At noon I shift to my right at the table. I should settle in the chair now directly across from me, to the west, which offers more shade below the umbrella, but there’s a wasp boring a hole in one of the teak rungs, and anyway I’m too lazy to move. I work this way whenever the weather permits. Which means, most of the summer and much of the fall I am working out on the back deck, lollygagging, and making my way counterclockwise around the table, with my laptop, under the umbrella, so as not to get burned by the sun. By one o’clock I should be on the northern side, but I won’t sit there as my back would be to the street, and I’d have to twist my whole self to see what’s going on in the neighborhood, whilst the whole neighborhood can see me sitting in my chair doing nothing.
Today, the air is cooler and there’s a soft, easterly breeze, which is most pleasant after this summer’s stifling heat and humidity. I’ve had my two coffees, my big bowl of flax and blueberries soaked in coconut milk, and I am full and satisfied, except for the fact that I haven’t yet written one word of my lecture. I am thinking about how I am going to tell my advisor, Susan Cheever, that I still haven’t written one word of my lecture. (Hopefully, I’ll write at least one word by the end of September.)
I am thinking about how to begin. How to begin? What is it I want to say (never mind thinking about the actual saying, the utterance of the words I will write, before an audience—of super-learned people—which is terrifying in and of itself)? This is always the hardest part. What to say! At least I have settled on a topic: Photography. Which is an odd topic for a lecture about literature, but what I’m talking about is photography and literature—the photograph as framed memory, vision and language, history and narrative—key elements of story: setting, time, imagery, tension, perspective, climax, resolution.
While the process differs, photography and writing both capture and represent the human condition—its beauty and horrors, community, isolation, destruction, rebirth—beginning to end, birth to death, dust to dust. Of course, I need to become somewhat of an expert on the subject to do this, and an expert (or scholar) I am not. I have stacks of books to read. There’s a plethora of essays on photography—Barthes, Benjamin, Berger, Derrida, Sontag, Strand. Some I’ve read, like Barthes—who saw death as the eidos of every photograph—others I wonder if I’ll ever get to. Oh, what to tell Susan! That, this month, thus far I’ve set up an online photo gallery of my work, and I’m in the throws of an intense sunflower series, and I wander, wander, WANDER? All the time? And tomorrow I want to take the train to New York just so I can have sex with my peripatetic husband? (Look, teens in the house and traveling are obstacles.) Well, I also want to go to a few art galleries to examine photos by Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and, you know, maybe lollygag a bit more… Dear god I feel a panic attack coming on. What to tell Susan!
Last month, end of August, I sent Susan a paltry packet of edited essays, a freshly pressed 4-page story, and zippo on my lecture. I crossed my fingers in hopes that I wouldn’t get castigated. (Because self-castigation cannot be enough.) Or violined (she has a stamp). It seemed the worst work I’d ever produced, and I suppose I feel this way whenever I send in my work, but the summer is doubly hard on me. This summer was all about college tours and soccer camps. We traveled throughout New England and upstate New York. Last summer (the latter part) was all about disaster (water damage, mold in the house). Next summer will be all about letting go (when my son leaves for college and I cry for days). Every summer is slow and busy. Every summer is bliss. Every summer has its tragedy. It ends. Summer is no time to write.
It’s easy to take a picture now. You don’t even need a camera, a smart phone will do; and, because of that, photography has become as popular as the memoir. People are documenting every moment of the day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. (I have yet to see, or hear about, a good-looking/tasting casserole.) See all, tell all. This is not a critisism, merely an observation. Photo apps: Instagram, VSCO, PS Express, Hipstamatic. Memoirs: Too Good to be True. Eat, Pray, Love. Wild. Wasted. Me Talk Pretty One Day. I’d love to see photos in all of these books. We should be telling all and seeing all.
It is now two o’clock and I’m shifting seats.
I recently picked up W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (which has pictures!), but I likely won’t finish it, as I have to put it aside to read toward my lecture. I should first finish Sontag and Cartier-Bresson, and everything else I must read, or I will never write one word. At some point I must become the actor not just the spectator—as I often am, looking, looking, looking. Dorothea Lange said, “Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.” Passion is a beginning, and I am passionate about photography, so, at the least I have that. It strikes me, too, how Lange’s quote also speaks to the writing process. It seems that the language of literature is not so different than the language of photography. Both are concerned with composition and representation. Lange also said, “This benefit of seeing…can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image…the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.” And: “That frame of mind that you need to make fine pictures of a very wonderful subject, you cannot do it by not being lost yourself.”
You cannot do it by not being lost yourself. Looking, looking, disappearing yourself in order to capture the truest moments. Being lost. Cartier-Bresson said, “For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” That spontaneous impulse, he says comes “from an ever attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity.” In the ever-attentive eye, I have found, I lose myself, my mind drifting casually in that wondrous and indescribable state that exists only in losing oneself. I am familiar with the impulse. It drives me to write or shoot, and whether I do one or the other makes no difference as their is meaning-making in both.
But the lecture! Well, I have pictures. And the words… they will come. Usually, it takes a deadline. Or a train ride. It is now half past three. I think I’d better pack my bag, books and camera, and purchase that Amtrack ticket to NYC.
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Postscript: Come to think of it, Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever’s biographical memoir of her father, John Cheever, contains family pictures (the best kind) in it!