I say it often to the folks who take my classes: don't ignore the things that inspire you, even if you don't know why they are making you feel inspired. Maybe, even years later, it'll be the missing puzzle piece.
This post is dedicated to my most recent Creative Non-fiction class, who I'll be saying farewell to soon. I've always used photography as a metaphor for writing in my classes, particularly this semester, during which I have also been carrying out my 365 photo project. Following is some of that waxing metaphorical about some very common writerly issues:
(My apologies to professional photographers everywhere. But you get the picture.)
1. A photographer creates images on paper. A writer creates images in a reader’s mind. That’s why all the writing teachers always say, show it don’t tell it. Have faith in the reader to see the images you’re creating.
2. The best photographs, like the best stories, don’t have unnecessary stuff in them. Once a photography teacher I had said: “You line up your shot, and then you take everything out of it, one by one, until the picture doesn’t make sense any more. Then you put that last thing back in and shoot.” When you’re telling a story, you’re creating those mind images, and you want to take out the stuff that might be cluttering them because it’s cumbersome. If something isn’t essential to the story; if it doesn’t move the story along in some way, take it out.
3. If the focus isn’t clear, it’s not a good picture. Do you know what your story is about? Are you sure? Can you say what it's about in one sentence? If you don’t have a clear idea as to what the point of your story is, you might end up putting a lot of that extra stuff in it and it won’t be clear in your reader’s mind either.
4. The simplest of photographs can have tremendous impact, just like simple language and uncomplicated sentences. Just like taking out the extra stuff, you want to take out unnecessarily fancy words and convoluted sentences. If you use simple language almost all of the time, that one fancy word or complicated sentence used on just the right occasion, will have much more impact.
5. Zoom in close; it’s all in the details. If you resort to generalizations, clichés, worn phrases, wagonloads of adjectives and adverbs, and assuming that your reader will know exactly what you mean when you say things like “and so forth” or "this or that" or what you are implying by ellipses at the ends of sentences… you’re falling into the trap of writerly laziness. Get in close with lots of detail, and the pictures you create will be much more interesting.
6. When you’re zooming in, look for story elements that provide interest, such as colour, textures, layers, lines, perspective, movement, life, light and emotion. A good photograph conveys multiple dimensions. So should a story.
7. A photographer doesn’t have to stand there and explain her picture before an audience can appreciate it. Similarly, it’s usually best for a writer to jump straight into scene rather than explaining all the background up front. Scenes are much more interesting than background. There are ways to weave in necessary explaining stuff later; and sometimes it isn’t necessary at all. A little mystery never hurt anybody and it might even make a story more enticing.
8. A photographer carries his camera everywhere because he knows that opportunity can present itself anywhere. A writer carries a notebook with him wherever he goes because he knows that ideas weave in and out of the consciousness all day long, and a really great idea could be gone in a moment. A photographer acts on sudden inspiration. So should a writer.
9. Just as a photographer takes hundreds of pictures in the hopes that one or two of them might be really wonderful, a writer writes a lot. Like a photographer who plays with angles and depth of field and lighting, the writer experiments, tries new things, gets outside her comfort zone, plays with language and style. I go on and on about journaling in my classes because the number one way to write better is to write a lot.
10. A photographer is always scanning for subjects. Her eyes are always searching for interesting shapes, nuances, forms, colours – everything is a potential shot. Similarly, writer is always scanning for the story. “Look at your world through the writer’s eyes” I tell every single class. Inspiration doesn’t rain on you magically, you have to pay attention.
My wonderful niece posted this video on Facebook yesterday. She says is very inspired by it. How wise of her.
A 13 year old wise soul: beautiful thing number eighty-five.
Gone is the life of leisure. I’m back to work after three restful weeks of living at my whims – meandering walks, cooking big pots of things, watching old movies, visiting with my people and enjoying my own company. Looking back now, I realise more than ever how much I needed that time.
For the past few days I’d been pouting about having to rejoin the world of the working stiffs again, and pouted some more when I woke up two hours in advance of my alarm clock this morning. But while I was getting ready I started to really look forward to my walk up to the office.
