Writing Lessons from Photography

golden orb spiderLast winter I had the privilege of participating in a Road Scholar nature photography program in Costa Rica. Although I was raised in a family of photographers, I never wanted to make the effort to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds and all that good stuff. That didn’t change with the advent of digital a dozen years ago. I’ve been happy with my point-and-shoot pictures, often augmented by Photoshop enhancement later. So my plan was to tag along, see Costa Rica, meet some new friends, and fly under the radar as far as learning was concerned.

What a surprise when our brilliant photography coach, Mónica Quesada, presented some simple concepts so clearly that she hooked me in. This is easy enough. I might as well try this. Who knows? By the end of the trip, between Monica’s encouragement and supportive group members, I’d made a breakthrough. I was by-passing the auto setting and flipping through various combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings like I knew what I was doing (and I sort of did), .

As the week progressed, I realized how many similarities there are between photography and writing. For whatever it may be worth, I share them with you here, and invite you to click through my favorite shots in my Costa Rica Flickr collection for further visual illustration.

Focus on the main topic. Keep background information vague for sharp contrast so the main topic stands out. In the photo above, the golden orb spider and her web are crisply focused. If the background was in focus, that web would be lost in the detail. Give plenty of crisp detail about the main topic and character, minimizing detail about less important elements.

Background serves a purpose. That blurry background plays an important role. Indistinct as it is, the swirls of color set off both spider and web. In a story, background information gives your story context and gives readers a sense of connection. You’ll know you need to add more if early readers ask questions like “Who was he?” or “What was your uncle’s name.” “When did you go there?” And so forth.

Compose the shot carefully. That spider is the central focus, but offset just a bit for interest. The lines of the web draw the eye toward the spider, and the white dots add a bit of sub-theme, also leading to the spider.

Include contrast. That sharply focused, somewhat darker spider contrasts clearly with the background, making it stand out. Shadows in the blurry background add depth and pattern. Stories without a bit of darkness seem flat and dull. 

That early thought about being happy with my point-and-shoot camera also relates to writing. For years my sit down and write a story the way I’d write a letter seemed entirely satisfactory to me. And it is. For most purposes. I still urge people to focus on quantity rather than quality if their purpose is documentary writing. In my case, over time, I began learning new ways to organize stories and tweak them. I’m hooked. I hope I’ll always keep learning new techniques, new ways of looking at story and refining it. The end result may be more pleasing to readers and convey my points more crisply, but for me, the pleasure is in the process and craft. I love the challenge.

Photography isn’t the only way to expand creativity and perspective and learn more about writing. Scads of writers also paint. Natalie Goldberg’s newest book, Living Color: Painting, Writing and the Bones of Seeing is all about the relationship between visual expression and writing. Do yourself a favor and try some alternate modes yourself.

Write now: Read at least the “Look Inside” part of Living Color, then find paper and pen (pencil is too tempting to erase) and use her concepts to make a few sketches. Consider how you look at your surroundings differently when you consider drawing them. How does this relate to the way you look and see when you plan to write.

1 comment :

awcarney said...

Sharon, thank you for this useful and thoughtful post. Many of the people I talk to who want to write a memoir become frozen at the thought of writing a "long" book. Your example of the process of writing "Adventures of a Chilehead" is specific and helpful. Having been raised in northern New Mexico (Las Vegas) and being a lover of the varieties of chiles, I greatly appreciate the theme and am kicking myself, "Now, why didn't I think of that?" I will order your book. Thank you for your blog and sharing your experience.
Alice Winston Carney