To me, telling someone I’m working on a novel is the same as saying I’m working on a mixtape: it’s the cause of (at least internal) eye rolling. But I am, although at a crawl.
Very practically, after college I decided to become a public school teacher so that I could actually learn to teach so that when I published my novel and got hired by a college to teach creative writing for them, I would not only be a good writer but a good teacher, too. While on that path, I often had people tell me that I should write their stories. They often said they had unbelievable life stories but they weren’t equipped to tell it themselves. On the other side of that, I taught students who often felt like, because of their inexperience, they had no stories to tell. I would tell both groups that they were wrong.
Not everyone is meant to be a novelist. I’m not even sure I’m meant to be one (it’s definitely taking long enough!). But everyone can definitely write something, and so I encouraged those people to get a notebook and write their own story. You wouldn’t tell someone who’s under six-feet tall to not even bother playing basketball, right? It’s a significant undertaking to put your story to words, and it will change you if you can get through it. For the students, I advised them to shift their perspective. I often cited Bob Dylan who once said, “I had some amazing projections when I was a kid, but not since then. And those visions have been strong enough to keep me going through today.” Many artists spend their adult lives mining their youth for inspiration, and so I encouraged my students to realize that they were living in the very time of their lives where everyone looks to for inspiration and for self-understanding.
Obviously, neither of those tasks are easy. It’s hard for a teenager or even a pre-teen to see herself from such a broad perspective, as hard as it is for an adult to sit alone and write his own story. But I always maintained that in attempting to do these things, we would grow and become better people because of it.
Now as a photographer, I find myself in a similar situation. Instead of having people who want me to tell their story for them, I’m actually hired to tell their stories--God bless them--, but just like how they didn’t want to write it themselves before, they still don’t want to be part of the telling of it. There are many people who are uncomfortable being in front of the camera--most of us, in fact--, and who stand in front of it as a necessary evil (an actor or businesswoman who needs a new headshot, a groom who’s only taking photos because of his wife).
And then there are those like my former students who feel unworthy of being photographed in the first place, who feel that they don’t have a story. Susan Sontag wrote in her book, On Photography, about the obsession cameras led to with what is photogenic. She writes that “we learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph” (85). If we don’t feel photogenic, we feel our value diminished and so the best solution is to avoid the harsh eye of the camera that only highlights our flaws.
Why do we feel this way? Of course we can trace any of these complicated feelings to some kind of past hurt, someone who criticized how we looked in front of the camera, or, on a deeper level, having developed a mindset that compartmentalizes who’s allowed to do what (“I don’t write--writer’s write”). While as a photographer, I do think that it’s my responsibility to see each person for who they are and capture them at their best, in their truest light, I also think that it’s the responsibility of each of us to reflect on the limitations we find in our own language. Who says that only writers can write, that only celebrities can be in front of the camera, that you can’t do this or that? The truth is that no one stops us from succeeding as well as we do ourselves.
Every time someone would ask me to tell her story, I wondered about this: why did she think she couldn’t tell it herself? Yeah, if you want a Hollywood-caliber dramatization of yourself, you can’t do that on your own. But seeing this doubt in the classroom, with thirteen-year-olds made me realize that there are serious limitations that we set for ourselves and go unchecked from that age, or those that adults are imposing on children that last until their own adulthood. The reasons that go into not achieving something are many and complicated, but don’t let the main reason be that you didn’t think yourself worthy enough to get what you want. If you’re writing a novel or recording a mixtape, tell people about it, but then also do it!