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Excellence

Photobucket [1]As I write this, my bags are packed and ready to go. In about two hours, I’ll be heading for Australia, and one of my goals is to improve my photography. I’ve studied the art over the years, in high school and then college and then a little more later. A Minolta camera is one of the first things I ever saved money to buy (the other was a pair of extremely expensive hiking boots), and I loved it dearly, though I never had any illusion that I wanted to be a photographer. It was always writing I wanted. Pure and deep and true, an unmasterable passion.

For a long time, I was too busy with writing and raising a family to be able to squeeze in much photography. And yet, it is a hobby that pleases me deeply—the stillness and the singularity of a single shot, expressing something. A mood, a moment, a political statement, and passion for something. A couple of years ago, I made the plunge into digital, and have been working, sometimes clumsily, with it. This year, this trip, my goal is to get a little better.

Yesterday, I took my camera out into the moody day and shot some photos around town and the zoo, trying to remember all the things that make a good shot. At first, I was trying to remember everything, all at once—composition and color and freshness and line and everything else in every single shot.

After awhile, the lens itself seems to quiet something, and I can stop trying to be perfect, to get it right, and just enjoy the process and enjoy what I love to shoot. Perhaps it is a reaction to growing up in Colorado Springs, where there are such gigantic views, such amazing scenery, but I tend to like shooting very close. The center of flowers, the cap of snow steaming on a fence, a dog’s eye. But I also like color and pattern very much, and I can play with those.

In play, I learn. In play, I discover that it doesn’t matter very much that only one in ten, or one in 50, or one in a 100 shots is worth saving. Each shot teaches me what works and what doesn’t. What I love and what is true for me. Each one helps me learn more about the quest for excellence.

As with all my hobbies, photography teaches me things about my vocation, about my writing, which is much more than a career, much more than my work. One of the most gratifying and annoying things about a writing career is that novels are a form that can never be truly mastered. There are so many levels, so many things that go into construction and design, detail and wordsmithing, mood and dialogue and character, genre expectation and body of work expectations and editorial expectations….

So many things. It can be daunting. When I’m in the midst of drafting a book, trying to keep all those things in my head make me feel crazy and overwhelmed and discouraged. If I remember that there is plenty of paper to write on, and I can let myself play, then the work is more fun, too. In a rough draft, there are many thousands of bad sentences and misspelled words (it is a big fat lie that writers are good spellers—some are, but I know a lot who are not) and terrible composition. My rough drafts are genuinely rough and ragged things.

They are also layered with magic and surprise and beauty. Surprises and delights and insights that I often have no memory of capturing. Those are the 1 in 10 shots, the 1 in 50, and if I am lucky, the 1 in 100 shots that I then use to pin the draft to an level of excellence. It still never perfect, never exact…never finished, if the truth be told. Each book teaches me something. Each one reminds me of something I have not yet mastered, and each teaches me more about my subjects of study, my areas of play, my joy.

What do your hobbies teach you about writing?

Photo by Barbara Samuel, a writer afoot [2]

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].