There I am, among photographs of a dinner table waiting for guests; a peahen, her pale white crest every bit as captivating as her cobalt blue male counterparts; the Pennsylvania sunrise that coats the treetops like peach jam; a blotchy Appaloosa, showing off her platinum-blonde mane and tail in the morning light; Roxie, the black-and-white farm dog with a docked tail, sitting under the shade of an evergreen as she plans her next move; the sky’s reflection in a horse’s eye, causing it to look every bit as blue as my own.
I’m there, my faded maroon Life is Good cap turned backward, the strap of my camera crossing my back, my right hand gripping my camera, waiting for just the right amount of light to enter in before pushing the button.
This is me – not just lost in time, but lost in the art of creating, unaware that someone else with a camera is behind me, seeing not what I’m seeing but that I’m seeing it with my whole body.
I’ve wanted this camera – a Canon 5D Mark II – for as long as I can remember finding out it existed. This particular one belonged to a young friend who captures births for happy couples, who slips off into the night to photograph the babies who don’t make it so their parents have proof they existed.
Last summer, I borrowed this camera to help save my own child who was trying to find her footing after ending an abusive relationship. While helping my daughter secure a restraining order and a new apartment, I earned extra money to keep us both afloat by photographing couples, families, a dentist and her staff.
The summer before, I used this camera on a drizzly July day to photograph a friend’s wedding at an old stone church surrounded by Iowa cornfields and gravel roads.
I knew this camera was mine well before it was official. My young photographer friend felt it, too, and was willing to let me make payments just so it could end up in the hands of someone who would love it as much as she had. But even after I owned the camera outright, it sat ignored on the top shelf of the closet in my home office. It felt like too much work to unzip the bag, lift the camera out, charge its batteries and relearn how to work it.
The camera didn’t hold the possibility of creativity. It held the heaviness of work.
That I might actually use my dream camera is one of the reasons I signed up for a memoir writing workshop on a working farm in central Pennsylvania. Taking photographs was one component of this workshop, taught by Beth Kephart, an award-winning author I had interviewed by phone for Huffington Post, but had never met. After reading Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, I knew I could learn much from her. Her September Juncture Workshop offered me not only opportunity but hope.
The writing software I’ve use to craft my memoir-to-be tells me I’ve worked on my book exactly seven times in the nine months of 2016. I’ve suffered from writer’s block, not in the crying, hair-pulling, fist-pounding way, but in an accepting “I-don’t-know-how-to-proceed-and-so-I’m-going-to-stop” way.
I wasn’t so much frustrated as I simply did not know what to do next. Instead of stomping my feet, I was just going to rest them until I could put them on the ground of that farm in Pennsylvania.
The day Kephart stood over my shoulder, quietly using her own camera to capture me photographing a pile of logs, I had rediscovered how much I loved to take pictures. I had gotten outside of myself and inside of a log, the left side of which had been sliced off. A jagged crack shot through its right. In that moment I knew I was doing more than taking a photograph of a stack of firewood. I wanted others to see what I was seeing — something shattered by someone’s decision to alter it with such ferocity that it would never be the same.
I have been on the receiving end of such violent decisions – and I, too, have delivered my own crushing blows. In my log portrait, I hoped others would see, feel and hear the devastation that echos in one way or another through all of us.
When I walked away from that wood pile in search of another metaphor, I knew I was no longer the person who wanted to just hurry up and finish my book. I had become what Kephart hopes for all memoirists: a writer who had looked up from the page long enough to acknowledge the reader and ask, “Do you feel this way, too?”
Beyond that, I had been returned to creating, not for the sake of publication or validation, but for the joy that I find when I lift a camera to my eye or allow a pen to move across the page without censoring.
By climbing outside of my story, I rediscovered why I was bothering to tell it at all.