Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing With Ink and Light by Shannon O'Brien

Photography is my default mode, a thought process programmed into me through several years of schooling, and 15 years of practice.
I chose it over my first instinct, writing; I went to school to be Jack Kerouac, majored in journalism and focused on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of news. I styled my articles like the question and answer formats I read in Rolling Stone. My professor told me I needed to wrap-up the stories. I couldn't simply end with the interviewee's answer.
I felt stunted in journalism. My aspirations of wild creativity were subdued by the process of learning the basics, and I was far too shortsighted to understand the importance of this. Instead, I deemed journalism as Not Creative Enough for me, and, inspired by the portraiture of Annie Leibovitz, I plunged into photojournalism. (Never mind the fact that I had never picked up a camera prior to making this decision. My decision-making process at the time was quite derivative.)

I was not a natural, but I had generous instructors, and professors who demanded excellence. And because I was studying photojournalism, I still had the opportunity to write. Once I entered the field professionally, though, writing took second place to everything else. I was a diarist at best, filling my journals with angst and heartbreak.
Six years passed before I made the decision to focus on writing again. It was an epiphany of sorts, inspired by family illness and the awareness of passing time. I loved writing. I always had. I put together my writing portfolio in my mother's hospital room as she recovered from surgery. She was skeptical of my decision to quit work and return to graduate school. She's a realist; I don't share this trait.
As I made my way through writing workshops with professors who later became some of my favorite people, I discovered how little I knew about writing and language. I was not a natural at this either, it turned out, but I adored every moment of making the effort to improve. And one skill I had that helped me a bit was the skill of observation, thanks to my immersion in photography.

That's not to say I don't miss a million beautiful things every day as I rush from one place to another. There's so much to take in and so much to tune out. But when I'm writing essays or news stories, I know that texture is added by choosing the right details, so I pay close attention to scenes I'm writing about, something I also do when I'm taking pictures. And I know careful word selection is similar to a carefully composed photograph; deciding what to leave in or what to crop out can change the tenor of it all.

*All photos copyright Shannon O'Brien
Shannon O'Brien graduated from FAU with an MFA in creative nonfiction.  She lives in the Land of Lincoln, where she writes and takes pictures for the University of Illinois Springfield Alumni Association. Her work can be viewed at

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