached a small plastic cube with tiny one-use flashes to the top. You might get 20 exposures on a film cartridge, which might—might, I’m telling you—later net you one good shot by Instamatic standards, but you wouldn’t know for weeks. First you had to save up the money to pay for processing. Then you had to wait for the drug store to send the film out and get it back. That’s when you realized how many shots you took with your fingertip in the foreground.

I got a fancy Pentax 35mm camera for coursework, which I imagine my parents sprung for since I had barely enough money to make a trip home every couple of months. And for the balance of that semester, I left my professor befuddled that a student in his class could really be so inept as all of that.

I knew everything there was to know about manually adjusting the camera settings. I was quick and efficient in the darkroom and could dodge and burn like nobody’s business. In fact, I considered more than once offering to tag-team with a classmate. He could take all the pictures and I’d do all the processing. Despite taking a lot of notes in class about what makes for good lighting and composition, how to choose black and white or color based on your subject, or how to make use of natural light, I couldn’t take a good photograph to save my life.

Even though the images that came to light as I processed my work in the darkroom were dreadful, I remained fascinated watching each one come to be, something akin to what Claire Burge relates in Spin (absent the dreadful photographs):

I move the roll of film out of the canister and into the dark room, counting as my fingers move from the edge of each slide to the next. From there I move to the developing tank, transferring my own agitation into the activity as I slightly sway the tank ensuring that all air bubbles are gone. I do this a few times before moving to the stop bath, to fixer, to water bath.

I watch with incredulity as each image emerges. Surfacing from the liquid is the object that I captured at a certain angle with a particular slant of light but in equal measure another image materialises, all its own making. This part of film processing always catches me by surprise. I can’t control the outcome; I can navigate it through its watery birth, but ultimately the picture is what it is, not what I want it to be. (Spin, p. 107)

Claire asks the reader in this chapter, “What dark places have developed your creativity?” In essence, what experiences in your life have served as the darkroom, allowing these unexpected images to emerge?

Earlier this year, I gave one morning a week to a writing exercise based loosely on Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” (Loosely in that I don’t want to give credit where credit is probably due, in that they were more like Weekly Pages, and in that I wrote far more than three pages in a sitting.) I began each with a single phrase: I remember. Starting with a small memory from some period, most often childhood, I simply wrote without thinking, going from one memory to the next, until the words ran out.

Some of what “surfaced from the liquid” of those pages was expected. I’m quite familiar with most of the memories I set to paper. (Didn’t I live them?) But the process of writing without giving attention to the writing gave way to patterns, and within those patterns, I saw my story, myself, in ways unlike what I had before. Some of those patterns developed out of a different “slant of light” than expected. Some, in fact, where I had previously seen no light at all.

Claire describes what could be a similar aspect of the photographs she developed as a teenager:

My work is moody, dark and reflective of the shadows that chase teenaged versions of me. I’m interpreting the darkness within, transferring it into ink that forms lines of shadow and light. My favourite days out with my camera are days where the light is flat. I don’t understand why other photographers are always chasing the light. Flat light is also light. It works, just differently. (p. 106)

If those several weeks of extended free writing gave me one thing (they gave me more, but for today, let’s say one), it was the ability to see what can be illuminated by flat light, perhaps best captured by Claire’s observation that “creativity is ultimately allowing the picture to be what it is, not what I want it to be.”

creativity quote claire burge

Discuss Your Creativity Process with Us

We’re reading Claire Burge’s new release Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree together this month. Are you reading along? Claire shares delightful, tender stories about her childhood, followed with questions and activities about our creative environment, knowing ourselves, weekly blueprints, master lists, and more.

What activities did you explore? Did you find roots of your own creativity in your childhood experience?

Claire shares about the use of “flat light” in her photography and asks, “What dark places have developed your creativity?” Share a way you’ve seen your creativity flourish in less obvious ways or under less than optimum conditions.

Review “My 5 Earliest Creative Mistakes” (Chapter 21). Tell us something you learned about creativity through making mistakes.

