Thinking Like a Photographer
[Another entry in the on-going blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]
by Claire Cheney
When I'm stuck in my writing, I take pictures.
The past two weeks have been difficult, as I'm sure they have been for anyone living here in Boston—from being told to 'shelter in place' to being bombarded with story after story about the bombing and subsequent 102-hour man-hunt that shook our city to its core. While many writers rose to the occasion and poured out some excellent reporting and perspectives on the events, I sat and stared out my window. I walked around my neighborhood and took pictures of tulips and train tracks. I probably looked a little strange, kneeling on people's lawns to photograph a violet, or standing in someone's driveway with my camera pointed up at the sky to capture the white tuft of an apple blossom on a high branch.
The process of taking photographs is calming for me, but not only that, it reminds me of how to observe. Even if most of my pictures are worthless out-of-focus nature shots, I find that at the end of my walk, I am able to think more clearly, I am able to write more carefully and freely.
Photography is not only a means to record our reality—as smart phones and security cameras have revealed to us in the recent events, but also a means of acute observation, a way to create borders around what we see. I find the same need to do this in my writing, as I often to grab on to too much, I try to take my arms and wrap them around everything I am feeling and thinking and all I end up with is a mess. But when I create a small frame around something, I can approach it with directness, I can focus in on what I want to write, on the sentences and the story that they will thread together.
Forcing myself to slow down, to look at the world, especially close up through the auto-focus lens is a thrilling experience. And it feeds my writing. A camera is not always necessary, but if you're like me and don't have a dog and feel a little self-conscious walking around outside by yourself unless you're doing something, a camera is useful. A cell phone works too, because most have little imbedded cameras. Taking pictures reminds me of where I am, gives me a sense of place that is crucial to communicate in writing.
Here are the daffodils poking through chain-link fences, here is the city sky-line rimmed with chartreuse maple blossoms, here is a neighbor sitting on his porch in his Red Sox jacket drinking a beer.
Here is the world. Just looking at it can be healing.
Claire Cheney lives and writes in Somerville. In 2012 she self-published an art book called Art of the Harvest chronicling her trip to Macedonia to harvest the spice saffron. She continues to do research on this strange spice while working full time in the specialty food industry. She likes to cook paella.