Friday, February 19, 2010

Photographs Are Like Essays

This photograph was taken in Mongolia by photographer Jon Goodrich, and I posted it because of the two little guys bending over down front. Imagine if it had been merely a pretty landscape without people, or without people in such a funny position---it's the oddness of that little piece that to me transforms this from a nice photo into a great one.

You can write beautifully, and that's fine, but the best essays are the ones that surprise. That doesn't mean there is a huge twist a la E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake" (I'll address that one in an upcoming post) but it's nice when there is something unexpected or especially interesting.

When I taught freshman composition, I did an exercise where I took a cartoon of George Bush saying something funny and cut out the talk bubble. I popped it up on the overhead projector and said, OK let's think of some text for this cartoon. "George Bush has big ears!" "George Bush says nuc-u-lar!" "George Bush wishes he were a cowboy!" None of them work. For a cartoon to be funny there has to be something fresh and unexpected about it. It's usually the same with a piece of writing---otherwise why should anyone read it.

Now I just posted about Anne Fadiman's ice cream essay that really doesn't have a twist or something unexpected. But it does go off in many directions: quotes from Hippocrates, a near death experience, etc. The stuff floating around in Anne Fadiman's head and the way she collages it together is fresh enough for me to make the essay excellent, although I know not everyone agrees.

So when you are writing an essay, don't be afraid of thinking weird, tangential, interesting and unexpected thoughts. And combining things that don't usually go together, like people's backsides and a gorgeous, somewhat desolate landscape.

On another note, I'm not a photographer, but I would assume that photographers take lots and lots and lots of pictures and many of them are very good but few of them are really brilliant. That's how writing is too.

More of Jon's excellent photos can be seen here.!/photo.php?pid=3869766&id=665062370


  1. Yes, I sometimes forget the element of surprise, of waking the reader up from his or her boring life. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I couldn't agree with you more on the lots of photos statement. I take hundreds and occasionally come out with 1-5 that I am happy with. Thankfully digital = free-ish

    I remember seeing a slideshow by a National Geographic photographer, and she was talking about capturing a beautiful scene that made the cover. She stepped through about 15 pictures, each more beautiful than the last. Having only been shown one, I'd have thought even the first was great. But when the cover shot popped on the screen it was obvious to everyone in the room. When asked how many pictures she took that day it was something like 30 rolls of film.

    Photographers though have the luxury of setting up once and then firing away. Writing takes even more effort and dedication.

  3. Love how you pointed out that speaking tangentially can be surprising and refreshing.

  4. Thanks, Meredith!