In Conversation with Colleen Miniuk

I was inspired to begin In Layers because I was curious to learn how the dynamic nature of photographer’s lives impacted their artistry and the process of image creation. In this conversation with Colleen Miniuk, we discuss how her evolution is intersecting with her photography and writing, and how challenging perfectionism is changing how she works, lives, and plays. We hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as we enjoyed having it.

Meet Me In The Middle
Deciduous trees in Cades Cove show their autumn colors in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, USA

Jessie: The creative process is a bit of a mercurial concept, would explain how you view the creative process?

Colleen: Back in 2013, I was struggling with photography. I had essentially reached technical proficiency with my work but had become bored. That boredom led me to do some research, and I discovered Wallas’ model of creativity, which lays out four steps to creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination and inspiration, and verification. It is what I follow now with my creative work in photography and writing. 

Jessie: How do you use those steps in your process?

Colleen: I translated those steps for my photography and my artistic pursuits. The first step of preparation is filling my brain with knowledge and ideas. This is anything; it is reading books and gravitating towards stuff that I’m interested in outside of photography so that I can develop new ideas. For the second step, incubation, I use as visualization. When something exciting crosses my brain, I say to myself, “Okay, how do I use that in my photography?” For example, I’m going to Acadia next week. How might I connect the idea of a pattern on the wall to the beach that I’m going to see in Acadia. I just play with these ideas in my head, which is way more fun than answering emails! It’s building muscle memory. The key when you go into the third step, illumination and inspiration, is to not bring in any expectations. This is what has really changed my process. You really have to let go of any expectations and let the spontaneous moment happen. This step is walking around, going out into the field, going on a hike, going on a paddle, whatever it may be, and just paying attention. Being mindful of my surroundings, being mindful of my inner emotions, and how I’m responding to them. When my brain becomes excited about something, it’s time to make a photograph. This is where the technical execution happens. In photography, the fourth step, verification, is essentially a critique. I like to critique in the field because that’s where I can fix things.

I’m always trying to create new ideas. When I’m looking at my images, I’m looking for ways to improve my work, new ways of looking at the same scene to feed my brain with more knowledge so that the preparation step is continually fed. Even if I don’t have a camera in my hand, I am trying to be creative and feed that process, so hopefully, when the time comes, I can make a photograph happen. With that said, the creative experts don’t know how the “aha” moment happens, that moment where everything is in flow and your photograph or your artistic expression is delivered on a silver platter, and it just magically appears. They don’t understand that part, but they do understand how to feed it. I trust the creative process, even when I’m not making photographs.

Unfurl Your Tendrils
Curled patterns on the top of a sego lily flower

Jessie: How is your writing and photography connected?

Colleen: So, growing up, I felt like I didn’t have the verbal skills to express what I wanted. The camera put something between me and other people where I could say what I felt, what I believed, what I understood of the world, and how I perceived the world without having to put words to it. In college, I dreamed of writing books. Photography brought me back to this. I still struggle with words, and photography really helps me, it allows me to express things that I’m not able to verbally. The writing has helped me with my photography because I have to find the right word and be precise with it, much like I have to be precise with composition and light in my photography to express what I’m feeling and experiencing. Writing forces me to see details, and as I see things in photography, it gives me the visual that I need to describe in my writing. They work together now.

Jessie: In one of your blogs, you wrote that you are “not a photographer who likes to write, but rather a writer who loves to photograph.” When I read that, it struck me that it is important to you that the identity of being a writer is highlighted, is that what you were trying to convey?

Another World
Bubbles and seaweed intermingling in a tide pool along Eben’s Head Trail in Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut, Maine, USA

Colleen: Yeah. That really changed in 2015, when my husband and I separated. My love for writing came to light when I realized I could not live like I had been living. When my world fell apart, I started asking a lot of questions about who I was. I felt like I had a blank sheet of paper that I could design my life in any way that I wanted. It became clear that I could be anything I want to be, I can do anything. What I discovered was that I really just wanted to be a writer, and photography fits into that very well. I don’t want to separate them, when you look at my photographic direction, it’s putting photographs in books. I like the balance of visual and verbal, and I want to focus on my books. I’m a publisher as well, so I love everything from the struggle of getting the shitty first draft together to getting it out into people’s hands. 

Jessie: That’s powerful. Did any other shifts come from that blank slate?

Colleen: Oh my. The events triggered in 2015 caused a major left-hand turn for me in life and my creative focus. I decided to write more books, be on rivers more often, paddleboarding, which enables me to make beautiful images of places that people are not likely to see and write stories about them. I want to inspire people to get outside. There’s so much out there for us to see. It’s not necessarily just the outdoors either; it’s being mindful of your life. This is what I have been trying to do with the last four or five years, being mindful of my purpose and understanding how I can contribute to society and make a difference. I’ve been focused on really honing in on that and just going for it.

You know, I had spent at least ten years of my life sitting in a cube working for Intel Corporation back in the 2000s, watching my life go by thinking that I was going to make and save enough money to retire early when I could really live the life that I wanted, and that became very painful emotionally and physically. After my separation and the learnings I’ve had over these last four years, I now look at my life and know that I can live right now. I can make a difference right now. I’m no longer going to wait to live.

