Continuous Creative Improvement

Creative people in any field share the goal of continuous skill development. Bear with me as I loop into photography to make a point about writing.

This photo of gulls perched on the southern shore of Lake Pukaki with Mt. Cook in the distance looks great to most people. It looked great to me when I took it in 2005 en route from Christchurch to Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. It's got most of the elements of a great picture: item of interest in foreground, sweeping vistas afar, sharp focus, clear color, contrasting tones, life contrasting with barren expanse, level horizon.

When I look at this picture, I’m brought back to the moment of crystal-clear air, vast silence broken only by screeching gulls, whispering breeze, shoes on gravel, clicking shutters, and awed murmurs from tour group friends.

It looked good when I took it, and it serves the purpose of preserving and evoking memories. But something has always bothered me about this picture. It has never seemed quite right. It lacks a clear message. Which matters most, the birds or the mountain? I’ve learned quite a bit about photo composition since I snapped this shot. I now see how to frame it better. As much as I’d like to, I can’t loop back to New Zealand for a do-over today, so I’m faking it with Photoshop.

By virtually moving to my right a few feet, I  position that rock so its left slope and the lines of the gulls lead your eye up toward Mt. Cook. The rock echoes slope shapes, lending symmetry to the shot.

That's better, but I still don't feel finished.

Using magic again, I  kneel down, holding the camera at a lower angle, narrowing the gap between birds and slopes. My sense of the scene is wide. Cropping the image enhances that effect. Less is often more. I could keep playing with this shot, but for now I've made my point.

I sometimes open a file or pull out a paper with a story I wrote a dozen or twenty years ago. I read the story and recall the moment and realize I’ve learned better ways to tell it. My fingers twitch as I read, reaching for the keyboard. I may add detail, subtract focus blurring fluff, tighten wording or add dialogue. I turn simple narrative into sizzling scene.

Another lesson from photography comes into play here. Not only has my technique improved, technology keeps improving both cameras and editing tools. Photos I edited fifteen years ago may look garish and clumsy compared to what I’m able to do today. Even today I may over-edit, ending with gaudy results. Saving edits as a new file can save the day, allowing me to start over with the original material.

The same thing can happen with stories. More than once I’ve been called out for gaudy drama in stories. Starting fresh with that earlier draft calmed things down. Earlier drafts can help flesh out related stories, and reading them again reassures me that I am continously improving.

I continuously improve my photo skills by taking classes and hanging out with photographers who know more than I do. I study the work of experts and take thousands of pictures. I improve my writing skills by reading books and blogs about writing, by reading the work of acclaimed authors, by attending workshops and conferences, by reading voraciously, and by writing, over and over, until it works.

Would I take this photo right the first time if I did go back again? Maybe. If I had time I’d take it from many angles to increase the odds. And I often write stories several ways to find the one that suits me best.

Points to Ponder: Can you look back at early stories and see how your work has progressed? What steps do you take to ensure your writing continues to improve?


lourdes herold said...

Very helpful post, photography wise and writing as well.

SuziCate said...

There's always room for improvement, and we never stop learning. The trick is not to beat ourselves up; we must learn when enough is enough. I am my own worst critic. If I told you how many times I've rewritten my opening scene to the novel I'm working on you'd flip!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thank you Loures. Glad you find the post helpful.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Great point, SuziCate, about not beating ourselves up and about ENOUGH! You say so much in these few sentences. It's important to be our own critic -- IF we listen positively for ways to improve instead of hearing proof we're a failure. That's a personal choice. I see two or three more posts in your comment. Thanks!

kathleen pooler said...

Sharon, it's so great to have you "back"! Your points about revisiting and reframing your photos apply perfectly to the writing process. Writing is rewriting.And SuziCate's comments resonate with me. Yes, we need to get past that inner critic long enough to find the treasures within. Your photos are lovely,too. What starts out as good can keep getting better. Thanks!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Good to hear from you Kathy. That inner critic concept deserves lots more consideration. Am working on that!

I'm wishing now that I'd messed with the initial picture to make it more obviously a "shitty first draft," LOL! I have plenty of those, but not of this scene.

ShirleyHS said...

We have many shared interests, Sharon. Photography, stories, memoir, and travel to start. I agree that practice is the key to ever greater creative endeavor. And enjoying each stage as we go!

Ruth Webster said...

I loved this, Sharon. I learned a lot about photography from my late husband who was an avid amateur photog. I never made the connection from photography to writing, however. This is good, very thought-provoking.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Ruth, hearing that I've helped people make new connections is music to my ears. What better result than provoking thoughts could any writer hope for? Thank you for letting me know.

Amber Starfire said...

Sharon, I'm so glad you're back. I've always enjoyed your posts. As an amateur photographer myself, I appreciated your use of photography to illustrate how we see things differently as we learn and grow in skill -- whether in writing or photography or some other artistic endeavor, we can always look back and see how we could have made something better.

I think most of us tend to look back and criticize our former creative efforts, but I'd rather move forward. The realization that I know something now I did not before or see something more clearly than before encourages me to continue working and learning and revising. I can only get better at my craft. Never perfect, but better.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for adding that point Amber, about people being hard on themselves when they look back. So true! You bring to mind another benefit of having survived a mother who insisted each seam I sewed in girlhood had to be redone until it was perfect. I never viewed mistakes or awkward results as bad -- just another step in the process. She and I were always searching for a better way to make a bound buttonhole. That didn't mean the originals were flawed.

Photography, sewing, cooking, painting -- all creative endeavors overlap in concept at some point.