Monday, May 6, 2013

Short Stories and Snapshots: In Lieu of a Preface

Eduardo Galeano's short-short piece “The Language of Art,” has resonated with me for years. In many, many ways, most of the book, The Book of Embraces has resonated with me for years. I've had a copy of the book for nearly twenty years. I cannot recall who gave me the first copy way back in the early 1990s, but I remember how it was introduced to me. “Anthony, you'll love this. It reads like a bunches of embraces.” No truer words.

But Chinolope of “The Language of Art” is a hero. Chinolope is what all heroes should be. Chinolope is part pariah and and part poverty struck worker. Chinolope is one part luck mixed with three parts bad luck. Luck: “Look here and press there,” and bad luck? Albert Anastasia is the bad luck.

There is no wonder in this piece and my recent re-fascination with it. My cousin Deana recently gifted me a camera. In this day of digital everything, camera phones, camera pads, camera computers, the simple act of look here and press there may not be nearly as easy as it seems. This is not how Deana treated the gift to me. Instead, she gave me a Holga 120N. The Holga is, in fact, closer to a toy than it is to camera. It uses 120 film, and I get twelve exposures on each roll. When the roll is done, I must take it to the camera shop to get developed. It is very old-fashioned feeling since I have always loved taking snapshots and I have not used film for over a decade.

I'm immensely popular in the camera shop. The workers all know me by name. This is not a difficult task since they must record my name on every envelope of with every roll of film I drop off. I image that is only part of it. The other part is that I am so very excited about what I'm doing. I'm taking snapshots. I'm taking snapshots with a toy camera. I'm taking snapshots with a toy camera and I don't care what the outcome is. The whole activity has been a lesson in chance, a lesson in patience and above all, it has challenged how I perceive art.

On my first visit to the camera shop and my first set of conversations with each of them I learned a few things. I learned that all the people working in the camera shop are photographers, and photographers on a professional level. I learned than a prevailing feeling among camera enthusiasts is simply that the camera (and the camera only) can make you a professional. And the secret reason why I'm popular at the camera shop: “What? Really? You can buy a camera and be a professional?” I asked. “That's what a lot of hobbyists think,” the worker replied. “I'm not even a hobbyist,” I said. Up until recently I would never have thought to spend money on something as frivolous as photography. “But I'm inclined to become one,” I said. “A professional photographer?” he asked. “No,” I said. “A hobbyist.”

So, how has this challenged anything? I'm a dolt with a toy camera taking pictures of shadows and dog poop. The act of photography is really no different than the act of writing, at least to me. I say this only because I write when alone, and holding a camera to my face and snapping an exposure is another lonely experience. And in some ways, the subject matter I'm attracted to makes me think of one activity being startling close to the other. When people ask me what I like to write about I say: heartache and pain, alienation and miscommunication. With the camera my subject matter is paltry days, sultry nights and urban decay.

Truth is, my photos are not great. They are in fact boring pieces of photographic paper taken by someone who hasn't got much of an eye for it. I suppose I could say as much for my short stories. At least the short stories I wrote years ago when I first started to write.

I really like the idea of comparing one form of art to another. When it comes down to it, it is not so much the comparison of one form of art to another. It is the understanding of process, and the understanding of the artist within that's going on here. In saying that, I'm suggesting that I have recently tried my hand at photography and it has made me understand myself as a writer.

I offer up myself as a short story writer for the context of this investigation. I have written many short stories over the years. Aside from the process of writing a short story I have engaged in all the activities that make for a short story writer. If you want to write short stories here's the formula: 1) write a whole bunch of them. Please remember 99% of them will be bad. 2) read a few manuals, read a few wiki articles, or watch YouTube tutorial. 3) if you're old-fashioned read as many short stories as possible. Pick a big number like 1,000. Do not write a single story until you've read that many. 4) take a class. And once you get going on short story writing how do you know it's any good? Here's my formula: 1) continue reading short stories. Read the short stories that have been canonized. Read the short stories that appear in literary magazines. At least the editor thought these stories were good. 2) join a writer's circle. Getting feedback is good, even if it hurts a little. 3) become an editor of a literary magazine. Being an editor of a literary magazine will not only give you an understanding of what a good short story is, it will give you a greater understanding of what a bad short story is.

If you want to write, you just have to write. When you do this, you probably won't care about the outcome. There is no one out there since Fitzgerald who has written short stories and made millions of dollars. Kind of like how the camera doesn't make someone a professional photographer.

What it really takes is time and practice. If you have read this far, don't you think it's about time you stopped thinking about art and just practice it? Go write something. See you next week with “Reading short stories or light as negative space.”

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