Friday, November 16, 2012

Choose Your Lens

By Susan

            Last week, I left my Texas home and flew to the Pacific Northwest to spend a week with a friend.
            We’re both writers with big hopes of where our words might go one day. We’d planned a writers’ retreat on the cusp of winter and set out together with her 150 lb. Bernese Mountain dog, Obi, heading toward the coast.
           We drove from Seattle to Cannon Beach, Oregon, and stayed a week on the beach. I woke each morning to foggy views of Haystack Rock and the Needles, and each day, between writing sessions, Tia, Obi and I would walk the beach, hike a cove, or walk the expanse of the nearby state park. Every day, the view was different. As the week progressed and my words piled up on the pages, I got to see the town under the cover of fog, a hard rain, and blanketed by beautiful, warm sunshine. On our last day, driving up the coast, we even went through two inches of accumulated snow in the town of Seaside.
            My friend has spent many years on this beach, with this ever-changing view. We marveled each night at the variations of wide, expansive sunsets. When we walked, we got close to starfish clinging to rocks, sand dollars scattered like manna, and tiny, transparent creatures known as gooseberries rolling in the surf.
            This summer, when Tia and I met, we also met Nikky Finney, a Southern Poet who won the National Book Award for poetry this year. (For a little more on her, see her acceptance speech for the award here. If you haven't already seen it, please watch. And yes, she is incredible.) She said something about writing that we both remembered vividly. To paraphrase, here is her advice.
            When you choose to write, you must choose your lens, just like a photographer does when choosing the right shot. Do you need a wide-angle? Step back from your work and make sure your big picture encompasses your themes, theories, and goals. Go panoramic, and see the story from all angles. Then get up close. Observe the pores of the skin. Get tight with your characters and your plot. Then? When you think you know what you are writing? Take it underwater.
            Both of us made headway into our writing last week. As Tia perfected a short story for a contest entry, she also tackled her “fun book,” a memoir, and a few chapters on her “hard book,” a dark coming-of-age novel. I sat by an open window, listened to the surf, wrapped myself in a blanket, and got 25% through my rewrites and edits in five days time.
            And somehow, by changing the lenses on my writing, my story began shaping itself into a different form, as well. 
           By writing with the ocean in my ear, the fog in my lungs, the rain on my skin and the rocks under my feet, I found my story again. It wasn't easy. Every morning I woke up afraid of it. Take it underwater, I'd repeat to myself. 
           And then I'd dive in.

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