How Photography Makes Me a Better Writer
Posted on January 19, 2015
Since about 2010, I’ve been working on writing a version of a story that shows what it’s like to grow up with a family member who has a mental illness. I’ve written it as a novel in stories; I’ve written it as a memoir; I’ve written it as a straight up novel. Honestly, on the whole, I have failed to turn a story I believe in into something that is publishable and a piece of art. I have had pieces of those projects published, but I have not achieved the larger goal of turning them into a book.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time on this project, and perhaps it’s just too close. Perhaps I need to move away from this narrative and start one of my new projects. This school of thought clearly makes sense: perhaps you have to kill your darlings for good to create what you need.
But what I have found is that the most powerful stories are the hardest to write. Stephen King talks about discovering stories like uncovering fossils. You start digging underneath the surface, and suddenly, you start to unearth a massive creature that is larger than you could have ever imagined. Writing this type of story is like following a dream. You allow the story to come to you instead of forcing it. I probably have been forcing my story in the past, but I can’t help it: I’m right back to trying to tell this story again. This time, however, I’ve decided that it isn’t my story I was trying to tell; it is the story of the family member who has the mental illness.
Since I’ve made this discovery, I’ve been writing up a storm. It just seems to be flowing out of me, but this week, I started to hear those old voices start to creep in: It’s not that good; you’re wasting your time; you can’t write this story because it’s too close. Honestly, some of these things I’m hearing might be true. I could get to the end of this WIP and realize I have jack shit. So I was in a funk. I didn’t want to write. I hated what I was writing. And I was thinking about moving on to another project.
Then something changed. What I’ve realized about novels and memoirs over the years is that, well, they’re freaking hard work that lack inherent short-term goals. Unlike journalism, which sometimes has quick results and you can see your work published within a week of writing a piece, novels and stories and poems have a much longer shelf life, and the fruits of the work might take years to generate — if at all. So that’s why you have to find a way to make your creative projects work beyond the page. Here’s what I mean:
The other week I saw the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal movie with a Jack Kerouac type as a main character who has an incredibly rich back story filled with emotional trauma. She’s shooting drugs and becoming reckless with her body. Her marriage ends, and she decides to hike up the Pacific Coast to find a balance or a wholeness in her life. What drives her is a comment from her mother: “You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”
That line, “You can put yourself in the way of beauty,” had a major impact on me in the theater. It’s something I should do everyday. As a young kid, I made a promise that there wouldn’t be a single day that went by that I wasn’t putting myself in front of something beautiful — that I wasn’t struck by something awesome — that I didn’t feel alive and a part of the world. Well, I definitely have those days when I don’t find beauty. I don’t seek it. I don’t put myself in the way of it. This isn’t a new idea either. It’s something that I remember discovering when reading Wordsworth and studying romanticism. It was about taking in something in nature, something like a dancing daffodil, and recalling that image in a moment of tranquility later. For a while, that’s how I thought about poetry and great writing. Now I also see it as essential to the creative process.
In order to get out of my funk with my story, I realized I just had to accomplish that goal: find the beauty. So I went out and started taking some photographs. I went down to Ocean Beach and took these from near the pier.
What I really enjoyed about this photo shoot was that I just put myself in the way of something beautiful and during editing I started to interpret that scene in different ways using various effects I’ve been learning with Photoshop. It freed my mind a bit. It allowed me to be creative without carrying about publications or an audience; it also allowed me to attain an immediate goal compared to writing a novel that takes (what feels like) a lifetime.
Then I went to Downtown San Diego. I wanted to find “beauty” there too. There is an airport parking garage I always see on my way to work, and I’ve been meaning to stop there and take photos of the city and the airplanes landing on the runway. So I set up my tripod and waited. Here is what I found:
These photos ended up being the same process. I took an angle and worked it in different ways. This was tremendously inspiring for me. It freed my mind. What I’m finding with photography is that it allows me to step out of the writing space and use the same wheels that I build stories and poems and kind of give them a new work out. It’s helping remind me that art comes in many forms; it’s helping to give me balance to sit at the desk after a long day of work. It’s helping me write. It’s helping me keep going. It’s helping me find the beauty in front of me.