On Writing

Charlene journal

Singapore

To write is to make a clearing in the wilderness in which, almost literally, you can see the wood from the trees. In the thick of anything, you hardly know who you are or where you’re going (which is the redeeming power of experience); at your desk, recollecting emotion in tranquility, helped by memory’s editing devices and imagination’s hunger for possibility, you take something that might only have been heartache and turn it into something more provocative, enriching, and even instructive.

– from Writing Undoes Me, by Pico Iyer

It’s been a week and a half since I’ve been on the new job. My work in Preemptive Love, is telling stories. Through words, still photographs, and/or video.

As I’m working remotely at the moment, writing is my primary task. And it’s proving to be a hell of a challenge.

I’m not a writer. Which is not to say I don’t write. I’ve been writing through all my almost-forty years of life. In journals, for school, to others etc. I’ve kept a blog of some description since 1998. In contrast, I only realized that photography was a thing slightly over ten years ago. Words are, and will probably always be, more important to me than pictures. If I had to choose between words and pictures for the rest of my life, it’d be a tough call, but I’m pretty sure words would win out (that being said, I truly hope I never have to make such a choice). Words are vital to living the way music is.

But I’m a only consumer of words. My relationship with words is largely is taking the work of others in, and letting that work enrich my life. I have no urge to create with words. And if you’re going to point out the irony of reading this on a blog: it isn’t really. This blog isn’t for creation. It’s for catharsis. Always has been, always will be.

I think of myself as a photographer, because I am driven to make things with a camera. To find the soul of things, to discover, to bring new light (pun fully intended). To make something you might take away and store in a secret little corner of your heart, and during the course of life, give you something in return. I’m not saying I have succeeded in doing this, mind, I’m simply saying that I want to. That I feel incredibly strongly about creating with the language of 3:2 frames. I’ve never felt like I could do that with words, and honestly, it’s never bothered me.

Well, that’s changed.

Writing is now a part of my job. So everything I’ve said about not being a writer? Invalid. I have to learn to be one. And by that, I don’t mean learning to become the next Jhumpa Lahiri or Tim Winton. That’ll never happen. Nor do I mean just stringing words together in grammatically and logically sound sentences. I can do that. I mean looking and writing outwardly, instead of waffling on in streams of consciousness about me myself and I. Working substance into the words: history, facts, balancing perspectives and biases and all of that messy human stuff, without sacrificing the music of the narrative or the humanity of the subject.

“Writing undoes me” says Pico Iyer in his sublime essay of the same name. Now I write about – and for – others who live in places I have warped ideas about, whose trauma I have no practical relation to, whose history I struggle to understand because I’ve grown up and lived exclusively in what are now peaceful, prosperous, stable nations.

And it is laying all the gaps in my knowledge, flaws in my perspective, and ugly prejudices at my core, utterly bare. It measures with crystalline precision, just how much work there is to do. Long, long before the stringing of those aforementioned sentences. The work is finding the relationship between those I write about, and myself. To dig into that, to listen, read, and learn, and unlearn, and learn more. And only then, setting the words down.