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What the camera tells the writer about genius and grief

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Dedicated collaboration with a camera is worth an MFA degree to a writer. And editing in the era of the digital image is like recruiting unused brain cells.

The camera teaches us how to see things. It teaches us to look for what we routinely overlook. It teaches us nuance, shadow, light, and how to make collages with them.

What distinguishes a good photographer is not the cost of the equipment hanging around the neck. It’s an eye for composition, a sense of how things juxtapose to say something beyond the reach of each thing being composed.

Anyone can learn how to take a good picture of an object. But contextualizing that object in reference to its environ, that’s different. Writing a good sentence is not the same as being a good writer.

With the advent of the RAW digital image the photographer becomes aware, keenly aware, that thousands of details escaped his viewing lens but not his camera lens. And when the photographer sets about editing the image these details appear and can be used like charcoal or paint.

It’s the same with a writer setting out with a thesis, a story. The greatness of the developing story will depend on what can’t be initially seen. But nothing subsequent, for all its charm, can be allowed to dilute that first glance, the thing that caught the eye, that electrified the mind. Everything falls short of that in an immense nostalgia for it. That’s why creativity involves nostalgia.

Nothing learned in class, in a lecture, in conversation, can equal that experience of having celebrated an inspiration, having done well by it, having honored it. And that is what the camera, which is quintessentially an eucharistic device, teaches us: how to celebrate what we have grasped.

Therein is a pitfall the camera can teach us to avoid. We speak routinely of shooting something, of capturing an image. This militaristic jargon ill serves us—like headlines that bludgeon instead of refining or defining. Photography is not a game of gotcha. If you set out to shoot an image you set out to hunt it down and savage it. If you set out to capture an image you set out to cow and brutalize it. Instead, you must observe it, fathom it, celebrate it, revere it.  That’s why the camera is eucharistic. It puts you in communion with the imagery in its lens: you drink its wine and eat its bread. The priest says, Do this in remembrance of me, and the photographer celebrates an image in remembrance of the original exultation experienced through a lens.

The camera will teach the writer his or her metier. Leo Tolstoy is famous for his panoramic vision, the vast sweep of history across his pages. The Hudson River painters were similarly beguiled with panorama. A singular exception was Jervis McEntee, who spent almost his entire life in his native Kingston, New York, except for a little foreign travel and his service as an officer in the Union Army. When he came home from that charnel house of a war he painted trees, rock outcroppings, freshets, small things. He’d had enough of panorama.

The camera will teach a writer what kind of stories or poems to write, and the impulse will come of the experience of composing imagery, of acting in concert with the time of day, the weather, its shadows and shades, its movement. The camera will teach the writer the gifts that wait within to be deployed, not a second-hand admiration for other writers whose gifts may not comport with one’s own.

The camera’s cost is not decisive. The cheapest camera will do. It’s all in the concert between the eye, the mind, the mind’s memory palace, the hand, and the impulse to respect what one observes.

Then, when the image is filed in the camera and  must be sent to the page or the screen, the question arises: Is the image to be doctored, tweaked, tricked up, or is that original spark to be somehow preserved? Enhanced, perhaps. But, above all, preserved. Here, for writer and photographer—and editor, too—the issue of hubris arises. How much of what follows is art, skill and even guile, and how much is the meaner desire to impose oneself? Famous editors like Ezra Pound in poetry and Gordon Lish in fiction have been famous for aggressive editing, for bold excision. Others, like Maxwell Perkins in fiction, have been more reticent. But even before the issue is in the hands of an editor, the writer must decide where integrity lies.

The camera may not shed light on whether to write for market or merit, but it will condition the user to understand the sources of inspiration and the liberties that may be taken with these sources. The camera will not moralize or rationalize the way an editor or marketer might, but it will help the writer understand what is important to the spirit. It will dowse for the aquifer where the writer’s energies flow.

Photographers, like artists, know where the vanishing point is. They can’t achieve perspective without it, without a horizon line. Writers, too, must know, and for them the vanishing point is more elusive. It might be said that a facile writer, say, of plot-driven potboilers has lost or disdained the vanishing point. But it might also be said that such a writer has relied too much on a single vanishing point. But having a vanishing point, or several, is crucial. If you extend the straight lines of an object, where do those lines go? For writer, painter and photographer, the question is indispensable.

But what of a round object, a circular story? The lines of an apple can’t be extended out to a vanishing point. Neither can Earth’s. What then? The writer is forced to consider the planetary system, its orbits, its objects, its trajectories. The characters of a story or a poem are planets in orbit. Their music can be heard. The mind’s eye frames them as the photographer frames a picture.

Everything the camera does, everything the photographer attends to, shows the writer something about craft, something about integrity, about nostalgia for the lost and much-revered moment. The camera will fail that moment. The poem will fail it. The story will fail it. But they can honor it. They can celebrate it. And they can mourn it. At the end of the creative day, genius is not only nostalgic, it’s grievous.

2016, Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He is the editor-in-chief of the Arabesques Review. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

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