Utah Dinosaur National Monument 00214
Double rainbow forms over the Green River and Split Mountain area during a morning storm in Dinosaur National Monument, UT

Jessie: You’ve had a few years of rebuilding and designed a new trajectory. Where are you in this moment?

Colleen: A year ago, four years ago, I would have never guessed I would be here. I do a lot of business planning. I’m a business major, type-A, lover of spreadsheets. I used to love plans and control. Those business plans created some amazing things, but I’m embracing going with the flow. I would’ve never have guessed being here at this point. It’s better than I’d ever thought, better than I ever could have planned. 

To start over is a very scary proposition. Over time I’ve built more confidence in who I am, what I want to be, and where I want to take this life of mine. Right now, I’m writing books as fast as I can, trying to balance the logistical day to day, but in every 10 minutes of free time that I have, I’m writing something. I’m also trying to actively engage other people, namely women, in the outdoors. I’ve shifted the focus of my photography workshops to Sheography, which is my all women’s photography workshops. I want to give women an opportunity to be in a safe, supportive environment where they feel comfortable exploring the outdoors and doing photography. That’s the sort of thing that brings us all together.

I’m getting more engaged with rivers and canyons. I’ve been on six different rivers this year, which I would have never imagined happening. I’m absolutely terrified of water where I can’t see my feet, so this is full-on plowing through fear. I see the influence of that in my work and artistic pursuits. My writing and photography is becoming more focused on rivers, canyons, and adventures. I have something to say about those places because I love them. I want other people to see them and care about them.

Maine Acadia National Park 00471
View of rugged granite coastline at sunrise along the Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Jessie: Would you say that some of the reasons you are in the positive place you are in now is a byproduct of releasing some of those planning and controlling tendencies?

Colleen: Yes, absolutely. That’s essentially the theme of my book titled Going With the Flow. It’s about letting go of control, planning, and perfection. Perfection was a big thing for me. The control and planning was an attempt to be perfect, and largely how I achieved success, believing success and achievement would bring happiness. After 40 years of doing that and living, in hindsight, a pretty perfect life, I was not really happy. Something had to give. Something had to change. That realization came after my mom and I attempted to stand-up paddleboard across Lake Powell, as a way to cope with my separation back in 2015, and did not succeed. I had failed twice in eight months after having this perfect little life where I’d checked all the boxes for the American dream and was still not happy. My whole world came apart. I was tired of not feeling good enough. I was tired of listening to other people’s opinions of me. I was tired of controlling everything and trying to plan everything out. I’ve since learned that control is an illusion. What the last four years have taught me is to live right now. And it doesn’t have to be perfect! I can choose to be happy right now by being grateful for what I have, not sad for what I lack. It’s an attitude change.

Jessie: You mentioned the break that occurred after your attempt at Lake Powell. It sounds like you’ve experienced an evolution in your thinking since then. If you were to go back into that situation from your current perspective on life, would it be different for you?

Colleen: I’m super glad you asked. Last November, I had set aside time with the intention of retrying my paddle across Lake Powell. As time got closer and closer, I wasn’t feeling it at all. I’m not really sure what it was, but I just didn’t need to do Lake Powell again. The week before I was set to leave, without any planning, I changed course and got on a paddleboard on Lake Mead. I paddled 61 miles; it was so amazing to be out there and experience the lake that I questioned if I needed to finish the entire crossing. In the end, I decided to leave about two miles unpaddled. I let go of the idea of accomplishment, and it was amazing, a totally different experience. If I were to go back to Lake Powell, I’d let go of that idea of accomplishment and just enjoy the experience. 

Jessie: There’s more balance?

Colleen: Yeah, balance, that’s the key. I’ve learned to transform the control and planning that I had for 40 years into something productive as opposed to letting it control me.

California Death Valley National Park 00063
Storm light at sunrise illuminates the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California

Jessie: I hear it like a lot of liberation in your voice, is that a product of the ways in which you’ve evolved over the last few years?

Colleen: Yeah, I’ve never felt freer in my whole life. We put a lot of obstacles in our own paths. We’re afraid to fail, afraid of what people will say. When I released the notion of pleasing other people, I was free to do anything that I wanted. I had been trapped in the notion of the American dream. I thought I needed to ensure my husband was happy, that everybody was happy. Now, it’s just me. Since I’m on my own, now I get to make it up, and I’m going to make it up as amazingly as possible. I don’t have major things holding me back; I don’t have children or a lot of debt. I recognize I’m in a very fortunate position, but that’s the result of a chain of decisions that I have made and how I want to live my life. Living with intention is really freeing. Some days are better than others, but I’m trying to live deliberately as best I can.

Jessie: You seem to be living a very different life.