I think that’s something to do with the new photo journaling project and the walks I’ve been taking in support of it. There is a pleasurable and fresh purpose in walking outside, even if that is to simply open my eyes and pay attention to my little world within a big city. I’m falling in love with my city again – looking into its cracks and crevices and finding a canvass that’s painted with new pictures every time I look at it. It’s still early in the project but I’m finding it’s less about finding a photo to get up there than it is finding rewards (again) in learning how to paying attention.
All these years after developing the idea for this blog, I’m substantiating what I knew in the first place. Not just for writing and art – but for living. Living in the moment is what it's called. And it's beautiful thing number 81.
I’ve been needing a creative kick in the pants. More, a swift kick in the creative pants.
And I’ve been giving lots of thought to this blog and what I want to do with it. I suppose part of that is the time of year, this time of birth and renewal, and most of us start to think about change naturally. But I’ve been feeling a little stuck here; losing motivation for participation in the blog world.
Not long ago I protested to my lovely friend Susan that I don’t participate in blogging as a social networking forum; that I wish this to be a creative endeavour – to improve my writing, to become braver about what I put out there, and to foster my creative perspective. But all that can’t be entirely true because blogging is a social endeavour by its nature. And oh I love the friends I’ve made here; you’ve all enriched my world, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
But it is like minds I seek in the comments section, not numbers. I’ve had lots of fun participating in blog challenges; and it has found me some of YOU, but it also turned me off to one element of blogging – in that many people dart in and out of other’s writings to make a quick, superficial comments, just for the sake of making an appearance. And for the higher count in your comments section you’re obliged pay the person back by visiting them and adding to their numbers. After a period of that, the numbers just didn’t mean anything to me anymore.
Having said all that, I do want to come back and visit you more, and find more of you. Things distracted me this year. A new job in a new industry, which required lots of learning and new commitments. And later in the year a new man. Things with him have settled into something warm and comfortable; a kind of matured happy that accommodates me sitting in the same room with him and being able to sit at my computer and write. Like now.
If I were to listen to myself when I offer advice to others about how to kick-start creativity, I would say “journal more. Just journal. Get the moments down, write with no mind to 'good' or 'clever.' Just let go of the need to be good."
I’ve never lost inspiration – I still find that everywhere; and so it seems natural that I have been thinking about expressing that in a new way. It’s my resistance from making a commitment that has stopped me from full out beginning a 365 Project. But here I am, committing: a photo a day for 365 days.
I’ve always loved taking pictures, and occasionally I can produce a pretty good shot. I take lots of photos these days, mostly thanks to a half decent phone camera. Sometimes I take pictures to help me find the appropriate words later. Sometimes I just like an image and can't articulate why. Or I take a picture because I don't want to forget a moment. Sometimes there are just no words.
So I have given birth to a new, sub-blog of sorts – a photo journal – my 365 project. In keeping it separate from this blog, I hope to better sustain the focus for both. This space will still be dedicated to the story, and my endeavouring to become better at telling one. The photo journal is more for me; going public keeps one accountable. It’s a forum in which I can write bad sentences and post shitty photos (and hopefully some good ones!) and just record my daily comings and goings for a year.
So it’s not so much a change for this blog, but just adding a new project on the side. Getting back to journaling without mind to how the writing sounds, to it being clever or interesting, will improve the original project. Of that I have no doubt.
My Photo Journal is found here: 365 Project: Photo Journal
Frank sat at the edge of my class near the door, a row behind everybody else. That wasn’t unusual; in the space of a classroom – churches and restaurants too – lots of people feel more comfortable sitting at the perimeter of the room. And in the Continuing Education realm, people enter the class with all manner of experience with writing groups, often no experience at all, so it’s not uncommon either that some folks rear up like a deer in headlights when I provide the structure of the lessons, particularly the story circle which makes up the latter half of every class.
The story circle, in which the writers read aloud the product of the past week’s labours, can cause fear to strike down like lightning. It’s like having to give a speech but WORSE! You’re being asked to share your art. Your baby. This thing you’re compelled to make even though you feel like a big fake and it’s all folly and if you share it with other people everyone will look upon you as the ridiculous fraud you feel you are.
