In today's post (the third and final of my "Writing Lessons from Photographers" series), I'll show you a fun strategy you can use to improve your writing and editing chops. Let's play a little game, shall we?
"Writing Lessons from Photographers" - Never Shoot a Sunset
Grab a pencil.
Now quickly jot down three specific things you notice in the photograph. If you like, write a phrase or two to describe the overall mood or tone the image conveys to you, and I'll do the same.
Let's compare lists, shall we?
I'll go first.
If I'm trying to be objective, I see modest ocean swells, an annoying timestamp I just can't figure out how to get the timestamp off the pics my new little Vivitar handheld camera makes, and--oh yeah, a sunset.
But here's a smattering of what really comes up for me when I look at this photograph:
- the scent and feel of ocean air, laced with salt and sand,
- the path the pelicans cut as they flew in formation just above the waves,
- the pleasure I felt as I watched my three-year-old daughter scrunch wet sand between her fingers and toes, crouching on all fours as she pushed her way up a small incline pretending to be a "streetsweeper." (The fact that she's imposing a mechanical metaphor onto nature--not the other way around--is another subject altogether, isn't it? Aii.)
When you see this picture, I'll bet you're focussed on sand, light and wave. You see what's actually there.
When I look at this picture, I'm taken by riptide to a technicolor sea of memory and recollected experience -- stuff that's nowhere to be found in the pixels of this 2-D photograph. I'm so driven by memory it takes deliberate effort for me to see what's actually there.
"Never Shoot a Sunset"
Steve Szabo, my photography professor at the Corcoran, once warned us rather bluntly: "Never shoot a sunset."
Besides steering us away from visual cliches (and who better to warn than a darkroom full of aspiring fine-art photographers), Szabo's pithy injunction taught us to look hard at the photographs we were making. He taught us to look at each image we made on its own terms.
Szabo taught us to ask:
- What overtones, memories or sense experiences are we bringing to our experience of viewing the photograph?
- What aesthetic choices did we make to actualize our message?
- How did we do and what's lacking?
Had I been striving for "art" in the image above, I would've needed to manipulate expsoure, composition, or any of the other expressive tools of photography to evoke the mood I wanted to create. But to do this successfully, I'd have to first figure out what material I was bringing to the work vs. what was actually there.
Learning to See What's Really There
Szabo's advice to photographers is immensely useful for writers.
On a practical level, if you're still getting your writing chops up, you can save yourself time by avoiding the writerly equivalents of "sunsets" -- those cliche topics that threaten to become overly sentimental or melodramatic.
And no matter where you are in your writing journey, you'll improve your craft by consistently practicing seeing what's actually on the page (not what you recall or think or wish or project). Szabo's advice can improve every piece of writing you do, not just your essays and anecdotes. You'll become more aware of what you're doing well and you'll quickly learn which literary techniques you need to strengthen and improve to get your message across to the reader.
Personally, I've found this gentle practice of discernment enormously beneficial away from the writing desk, too. Learning to see what's really there is helping me become more present, awake and mindful throughout my life, whether I'm coaching writers, loving on my little one or learning a new jazz tune.
Seeing what's there/what's not is a beautiful practice for anyone aspiring to become a truly relaxed writer.
What Do You Think?
- What literary "sunsets" will you avoid writing about...for now?
- What specific questions will you begin asking yourself as you review your drafts?
- How will you practice seeing what's truly on the page and what's not?
- Will you try this practice out in your daily life, too?
I just posted a few photos from my Corcoran days for you to check out. Stop by my Facebook Fan Page to see the new "Writing Lessons from Photographers" photo album. (Just click the Wall link or press the arrow key to access the "Photos" tab.) If you'd like to see a few more, let me know!