Colleen: Very, very different. I look at my time at Intel, my marriage, which was a great marriage up until the end, and at the last four or five years when I was just trying to get through that rapid, frothy water. I have the ability to look back and say, “Those were really great experiences, and they’ve made me who I am now, but I’m not that person anymore, and I don’t want to be that person anymore.” You know? A part of my struggle in the last three or four years was trying to hang on to things that are known and certain. Part of the theme in my book “Going With the Flow” is you can go with the flow, but you’ve got to keep your paddle all in. You have to be able to go where the current is trying to take you in life and be mindful of that. I’ve sat back and said to myself, “wow, I really want to do that, but it doesn’t feel right.” Before, I was basically writing things down and said, “I’ve got to go this direction at all costs,” and when it doesn’t work out, I worked harder, pushed harder. That’s just flowing upstream; it was exhausting and frustrating.

Arizona Grand Canyon National Park 01179

Jessie: I have discovered that the idea of trusting where the flow is taking, you can feel very freeing, and, at times, it can be terrifying. Have you experienced that spectrum as well?

Colleen: Four or five years ago, it was terrifying. Certainly is a complete illusion, right? I controlled everything to pretend that I understood what was going to happen. It provided a sense of security. Now, I see it as anything is possible. I was very fearful during that little time frame in between. During that four or five years, I would think, “Oh, God, I don’t know. I don’t know where life is going. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I’m going to be. I don’t know where I’m going to be.” I still don’t have those answers, but as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “I’m living the questions.” I’m not going to sit around, wait, hesitate, or ask for permission. I’m not going to wait for the answers. I’m just going to live it, and I’ll figure it out as it goes.

Autumn Reflections Glow In The Tarn At Acadia National Park, Maine, USA
Autumn reflections glow in the Tarn at Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Jessie: I’m going to wade us into slightly esoteric waters. I play with the belief that we’re consistently given opportunities to become our higher selves. When we frame our experiences in our lives in that way, our entire life can become a growth opportunity and an opportunity to connect with people more authentically. I’m curious if that resonates with you?

Colleen: I agree with that. I think the one word that I would struggle with is the “higher” in the higher self. It comes with the recovering perfectionist in me. I had to go through a lot of work, trying to understand why I wasn’t “higher” or good enough as I existed. The notion of always getting better, always more and more, and more. When I hear those types of words now, I get a little twitchy.

Jessie: I can see that. That’s fair.

Colleen: We need to, at some point, accept who we are. We’re amazing exactly as we are. With that said, what’s life if you’re not always trying to grow? As you know, who I am now doesn’t mean I’m going to go sit on the couch and eat Doritos. Right? There’s always something else out there that I can learn and discover. Is that feeding a higher self? Yeah, probably. But I’ve tried to balance that out between saying, “I’m gonna learn more. I’m going to be a better person. I’m gonna impact the world in a bigger way” with “yeah, that’s great, but you’re doing great now.” People, especially recovering perfectionists, need to take that moment and recognize who they are in this exact moment.

Arizona Lake Mead National Recreation Area 00003
Fiery sunset over the gypsum ledges near East Gypsum Bay in the Virgin Basin in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Nevada border. (Photo from Arizona)

Jessie: Yeah, perfectionism can be a shapeshifter. I can work on it and start feeling like you have a grasp on where it’s living and how insidious it is in my life, and then it’ll pop up again with a vengeance. Are you finding that you’re still in the process of calling out the perfectionistic tendencies?

Colleen: Yeah, that will probably be a lifelong challenge. It has driven every decision and fed my self-worth. It’s literally been in my veins for the first 40 years of my life. That said, once you recognize it, you can play with it. I can move it around and determine when it’s not helping me. Or I can decide when to give it my all and my best foot forward. It’s important to me that it’s a deliberate decision as opposed to just living with it all the time. It’s being deliberate about it. It’s given me a lot of different opportunities, so I don’t want to throw it out entirely. There can be a benefit, but I have to manage it.

Jessie: Absolutely! It’s one of those survival tools that has a lot of really helpful qualities to it, but it can run amok if you don’t monitor it closely.

Colleen: When I look at the perfectionism, it’s trying to decide what I truly care about and how to direct my effort. There are a lot of things that I care about very deeply. I care that my workshops go really well because I want people to have rich experiences; that’s important to me. Just yesterday, it took me an hour to put one sentence together for my manuscript, but that’s important to me because I want people to hear a specific thing. I’ve just gotten a lot better at directing it as opposed to perfectionism driving my life. And I think it goes back to that metaphor that I’m trying to work with my book. It’s going with the flow, but putting your paddle in and really directing what it is you want to materialize in your life.

Jessie: I hope your paddle takes you to beautiful and inspiring places, Colleen. Thank you for your time and for sharing your heart with me today.

Photo Credit Guy Tal

To see and read more of Colleen’s work, please visit her website or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

About the Interviewer
Jessie travels the American West with her Airstream in search of dirt roads, dreamy trails, thin air, and cookies. She spends her days chatting up reluctant strangers on trails, taking images, hugging trees, and wrestling with her humanity; living on Brussels sprouts and inspiration. Jessie is a social worker by trade, and passionate about utilizing the powerful combination of outdoor adventure and creative practices as tools for healing, recovery, self-discovery, and joy.
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