When learning of the story circle aspect of the class, Frank pretty much said, “I’m not doing that.” His face said it first and he upheld that decision his face made for the rest of the twelve weeks.
Of course I’m not going to force anybody to read their stories. I know of that fear. I know of that wanting to hold my creations close to me where I know nobody will hurt them and ridicule them and look upon me with pity and say “Look at her, sad thing, thinks she’s a WRITER.”
But I also know what it feels like to release my art to a supportive family, and the importance of doing that in the creative process – how it builds in one the courage to try new, reveal more. I held out hope that Frank would change his mind because it’s never failed that each class does become a family, always generous with encouragement and support. And it never fails that I see the gratitude and sense of exhilaration washing over writers when they have shared a piece. I hear it in their sometimes shaky voices, see it in their often trembling hands as they hold their pages; I feel it lingering, palpable like heartbeats, after the last sentence has been delivered.
One day Frank thrust an envelope at me – it contained a stack of memoir stories from his childhood. “They’re just a bunch of crap” he said, “but will you have a look?” It was a memoir class and I think he was hoping some of them would do for the assigned writings.
They were so not crap. The stories were engaging and lively and full of movement and the memoir writer’s goldmine – “moments.” They reminded me of one of my writerly heroes, Roddy Doyle who has so beautifully captured the perspective of a child. I’d been reading them on the subway that subsequent week and met up with my sister after work one night for dinner on a patio, and handed her the stories to look at while I visited the restroom to freshen up. She shared my enthusiasm for them and read some of the passages aloud in character as we sat there waiting for our salads.
My reaction to the stories wasn’t enough to convince Frank to read any of what he still called “crap” in class, but he did eventually concede to have one of his peers read aloud another story of his. She was a beautiful and elegant orator, and read his story with reverence. And even though she was so different from Frank, so far from his personal aspect, when she finished the group let go approving outbursts and applause. That remains a seminal writing teacher moment.
Another of those seminal moments occurred recently when Frank showed up on Facebook with a professional photograph and images of his published book, Our Land is the Sky – a series of stories about a family of crows he wrote for his grandson, which I had enjoyed in their draft stages.
He sent me a copy of the book and that up there is what he wrote inside. It represents a validation of all the reasons I work to encourage people to tell their stories, even though I have to do it outside my day job, and sometimes I complain about having to read yet one more story. That up there is the payback. Riches.
Keep telling the stories Frank, I know there are a lot more in there.
And if you have a little story lover in your life, why not put the stories about Jimmy Fastwing under the Christmas tree? Click on the images below to find out where you can get a copy. You won't be disappointed.
"I don't want to analyze myself or anything, but I think, in fact I know this to be true, that I enter the world through what I write. I grew up believing, and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation. But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level." —Aaron Sorkin
Unlike my sisters and my daughters, I've never been comfortable in front of a camera. So it's a funny thing that I've been wanting to play with self portraits. I've done a number of them in previous years in my Expressive Arts and other creative classes in all kinds of mediums, and they're a grand tool for exploring that vast place of mystery – the self. Certainly I could use a little practice in exposing more of ME – something I've never been much up for.
With all of the new job events and others this summer, I won't get up for one of my annual weeks at the Haliburton School of the Arts to do one of the courses in my Expressive Arts certificate program, so I figure it would be a good idea to do some creative play on my own. And one gets introspective, I suppose, when one hits a landmark birthday.
I've no interpretation for this one, taken the day before I started my new job. Except that maybe I'll get more comfortable with the whole camera thing and get out from behind curtainy shields.
The other night I saw a film presented in Toronto’s HotDocs festival, Imagining Emanuel. If you’ve visited me for any length of time, you’ll know I’m preoccupied with the power of the personal story, and how we can explore our own personal stories to gain self-understanding, understanding of others, recognize and act on our potential, even re-invent ourselves. Us bloggers are using that to marvellous effect, and the thought of our voices out there, adding to the beautiful mosaic of humanity is something I find immensely gratifying.
So it would have been from that perspective that I watched the film about Emanuel, a refugee who landed as a stowaway in Norway.
