I write early in the morning. In the quiet dark, my ideas take on tangible shapes. I sift through my Trello board – an organization app where I note my ideas and observations. They include these incongruous and perhaps incomprehensible thoughts:
- Penguins walking around the Shedd Aquarium during the pandemic
- You can really only have one home at a time
- The day I jammed the printer at work trying to print thirty pictures [of my cat]
- Am I getting smarter or just more aware of what I don’t know?
The solitude, the slow and unhurried process of ideation and revision, of trying to find a semblance of meaning in these jumbled thoughts—this has always been the allure of my writing practice.
Not all artists create slowly. As a professional photographer and videographer, my dad observes the world in a collection of impatient images. They don’t wait for him. They happen outside of his control, and then they undo themselves, regardless of his urgency. On more than one occasion, I’ve been in the car with him stopped at a red light, and he’ll extend his arms across the dashboard with the camera opened on his phone. “Do you see that?” He’ll point to something outside, which I admittedly don’t see unless he gets the picture. But the world keeps moving: the people cross the street, the sun ducks behind the cloud, or the stoplight turns green, and we must go. “I missed the shot.” He’ll sigh, before shifting into drive.
The punctual singularity of the term “shot” suggests its rarity: an opportunity risen out of nothing, presenting itself as a unique collection of details which may never be again. I thought that I couldn’t resonate with the urgency of photography, given the way I idle my way through first drafts of essays, the way my Trello board bloats in response to my constant assembly of observation.
But maybe there is an overlap between a “shot” and a writing “draft.” As a writer, events, people, and ideas have also arranged themselves outside of my control. The cards on my Trello board are like the details my dad sees daily. He looks for the moment in which angle, light, and feature intersect. I look for the moment in which my thoughts, observations, and anecdotes align. Like my dad, I am not “making” these moments happen. I observe, waiting for them to arrange themselves purposefully.
My dad recently captured a photo at a funeral for a soldier held at an Eastern Orthodox church. The delicate composition frames a female soldier in her black uniform, paused in the middle of folding an American flag. She stands next to a priest decorated in a shimmering robe and another patron next to him who holds up a brilliant gold cross. We can only see the back of the soldier on the opposite side of the flag. Still, the impact of the picture seeps into your bones over time. My dad exults. “I got the shot.”
He took dozens of other shots of the scene at different angles and positions. They are all “missed” shots, comparatively. To get the shot, he stepped in closer, cropping out the contextual elements, and favoring a closer examination of a few details: the solemn expression of the patrons; the shimmering gold robe and cross. He saw something happen and was lucky enough to capture it.
In completing this essay, I had also written at least two thousand words—my series of “shots”—to get to the core of my idea. Revision—whether that be moving a few words or replacing entire sections—is not reinvention, but repositioning. Repositioning is both thrilling and daunting. It requires that you stick with an idea even if it is frustrating. It asks: what will I see if I step closer to the heart of the essay?
Photographic and written subjects are both independent of the artist but in different ways: photographic details are continually transforming, susceptible to real time. Written ideas are remembered or budding, at the mercy of subjective time and the elastic nature of memory. Either way, neither artist orchestrates the events. Instead, my dad and I grab the details when they are most tender. My initial drafts are often untethered until I claim an idea at its apex. I can say, “This is the angle from which I am going to write.” In this essay, for example, I knew that I wanted to write about sharpening my focus; the idea only became concrete once I chose to view the concept through a photographic lens.
What if I tried to loosen my grip but sharpen my focus, relinquish my false notion of agency in the creation of writing and concentrate on my positioning? Perhaps the reason I wake up early in the morning to write is not that my ideas are moving more slowly, but because I am moving more slowly and able to make sense of their shape and orientation. The more meaning I hope to find in a card like this: My mind will take me places my eyes will never see.