March 30, 2021
By Maggie Smith
Three years ago, my photography instructor gave our class this assignment: spend a day taking pictures which, when put in the right order, tell a story. And coincidentally, the next Sunday I was set to attend my first Green Bay Packer game at Lambeau Field where we were pitted against our decades-old rival, Da Bears. It was only after I’d completed the project that I realized how many of the lessons I learned that day directly applied to my fledging writing career as well.
Nowadays everyone has a camera (we call it a phone, but let’s be honest—when was the last time you actually talked to someone on that thing?) I’d like to suggest how you can fuel your writing through taking off one afternoon, getting out of the house, and simply taking photos.
Photography can help you recapture your creativity.
Photography, by its very nature, is non-verbal (leaving aside Reels and TikTok because those are tiny movies you make for no money and are often downright embarrassing). For me as a writer, I can get so wrapped up with plot, character arcs, word choice, and sentence structure that I lose my creative spark. Writing becomes work. Hard work. Drudgery, even.
That’s where photography comes in. You can take dozens of shots without any agenda except giving your spirit a chance to play. And after a few hours, you’ve made stuff. Not necessarily stuff you’re going to show to anyone, but still stuff. As Neil Gaiman says: “The world always seem brighter when you’ve made something that wasn’t there before.”
Photography can enhance your awareness of your surroundings.
As storytellers, it’s essential for us to notice. And photography is all about the visual. Wander around an unfamiliar neighborhood and note how it differs from your own. Are the houses set back from the street? What’s in the front yard? Take photos of the landscaping, the cars parked out front, the style of architecture. Make up a story in your head about the person who’d live in one particular home. Ride your bike to a farmers market and photograph people you see there. Notice details—shoes, jewelry, pets, hand gestures—and focus in on that one small, telling characteristic. Who knows? They could become a character in a story.
Go on a hike and shoot nature. Is there a storm brewing and if so, what do the clouds look like? What’s the interplay between shadows and light in that grove of trees? Take a close-up shot of a single mushroom and notice its shape and texture. Capture the rust on a discarded farm implement and contrast that with the riotous color of a field of tulips.
Photography can teach you to appreciate serendipity.
I’m a planner so it’s good to remind myself that I can’t anticipate everything. I might be taking a shot of an interesting front door and all of a sudden someone opens it and walks out and that’s a more interesting photo. I’m intent on capturing a kid eating an ice cream cone when he drops it and starts to howl. I’m watching an older couple holding hands when suddenly they’re arguing. A police siren blares. A dog runs away. I find an abandoned doll with only one arm laying on the sidewalk. A creative photographer stays alert to what’s happening in the present moment and pivots when a better opportunity presents itself. And we writers should also veer in a different direction if it makes a better story. Not everything can or should be planned.
Photography can illustrate the importance of point of view.
Ask a class to photograph the same protest march and they’ll return with vastly different shots. Some will take close-ups of individual protestors; some will step back and add context to the scene with a wide-angle view; some will focus on signs, others on gestures, others on people watching from the sidelines. One photographer will adjust her setting to make the mood dark while another one will open up his aperture to communicate the camaraderie of the event. What you choose to focus on and what you choose to ignore says volumes about you as a creative photographer and is an important skill to bring to your writing as well. Look for places in your work-in-progress where taking a different slant or looking at the story through a different lens might lead to a richer narrative.
Photography can help you dig into emotions.
Have you ever looked back through the photos on your phone and focused on the emotions you were feeling when you took them? We’ve all had the experience of Facebook sending us a ten-year memory post and suddenly we’re whooshed back in time to where we were, who we were with, the person we were back then. Yearbooks, family albums, travel snapshots all lend themselves to a deeper dive into emotional territory that can help you mine those same emotions in your character.
So here’s my challenge: find an afternoon, grab your phone and spend several hours taking photos. Let your spirit play. Don’t judge yourself or your work. Look for a new vantage point, a different way to see the same thing, a detail you’ve never noticed before. If you want, try to organize your photos so they tell a story.
That day at the Packer game, I took shot after shot of the outlandish costumes and the street vendors and the tailgates and the fans in the stands. But I wasn’t sure I’d told a story. Then at the end of the day, I found myself in the right place at the right time. I swung my camera to the left and captured a man in a Cheesehead and a woman in a Bears T-shirt kissing each other after the game. That to me was the perfect shot. It summed up the theme of friendly rivals rooting for their home team but knowing that, at the end of the day, love is more important than any game.
Edward Steichen, a famous photographer and contemporary of Ansel Adams, once said, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.”
For me, that’s the mission of writing as well.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, will be published by Ten16Press in March 2022. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, The Devil You Know, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s also a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writers Association, she serves as Managing Editor of the on-line literary publication Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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