Photographer and writer

“Fifteen years ago, I stopped being a writer and became a photographer. 
On a sweltering New York August day, I was writing about winter in Japan. Writers, it seemed, didn’t have to go to the places they wrote about. 

I became a photographer because photographers did have to be where they
 wanted to take pictures, or at least their cameras did.”
– Charles Harbutt

I want to be a photographer so I can go to places. But I also want to be a writer so I can think about the places I’ve been to. Living and thinking. Thinking and writing. Writing and living.

The sabbatical (and now a forced one because of COVID-19) is working. I really want to get back to taking photos now. I feel not simply rested but energised and motivated. And I really want to write about the photos I have taken. I think that’s becoming quite clear—and it was this part I wanted to make clear to myself during this period. What is my one thing? What is the thing that I thought was missing from my photography? This might be it. Words were missing from my photography.

Words help me to make sense of this world—they are how I think. I believe they can also help me to create photography work that is deeper and more meaningful. I wrote last year that I don’t want to continue to take only beautiful photos for commercial clients. I want to go further into the world and do work that can move the needle. Which needle? That’s part of what I must find out for myself. But I wanna grow as a photographer and a human being. My camera MUST be a tool that helps to bring about positive change in this world, and to do that I have to be uncomfortable and walk into new and unfamiliar territories.

Growth is uncomfortable. But staying the same is worse.

I am reminding myself to discard all my superficial ideas about what constitutes positive change. I’m also reminding myself to learn, learn, learn, and to be like water as I continue to grow into a photographer-writer who can create work that makes this world a slightly kinder place for other human beings.

The road is long. But I’m taking one step forward now. I think each new step will bring me more clarity and confidence, so wish me luck!

“Some days are terrible, some days are better.”

“I have felt a tiny desire to reach out to some friends. I have felt a small urge to get myself exercising. I have felt a glimpse of comfort, peace, and perhaps even joy manifesting in the cracks. Alongside these glimmers of positivity were also the emergence of new existential troubles and life concerns that have been suppressed so far. The pain from losing and missing Mizah still sits firmly in me and I still have trouble sleeping at the end of my aimless days, but it seems that there is now a wider gamut of emotions all existing beside one another in me. Sometimes I go through an entire range of emotions in a single day, and sometimes they clash to exist together in a single moment. It’s a different kind of difficult and I am trying my best to hold space for it.”

My dear friend Adib writes about the many faces of grief and his battle/co-existence with it.

Living is the trick

“The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well.

One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects — so seriously that nobody could read them.

Another story.

When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “Was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how big a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.

There’s no party line.

Good advice.

You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.

My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that sloped down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago– 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate.

Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well — and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman.

Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off).

It was a ready-made career for me — lifelong security — and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start.

Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father — and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value — partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me.

The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft.

But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.

And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge.

Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didn’t want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.

Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.”

I didn’t know that.

I was afraid of change; I think most people are.

But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country — big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges that I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida — asking if they had some kind of place for me.

And they didn’t, because I was not an academic — I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes — and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.

Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life.

Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere — a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me — years of both teaching and learning — because they were unlike anything I had done before.

Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have — that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit.

America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking — who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.”

Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking.

Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did — or continued to do — what was expected.

I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it — how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams.

Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen — a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace.

And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not…. For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world.

If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988:

There’s no party line.

You make your own luck.

Change is a tonic.

One thing leads to another.

Living is the trick.

Thank you.”

— From William Zinsser’s Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University 1988. Passage from here.

enthusiasts and nerds and hobbyists

The most beautiful thing about a blog is that most of us don’t write blogs to become famous or make money. We write blogs simply because we are enthusiasts and nerds and hobbyists, and our little home in this vague corner of the internet is where we go to be, in a sense, fully ourselves, a safe place where we can go full nerd with a community of fellow nerds in tow.

*

I know, I know, I’m gonna talk about the good old days again.

But really, life as an early internet person was a lot of fun. There was always this feeling of childish excitement and this sense that really interesting things were waiting to be discovered just around the corner, a hyperlink or two away. People living halfway across the world from us, in Belgium and Iceland and the very far ends of Vladivostock, were making things they wanted to make just for the heck of it — websites and blogs were born out of hobbies, not ambitions. We were all amateurs making crude, ugly but heartfelt internet objects out of our laughable HTML skills. It was FUN because we were all amateurs together and there were no rules and no expectations and, of course, very little aesthetic sense. It was a pretty level playing ground.

You could say that before we lost our innocence, citizens of the early internet were mostly wide-eyed kids wandering around trying things out and being playful, whereas today the internet is filled to the brim with calculative, serious adults hunkering down to create projects that they hope to eventually monetize.

If you are, like me, nostalgic for the good old internet days (and I have been for the last ten years), you will be fascinated by this, the Geocities research blog by Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied. It’s a Tumblr page that collects screenshots of old Geocities home pages. Here’s a bunch of the most popular screenshots.

I love what Olia Lialina wrote of the old World Wide Web in her talk/essay “A Vernacular Web”:

To be blunt it was bright, rich, personal, slow and under construction. It was a web of sudden connections and personal links. Pages were built on the edge of tomorrow, full of hope for a faster connection and a more powerful computer. One could say it was the web of the indigenous…or the barbarians. In any case, it was a web of amateurs soon to be washed away by dot.com ambitions, professional authoring tools and guidelines designed by usability experts.

I know we can never time travel back to the days before we lost our internet innocence, but we can remind ourselves that we always have the permission to be hobbyists and amateurs, whether on the internet or not, and that we never need to feel guilty spending ungodly amounts of time playing and tinkering and being immersed in whatever we’re interested in. In fact I cannot think of a better way to live, to be always curious and having fun.

So I say, hobby above ambition (and monetization/productivity/optimization). Always.

Further interesting reading about the old web (although the article itself is already 13 years old today): “Vernacular Web 2” by Olia Lialina.

Buying books again

I have decided that I will buy books again, that I will live in a house full of books again even if it means I cannot move as nimbly through the world. Because I love books. It’s as simple as that. I love books, I want to own books, and I will own books.

I’m saying this because last year I had this bizarre new idea that maybe I should give away most of my books and keep only the few I really like/love (and I really did give away more than 50% of them).

But that’s utter nonsense.

I’m going to start buying books again.

Wiliam Zinsser

I read William Zinsser for the pleasure of reading William Zinsser, who continues to teach me how to write clear, focused, plain sentences about the things that matter to me.

He also reminds me that, in the end, “writing and thinking and learning” are the same process — that if I want to think better or learn better, then I’d better keep writing.

If you’d like to do the same, check out one of Zinsser’s many books about writing — On Writing Well, Writing to Learn, Writing Places.

There are no manuals

There are no manuals for the construction of the individual you would like to become. You are the only one who can decide this and take up the lifetime of work that it demands. This is a wonderful privilege and such an exciting adventure. To grow into the person that your deepest longing desires is a great blessing. If you can find a creative harmony between your soul and your life, you will have found something infinitely precious. You may not be able to do much about the great problems of the world or to change the situation you are in, but if you can awaken the eternal beauty and light of your soul, you will bring light wherever you go. The gift of life is given to us for ourselves and also to bring peace, courage, and compassion to others.

– JOHN O’DONOHUE