Sunday, April 27, 2008

Barrier Reefs

Have you ever brushed up against a barrier reef that prevents you from swimming any further?

Whenever that happens to me, I find it helpful to switch directions and alter my course.

If I'm working on a novel, I'll switch to a short story, or turn to my journal, or search through old files to explore long-forgotten works-in-progress.

But sometimes switching directions isn't enough. I have to pull myself out of the water entirely and sit on shore and gaze at the water, trying to figure out a way to swim around the barrier reef.

I'll turn to books on writing, for instance, or I might read about how other artists have managed to swim past barriers in their own work.

That's what happened recently.

I was searching for something in the bookstore to help me swim past a barrier that I'd unexpectedly encountered in a current project, and I wandered into the photography section and found The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing by Philippe L. Gross and S. I. Shapiro.

And I opened the book to a chapter titled "Barriers to Seeing."

Here's one of the passages which helped me see beyond the reef that had kept me from swimming forward:
Many photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jeff Berner, and Freeman Patterson, have claimed that the need to control is the greatest barrier to seeing. According to the psychologist Abraham Maslow, the need to control a situation rather than be receptive to it is often driven by "deficiency-motivations," which are primarily related to an individual's need of psychological safety and security.
So, if we find ourselves encountering barriers to "seeing" our stories, our blindness may be attributed to our need to control the story... our desire for "psychological safety and security"... rather than being receptive to the character's needs and desires... and letting the story play itself out.

And then I came across this helpful quote from Kathryn Marx:
A split-second decision determines whether you capture a situation, as well as how well you capture it. You've already thought about your subject and know the reason why you've placed yourself in a particular situation. But once you are there, you must try to empty your mind of all thought in order for you to be completely in the moment and receptive to your intuition and your surroundings. Simply react to them with uncluttered clarity.
Isn't what Marx describes the kind of receptivity that writers strive for in the moment of telling our stories?

And here's another quote that lingered in my mind long after I closed the book:
Beyond its usefulness for creating good photographs, receptivity is also a state of mind worthy of enjoyment in and of itself. When asked what he looks for in photographing, Michael Smith replied: "I am not looking for anything. I'm just looking--trying to have as full an experience as possible. The point is to have a full experience--the photograph is just a bonus."
Maybe that's something to think about the next time you find yourself--like me--bumping up against a barrier reef, unable to swim any further.

Instead of worrying about the story, try to forget the story... and simply enjoy looking, as Smith suggests, and having "as full an experience as possible."

Perhaps then the barrier will disappear and you'll be able to keep swimming.

For more information about the Tao of Photography, visit:

And thinking about the tao of photography led, naturally, to thinking about the tao of writing:

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