The only thing Emanuel has is his story. He has no identification, no “proof” of where he came from, he has never had any “papers” of any kind. He tells us he was born in Liberia, and because of the war, fled to Ghana with his mother. They lived on the streets in poverty, and she eventually died. He supported himself by helping market vendors carry their goods to market for pay in food.
He decided to seek a better life, and hiding in the propeller cavity of a ship, became a stowaway to an unknown destination. After days of either sitting or standing in the small, wet space with no food or water, he emerged and gave himself up and found he was in Norway.
Norwegian officials do not believe his story. They have determined he is not from Liberia but from Ghana. The illiterate Emanuel has never wavered from his story, it’s the only thing he has. Ghana has refused him citizenship papers that would allow him to travel, and with no status in Norway, he is in limbo. No longer incarcerated, he has been given a temporary home on the farm of a man who has befriended him. He has nothing to do – he can’t read. He can’t work, he can’t upgrade his skills; he can do nothing to provide for himself.
All he has is his story, and because the officials say it isn’t true, his story means nothing.
I think about the people who have taken my classes and how empowered they become when they get the opportunity to tell their stories. I think about how gratified I feel because you read my stories and you tell me they have made a difference to you.
I think about my own experience of the story against that of Emanuel. His story is essentially taken away from him and re-told, probably for the reason of not granting him refugee status. And the invention of him by others has left him with nothing.
But thanks to media attention in Norway, and a young documentary filmmaker, Emanuel is not invisible. The filmmaker took photos of the audience to send back to Emanuel, and it felt good to wave at the guy and let him know his story was being heard beyond the context of official "truth" – that his story might mean something in itself.
I arrive at my usual spot on the subway platform at Union Station this morning at the same time as a woman and man who are having a good natured argument about where along the platform they should board. She wins.
We get on the car and she sits in the one available seat near me and he stands in front of her. I don’t really notice them again until a few stops later when I see her stroking the top of his hand which is holding on to the rail beside him, and she’s looking up at him, issuing a private communiqué by way of a smile that is content and adoring. It must have also said “bye honey, have a good day” because without a word he then moves across the car to the door and waits there, looking out, until we arrive at Dundas Station.
She has gone back to her Metro Times, but as the train screeches into the station, she looks up to watch him walk off the train. As he moves amongst the people on the platform, she leans around other passengers to keep him in her sight, as if wanting to capture him in his aloneness; that bit of time – not hers – when he has separated from their coupledom and morphed into an autonomous worker walking about the city with thousands of others on a Monday morning. It’s like she’s keen to see him outside of her, from a different perspective, perhaps imagining him a stranger.
It’s an interminable ride. A rainy day slows down commuting everywhere. Don’t ask me why the subway slows down too; it’s as if the underground is in symphony with the city's surface. Like they're locked in a dance, the subway keeping time with its partner in the world above it.
A few stops from the end of my ride, I look up from my book, feeling mildly annoyed, sensing I’d been on that train far too long. I notice a lady a little way down from me writing in a notebook. She looks to be in her early forties, with a long, groovy(ish) green skirt, taupe hose, navy walking shoes and a small square of lace pinned to the top of her head.
I always notice fellow writers with interest, wondering what sort of writing is going on. Is she journaling? Has she come to a fabulous kernel of an idea sitting there? What kind of story is unfolding in her mind? Is it fiction? Poetry? Memoir? Is she taking a writing class, perhaps like the ones I teach? Or maybe she's a reporter for a small community paper…
But then I notice she’s writing about me. Or seems to be anyway, as she keeps looking up at me then back down at her notebook to add further scribbles. Maybe I’m just her visual touch point, where her eyes wander to as she pauses to think. But I’m not in her obvious line of sight, and when she catches me watching her watching me, she diverts her eyes to the panel of ads above my head for a moment, then glazing over me again before getting on with her writing.
I’m mildly amused at the possibility that the tables have been turned on me, and I wonder what it is this writer finds in me to write about. It has never occurred to me that my public demeanour might be the least bit interesting, but then I imagine the people I find profoundly interesting wouldn’t see themselves as interesting either, like that husband and wife I’d seen earlier going about, what was to them, a routine morning commute.
If she was reading something in my face, I hope it wasn’t tragedy. I’d hate that.