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.