I was in my mid twenties when I first became really interested in photography. I was teaching elementary school in East L.A. and taking classes at Cal State to get my teaching credential. In order to fill a few extra credits I signed up for a black and white photography class with my old Pentax K1000.
We had different assignments each week based on themes like, light, lines, shadows, contrast, composition, so many of the themes playing off of each other. After all, you can’t have shadows without light. I loved the way light and absence of light played such a huge roll in black and white photos. I loved the way I could manipulate the photo in the darkroom. And I also really loved how, as the class went on and I practiced more, my camera lens became a new way for me to view the world, even if what I was looking at was something I’d seen every day in passing. Like learning a new language and finally thinking in that language.
I could spend hours in the darkroom, developing photos, burning and dodging, waiting for the image to appear on the white paper as it sat in the developer. For our final project we had to mount and frame several of our photos and I remember thinking how magnificent they all looked. Even our teacher, a huge, biker bad-ass with a long gray ponytail, and smoker’s rough voice, said, “Every amateur believes their photos are good enough to frame. Every single one of these is. You guys did good.”
It’s the end of January and I’ve hardly written at all. A bit of rewriting and editing, but hardly any real writing, and it’s making me crazy. I could write about the January blues that I find myself in every year, but looking back at my journals I can see I write about the January blues every year, and the only thing I’ve become certain of as I get older, is that they are just a part of a cycle for me and maybe many others. I mean, whose idea was it to begin the new year in the middle of the long, dark, cold days of winter anyway? It certainly feels more natural to want to hibernate, than to be active. But as much as I’d like to just curl up on the comfy couch with my blanket and my sweeping saga of a book and read myself right on into April, I can’t.
When I’m having serious writing block, or in the January blues I’m in now I often go back to my camera and what I learned in that photography class to help dig me out of that blank creative space. Because when I’m writing, it’s all about creating that perfect image.
Sometimes it’s as simple as taking my camera outside and shooting pictures, gaining inspiration as I look through the lens to pinpoint and frame a slice of life I might want to write about. I do write to create a picture, but often it’s a photograph first that gives me direction.
Periodically I’ll read literary magazines and websites I enjoy, or I look at sites that publish requests for manuscripts and contest themes, to see if a topic sparks my fingers to dance across the keyboard again, the way each new assignment in my photography class sparked my hands and mind and camera to create something new or beautiful or strange. Checking in with what other writers are submitting and what editors are looking for also makes me feel connected to a writing community, and sometimes connection is everything.
When I’m really stuck I remember the idea of looking at things differently through the camera lens and apply it to an old dust-gathering essay. I might tear it apart and take one tiny section to create an entirely new essay. I might write in present tense instead of past. Sometimes all it takes is starting the essay in a new place, manipulating and bringing it to light until it’s a picture I want to frame.