On Zooming In and Out
September 9, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
I think creating a strong piece of short nonfiction—be it a lyric essay, a collage, flash, micro, whatever—is like knowing exactly how to use the zoom lens on a camera. You can keep the lens fully retracted and create a picture that includes many elements, several focal points—or you can zoom in and train your eye on one person, one moment, a limited canvas that somehow tells a bigger story. You have to decide what belongs in the frame, and crop out what doesn’t. Easier said than done.
Lately, I’ve been writing (or trying to write) about my dad. Since he died 15 months ago, I’ve barely been able to pen a grocery list, let alone an essay. Now, after much grieving and healing (which is, for what it’s worth, nowhere near complete), I feel small, hopeful sparks of creativity returning. But when I start to tell a story about him, my zoom lens pulls back and suddenly I’m going on about explanations and history, about our family, his childhood, my childhood. I can’t stop. It all feels completely essential. I find myself believing that the picture I’ve chosen to illustrate won’t make any sense unless I include the entire background. Unsurprisingly, the feedback I get from my writing partners echoes this—“Too much explaining—what’s the real story here? Focus on the moment.”
In the next draft or piece, I take those notes to heart and push the zoom lens forward until all the extraneous background has been cropped out. All the tiny details of the moment come into extreme focus. I self-edit for sparseness, for the brevity that feels so elusive. I try to let single conversations do the work of pages and pages of explanation. Then, my writing partners pry into the carefully framed shot—“I want to know more about why he’s like this, why this moment matters. Give me a little background.”
It occurs to me that while the viewfinder of my camera seems to work just fine, the zoom lens is all screwed up. I can’t seem to find the middle ground, the place where the moment is the main focus, but there’s just enough setting that the moment makes sense. I know it can be done. I’ve read what feels like millions of flash essays that have done it so well. And long ago, before the grief and the healing, before the loss, I even wrote a couple of them myself.
Looking for inspiration for my messy essay drafts, I comb through my email history for messages between me and my dad. Links to lighting fixtures for the house we renovated together. Christmas lists fired off the day after Halloween. But more than any of that—photographs from his many shooting trips to area parks and historical sites. Restorations of old family snapshots that age almost ruined. Perfectly framed photos he spent hours capturing, and then hours more perfecting in Photoshop.
At the bottom of each email was his name and a quote I’d seen a million times—“f/8… and be there.” He had been ending emails that way for years, but I’d never given the quote a second thought. I dug around, and found countless mentions of it on photography websites and blogs. Coined by noted spot news photographer Arthur Fellig, it essentially means, forget about the fancy technique and theatrics. Just go to the most basic setting (f/8) and be present and ready for whatever comes. It’s the photographer’s “keep it simple, stupid.”
In typical dad fashion, he may have buried the lede, but he gave me exactly what I needed at precisely the right moment. I realize that, now that I’m writing with purpose and direction again, I’ve been futzing with the camera settings and contorting my body so I could find just the right angle. I’ve been screwing with the zoom, toggling from portrait to landscape, muting the flash or burning it too bright. No wonder I haven’t been able to create the picture I want. No wonder everything I do feels like too much, or too little.
So now, I’m returning to my drafts with that quote at the front of my mind. What does it look like to keep my internal camera on its most basic setting? How do I stop looking for the perfect shot, and simply be present for whatever moments await me? Will I ever figure out what truly belongs in the frame, and what I can afford to crop out? Like any good photographer—like my dad—I’m going to keep hitting the shutter and have faith that sooner or later, I’ll figure it out.
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.