Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On Storytelling

Downtown Java Joe's

I was thinking about the similarities between writing and photography. Part of the reason for this chain of thought was because I'd been watching an interview with photographer Michael Kenna, who talked about photography being a medium of communication.

For those of us steeped in the technological side of photography, with its incessant equipment upgrade cycles and talk of megapixels and form factors, it's all too easy to lose site of the primary purpose for creating and sharing images, which should be to inspire and impart some experience, idea or emotion to the viewer; to communicate, as a creative person, to a wider audience.

Part of the blame for our lack of appreciation for photography as a communicative medium is that it is so gear-centric, and thus manufacturers, marketers and the photo media are incessantly busy pushing gear and software products; and laypeople are all too willing to talk it all up in discussion forums. All too infrequently is the conversation about how to communicate to others through the medium of images. Being a better photographer really means being a better communicator, rather than merely being better equipped at twiddling camera settings. Oh, sure, technical proficiency is one aspect of being a skilled communicator, but that's not where it ends; wielding a camera skillfully is only the beginning; like learning to write requires first some skills at composition, but doesn't end there.

I was also thinking about this art we call writing, the use of words to communicate ideas. The end result is much the same as in photography, although the means to that end is very different, as are the methods employed. We talk about word pictures, or use visual terminology to describe literary metaphor. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps more. These thoughts were floating around in my head today as I returned home from a day trip to northern New Mexico and found a package waiting for me, from the print-on-demand publishing service Blurb, of a collection of short stories I'd been working on for the last few years. It's one thing to see the finished book simulated on my computer screen, ready to upload to Blurb; but an entirely other thing to hold the thing in one's hand. These are called vanity presses for a reason, although in my case it was more a case of relief than egoism, since I was merely hoping to get these stories polished and in book form; to be done with them and get them into other readers' hands, even if those readers are only family and friends.

I placed the small stack of paperbacks on the table in our patio room, while my wife busied herself with whatever it is wives do after a day trip to northern New Mexico and the Three Ravens Coffee House in Tierra Amarilla. But once she settled down, she suddenly took notice of the books and immediately started reading.

She's read a few of these stories before, spread out over a period of years, but not all, nor all in one collection. I was gratified that she appeared to be engrossed; or perhaps it was mere curiosity, in the way that people are attracted to mayhem and disaster. But I think not; Loser's Blend is an okay collection of short stories, centered around a fictional bohemian coffee shop and its regulars. There won't be any Pulitzer Prize awaiting me, but that's not what motivates me to write, any more than hoping to be the next Ansel Adams doesn't motivate me to create images.

Like all good photographs, what I enjoy about writing is conveying a story to someone else. Storytelling is essential to the creative experience, and also might well be genetic, as humans have been telling stories since the beginning of language itself. Humans have also been picturing those stories as drawings since as far back as we can find evidence for humans, and more recently making those drawings by means of photography instead of charcoal or smashed berry juice.

I find myself, now in middle age, conveying family lore and personal experience to the younger folk in the clan by means of storytelling; just as my dad and his dad before him. This isn't unusual, but entirely normal. We're all storytellers; it's genetic. Storytelling is the mind's playback mechanism, imparting to someone else through oral tradition that which would otherwise be lost to posterity. It's history in the making through telling, and retelling. If we boil it all down, scrape off the dross of the world of elite literature and art, we are all storytellers at heart, in some way. It matters not if we are degreed or pedigreed or half-breed; we all have a story to tell, and some means to convey that story to a wider audience. The idea that only "professional" writers can tell stories is an artifact of western culture, its social stratification and elitism. Sure, to have your story more widely heard it might do you good to polish it with the skills of the learned writer (or photographer, or film maker); but the first thing, the essential thing, before all else, is to write, to tell, to create, to express.

What's your story, and who will you tell it to?

Post-Script: Here's the link to my Blurb books, including Loser's Blend.

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