Photography For Writers

Taxing It sounds silly. “Photography for Writers.” It’s like, “Knitting for Zookeepers,” or “Dancing for Gunmen.”

And yet, here I am, feeding you baby birds my wisdom. Ground up in my meaty gizzard and regurgitated into your eager mouths.

You may have noticed that I tak pitchers wid my camera. I have a Flickr photostream, and there I deposit an unholy number of images, some good, many less than good. At present, I have almost 2500 photos up, with almost 700,000 total views. Well over half my shots are macro shots, and at some point I’ll probably do a post on how-slash-why I take so many goddamn macro images, but that’s a chat for another day.

Today, it’s all about how taking photographs has improved my writing. And, further, why you might want to consider putting something like this into your toolbox. It’s not a tool that will sit at the top — no, at the top of the toolbox you need your word processor, your mind mapping device, your handgun, and a baggy of peyote buttons. But, you might think to bury it down in there somewhere for those days when you need a different perspective.

So, okay. How has photography helped shape my writing?

The Wizard And His Glass No-Mind: Blissful Thoughtlessness

When I’m out there, kneeling in the wet grass or trying to shove my camera lens up some poor arachnid’s pooper, I enter a Zen, empty-headed state where I don’t have a thought in the world (cue the joke that suggests I’m always a bliss-faced empty-skulled ass-ape). I don’t know that it’s the flame-and-the-void or anything, but I zone out. It’s damn near a fugue state. I’m surprised I don’t wake up with blood on my hands and a wretched array of images burned into my camera’s memory card.

Here’s the thing: writers need to find ways to disconnect. As noted the other day, concentration is a finite resource. You need to find things that don’t ensnare your thought processes like butterflies in a net. You need something to let those butterflies fly free so they can cause typhoons in Tokyo and kill thousands of innocent people. Or something. For me, this is photography (and, increasingly, Photoshop). Yes, I can achieve it with video games and light reading, but sometimes those imprint on your mind, which is a no-no — further, they’re not necessarily constructive deviations, either. I’m not against them, not at all, but I do recommend finding something that rocks double-duty.

No-Mind recharges your batteries.

It cleans the blackboard. Tabula rasa. Let the chalk play while your mind rests.

Double Roller: Like Clockwork, VI The Visual Engine

Writing is an interesting act, because in the strangest way, you’re painting with abstraction. You’re actually using an invisible brush and dipping it ideally in the brain-paints of your readers, and from there, seeing what picture emerges — stranger still, it’s a picture you’ll never get to see. They see it. In their heads. But it’s a work that is experienced differently by everybody, and you’re frozen out of that process.

Point is, writing engages the visual mind. It has to. Yes, some of writing lives in the internal world, but even there, it stimulates visual response in the readers — something is going on inside their heads, whether images writ large or mere flashes of images or just spots of color and light. We don’t read and have a marquee of bright words scrolling across our heads. We read and interpret into image.

Some of the most engaging writing has a cinematic feel, by which I mean, the writer captures visuals in an interesting way — not necessarily a direct way, but a way that speaks to the visual mind.

Writing this way requires you to flex a sometimes-hard-to-find muscle. You know how you do a new exercise (riding a horse, playing baseball, strangling somebody with your crushing thighs) and your body awakens pain in places you didn’t even know had muscles? (“Why does my hair hurt?”) It’s like that. You need to stimulate muscle growth in a place you maybe didn’t know you had muscles.

Photography will stimulate the visual mind. By hooking your brain into this channel, you’ll start to think more visually. On one level, this is practical. If you want to describe how something looks, it can’t hurt to have a reference photo. On a deeper and stranger level, photography captures a moment in time, and lame as this may sound, it captures a feeling, too. Writing shouldn’t just be about how something looks, but how it feels, too. The photo stimulates an abstract response, and you can grab a hold of that abstraction and translate it into your work. Which leads to…

Love or Hate? Managing the Imagination

Your imagination is your greatest tool. In it lurks all your madnesses: dragons and murders and lost loves and seas of fire and distant lighthouses and betrayals and so on and so forth. The imagination isn’t just about the things you conjure up raw, though. It’s about the relationships you draw between disparate things. It’s about the connections nobody else sees. That’s the writer’s biggest magic trick: the drawing of those connections. Any asshole can write about unicorns and high school break-ups. But only the masters can connect unicorns and high-school breakups. Or something.

No, what I’m saying is, metaphor is one of the biggest tools in your toolbox, and using metaphor can be both visual and abstract. You can probably think of times you were reading something, and you had one of two reactions: “Holy shit, that is a clumsy and incomprehensible metaphor,” or, “That metaphor is masterful and I think I just wet my trousers.”

Photography will stimulate your metaphor gland. It’s like a shock right to the mind. A tiny spark, a little current, and it’ll get the gland secreting the juice you need. It’ll help you draw the connections — you’ll look back over your photos, and you’ll think, “You know what that reminds me of?” It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily use that instance in your work, but it keeps that gland juicy.

Mmmm. Juicy glands. Bzzt. Yeah, baby. Do it again.

American Gothic II: Diesel Boogaloo Vignettes and Storyboards

Photos will also help you to stimulate story. Not just description and metaphor, but full-blown story.

Heh. “Full-blown.”

Shut up.

What I’m saying is, you take a look at a photo, and suddenly, you hear the thundering gallop of hoof-beats, and damnit if they’re not coming closer. That’s the story, and it’s about to trample your ass. Sometimes, that’s how how it is. It doesn’t happen with every photo I take. It maybe happens with 10% of them, but that’s just one more source of inspiration.

Take a look at the photo here. The chicken and the tractor? It inspired a piece of flash fiction, “Lethe and Mnemosyne,” which I have posted over at Jet Pack.

It can be an accidental thing. I took this image just for shits and giggles, and the story came out of it. But you can also do it with greater purpose. Imagine taking snaps at a junkyard or an antique store, and seeing what kinds of crazy stories you get going. Monkey with cymbals meets vintage junker Pontiac Streamliner. Go!

Further, if you’re so bold, you might use a series of images as storyboards — continuous images bound together with the common thread of the story’s throughline. In fact, were you so inclined, you might do what I have not and check out something like Hitchcock Mobile Storyboarding for the iPhone. And, were you so inclined, you might let me know your thoughts. Thanks for spending the money, guinea pig! My gratitude is endless! Sucker!

Sleeping Standing Up Conclusion?

Try it. Doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. You’re weird. All writers are; don’t think you’re different and “normal.” Pfah. The tools in a writer’s toolbox are sometimes concrete and other times abstract. This is one of the abstract (re: weird) ones, and if you try to rock the photo-mojo, let me know how it’s voodoo do you.

Your camera doesn’t need to be of superb quality. You have a cell phone, I’m sure — if you don’t, I’ll ask why you’re reading this site at all, Brother Esau, shouldn’t you be milking a goat or something? That cell phone likely has a camera, so check it out. Take candid photos of strangers. Get down in the grass and take shots of the micro-world that lives there. Snap a snap of the weird things you find on the side of the road, or of the strange things someone might paint. It’s a visual record. It’s a shock to your metaphor gland and your visual muscle. It’s tickles your story cortex. Try it. You might just like it.