…[C]reative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty. ~Anne Lamott
Whenever we create something, anything, the result is a shot of adrenaline, a skip in our step, a whole new outlook on the day. Todays guest post comes from Jane Hammons (@JHammons), who writes about exploring creativity in new ways.
by Jane Hammons
That’s a question I am asked frequently now that I’ve retired from thirty years of teaching writing at UC Berkeley. It’s a question with many answers, sometimes no answer.
Because I’m a writer, I think the assumption is that I’ll say I’m going to write for hours every day. I hope to. But if I don’t, I’m going to try not to freak out about it.
I’ve always written fairly regularly, but I’ve also always taken breaks. Or it might be more accurate to say that sometimes writing takes a break from me. I’ll sit down to work on something and just be filled with dread or self-loathing or ennui, to name a few of the awful feelings writers sometimes experience.
I used to feel much worse about the breaks than I do now, partly because I turn my attention to other things that frequently bring me back to writing. But even if they don’t, I’m not too concerned. Because they take me somewhere, and as long as I’m moving forward and not settling into the conditions mentioned above, I’m okay.
Taking photographs is one of those things. I began taking pictures four years ago when I read about a project for journalists who were to document their town by taking a photograph of it every day for a year. I’m not a journalist, so I didn’t hold myself to their guidelines. I just liked the idea of taking a photo a day. So in December 2011, I made it my New Year’s Resolution. But on New Year’s Day, 2012, one of my sisters died suddenly, and I discovered that I was Executor of her estate (something I’ve written about in the essay Final Accounting published in Full Grown People). I wasn’t sure I had time teach my classes, let alone write or take photographs.
What fell by the wayside was writing, but that opened the door to photography. I freed myself from the idea that I had to take good photographs. After all, I am not a photographer. What do I know about visual composition or lighting or f-stops? I allowed myself to be a true beginner and to not judge the product, but just engage in the process. And while I was nervous about it, I began posting the photos to an album on Facebook. I loved the immediate gratification of getting responses from people about some aspect of the photograph. The long-term payoff was that I began to see differently, which made me think differently, and that led me back to writing. On Twitter I came across Tom Mason’s 330 Words where he publishes a photograph accompanied by a short piece of writing. No editing, no rejecting: just submit the photo with a piece of writing and it would appear on his website. I didn’t worry too much about the writing (it’s just 330 words!) and focused on the image as I wrote, usually quickly and without revising much, eventually publishing five pieces there.
This writing made me want to think more about images. And there is no better person to help with that than the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry. Joining the Instagram #continuouspractice group, I post a photo to represent the day’s writing. I often photograph a page from one of Lynda Barry’s books– What It is or Syllabus—to highlight the aspect of creativity I want to address in my writing. I also use the app Paper Artist to make the image, in some way, my own (and hope Barry doesn’t mind).
Photographs tell stories; written stories create images. We know this. But just as when I begin writing a story, I often don’t know what the story is; when I shoot a photo, I often don’t know what I’ve captured until later when I download the images. What I see when I frame a shot in the lens is not the same thing as the image produced. And, of course, that image can be changed in numerous ways just as a piece of writing can be revised: re-envisioned.
1053 is a poem I wrote about an abandoned building down the street from where I live. Focusing on the shopping cart, I created the character of a homeless woman. A year later, 1053 is a Nest.
And now the Nest is empty (I took a break from writing this to go take the photo below.)
The world tells its story best. As human beings we have the privilege of interpreting and remaking that story in a variety of forms and genres. It’s also a responsibility, I believe, to be attentive, observant storytellers. Camera in hand, I tend to notice things that I might not have otherwise.
What’s next? Moving my house into a storage locker; getting into my car with cameras, iPad and laptop; driving around; taking pictures; writing. That’s the extent of my plan.
And eventually, I will have to find a place to live!
Jane Hammons is the recipient of a Derringer Award for flash fiction from the Short Fiction Mystery Society. Her writing appears in several anthologies including Hint Fiction (W. W. Norton) and The Maternal is Political (Seal Press). She has published in a variety of places, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Crimespree Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and Word Riot. She has work forthcoming in Akashic Books’ online series Mondays are Murder. She’ll be blogging about and posting photos from her upcoming excursion at Lighting Out for the Territory.