What did you do on the pages of Spin to make the book your own? Perhaps you’ll share your thoughts with us in the comments, or link to a post you’ve written at your own site.

Spin-Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree

Join us for the full discussion of Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree

November 6: Where Do You Hide? (ch. 1-10)
November 13: Creativity Needs Ritual (ch. 11-20)
November 20: The Dark Room (ch. 21-30)
November 27: Chapters 31-39


Cover photo by Claire Burge, used with permission. Illustrations by Brian Dixon. Post by Lyla Willingham Lindquist.


spin creativity book cup

Buy Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree now and join us for our book club discussion

Spin—An Illustrated Print Edition, Journal Sized, $19.95

Spin—An Illustrated PDF Edition, $11.99



  1. says

    Darn! I wish journalism still included photography as a compulsory module! 😉

    You raise two critical points for me:

    1. The act of creating without paying the majority of our attention to the piece of art at hand but rather to the process.

    2. The artist’s ability to review the process.

    I think there is a lot to be said for reviewing and participating in the process rather than focusing on the outcome.

    Our society is a very outcome focused one.

    I am then reminded of the eastern tradition of washing one’s own plate after the meal as a commemoration to the meal that was.

    Learning about this tradition not only changed my view of washing dishes radically but it comes back again and again to remind me of process and the importance of reflection.

    Looking forward to the contributions this week …

    • says

      It might be — though maybe it would be even more critical that journalism students study photography since photojournalists are being cast aside by many papers and the reporters are having to take the picture. :)

      Not focusing on the outcome was, for me, the thing that freed me up to write on those pages what needed to be written. Knowing there wasn’t the slightest chance of my writing it to post or publish somewhere allowed me to just enter into it.

      And yes, seeing what was there when it was done, and finding those patters. And I think sometimes that part of the process can use the trusted eye of another.

      My dishwasher has been on the fritz for a few months. I think I like this Eastern tradition… 😉

  2. says

    1. Activities. Chapter 26 is the one that most stuck me to the wall in this series too. I discovered that my childhood angst and sadness and fear were the things that drove me to solitude with pen and paper. I see now that in writing I found release. And a bit of control.

    Chapter 28 resonates too. Miss Claire may be a toddler at 20, but I am a child at 41. I took three little people out into the yard one Sunday this summer after church and introduced them to the sprinklers. I led them through spraying water over and over again. We laughed and giggled and dripped waterJoy from our church clothes — all while their parents, my husband, and the homeowners sat on the porch. For the life of me, I still cannot fathom why they didn’t join us.

    2. Creativity & Dark. I reckon that the dark places in my youth, the places where I had to grow up really fast and take on adult-like responsibility (or basically croak over), robbed me of a bit o’ my childhood — perhaps that’s why I don’t measure silly and fun by age. At 41, I still pull off boots and wriggle toes in mud; run through sprinklers; strap on a headlight and sled through the night; dance like ain’t nobody watchin’; wear striped socks with skirts…

    3. Chapter 21 – Creative Mistakes. As I stated above, I used to ink out feelings (via writing free-form poems, short stories, and songs). One day I finished a scrawl at school (instead of in my bedroom) and a friend asked what was up with my notebook. I handed it to her and walked to my next class. We met up again before advanced English and she handed it back, open to a short story. It was wet and some lines had blurred. I was aghast and I couldn’t believe she’d been careless enough to spill a drink on it. I glared at her over my shoulder from my desk. She looked sheepish and mouthed “those are tear marks.”

    My mistake was (and is) thinking that my words lack the capacity to impact another.

    She told me later that she either bawled through the pieces or laughed ’til she snorted. Hmmm… that’s what I did as I wrote ’em.

    It’s so bizarre how this SPIN book is helping me realize some “duh” moments from my younger daZe.

    “I watch those minuscule wrists at work again, clipping her horses onto the drying cables.” <– That sentence, although dealing with attaching pictures to a line with clips, takes on a different meaning for me. As I read that line and re-read that line, that's when I realized that what we create fills gaps for us; but, it also has the capacity to do the same for others.

    Thanks, miss Lyla, for this write-up. Psst, I was a journalism major too – for a little over a semester.

    Thanks, miss Claire, for sharing your heart, and opening mine.


    • says

      “My mistake was (and is) thinking that my words lack the capacity to impact another.”

      We make that mistake sometimes. Seems that our words — written or spoken — have great impact, and sometimes we’re not as careful as we should be.

      I’m glad you had the chance to see that impact up close with your friend.

    • says

      Darlene, (and all)–I thought this was a book about creativity (and I’m not….or so I thought) but it’s clearly, clearly much more. These lines got me,
      “that’s when I realized that what we create fills gaps for us;”
      I thinks that’s what I’m doing–filling in the missing pieces. I am 61, not 41, but pretty much we share a similar childhood–the fun part has been missing. God is using the most mysterious ways to reclaim it.
      I’m guessing this book will be on my Christmas list.

  3. says

    It’s funny…. during the darkest time in my life I discovered much about light, completely unexpectedly. As I started playing with my camera to pass the time and to encourage me to get out of the house I discovered that light is not just one thing… and it is not just one way. Now when I notice things I see as I walk through the park or the yard the first thing I notice is the light and I want to capture it somehow. In my darkest days I learned that light was not just outside, but inside – inside of me. Even when I closed my eyes I saw light filling up the insides of my lids. I was never sure if it was a neurological problem or not, but I liked it. Still do. I have discovered that I never really knew much about light at all because I took it for granted. Without the darkness I doubt I would have learned so much about light because I never would have needed it so much. During that time I wrote many poems and songs about light… works that just fell out of me easily and strangely (and later when I would go back and read them the question in my mind was “WHO wrote this?” but it was always me. Darkness gave this to me… when I read this part of SPIN I saw myself being washed… and the image of myself the way I am began to emerge, not myself the way I wanted me to be.

    • says

      I think there’s so much to this, Donna. We seek light. We’re made for it, I think. So when it’s absent, even on a psychological level, we’ll start to look for it, soak it up where we can. Where the physical and psychological intersect in that search is fascinating.

    • says

      donna very early on in professional photography life i dedicated an entire year to capturing light. it changed me at a fundamental level.

      so yes, and yes again to all you have said above.

  4. says

    Creative Edge

    I was befuddled by bubbles
    surfacing from dark places

    like black notes, telling me
    there is no thing more

    natural, efficient, than air
    and water, the slant and sway

    of light that materializes
    of its own making. Shadows

    from before always emerged,
    adjusting processed versions

    I couldn’t control. I knew
    my particular part of the story

    had to have patterns previously
    not seen, an angle developed

    enough for everyone to keep
    watching but different also,

    capturing exposures of me
    in flashes that would allow

    surprise, change the outcome
    you would imagine and film

    simply in your black and white.
    Once the bubbles were gone,

    I shot myself in birth, the agitation
    of the water I was moving through

    making a color picture ultimately
    illuminated to its far out edge.

  5. says

    24 . A weekly blueprint

    I make lists, but I have neglected to consider some important
    areas within daily life. I’m realizing that the important word here is “consider.”

    Consider, and then do something that helps me to organize the thoughts.

    I checked out the app. called Wunderlist. I’m thinking that along with a calendar,
    this may be very useful. A list that resides in one place sounds pretty appealing.

    27 . Counting five fingers

    This is a good one for me to work on. I haven’t got a strategy, but, i like the
    words, “expectant waiting” in this section.

  6. says

    In a college lab class I had to make and develop holograms. In that case, you can’t watch the image emerge during the developing process. You had to wait in anxious anticipation until it was all done, and then when you tested it at the end to see if it came out right, it was an all-at-once surprise (and, if it worked, relief). I like it when wonder comes that way, too.

    Also, I had no choice but to concentrate on the process only (instead of the piece of art at hand).

  7. says

    Thanks, Lyla…pondering today Claire’s observation:“creativity is ultimately allowing the picture to be what it is, not what I want it to be.” oh, how I struggle with this, sometimes…


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