Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 10 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.

When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.

Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.

I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.

Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.

Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:

  • Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
  • Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
  • Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
  • Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
  • Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
  • Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
  • When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
  • If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
  • When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
  • Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.

It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

4732 Millas de Distancia

November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

By Erin Clark

Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.

Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.

November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.

“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.

Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”

When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.

“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.

I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!!  Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”

He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.

“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”

Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.

I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.

“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.

I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.

It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.

“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.

“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.

Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.

I had hated the waiting.

I resisted his notes even more.

I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.

“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”

“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”

“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?

I broke the paragraph in two.

Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:

To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?

She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.

When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.

If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.

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Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo credit: Diego Moncayo

Everybody’s Doing It

October 25, 2016 § 22 Comments

Knock, knock...

Knock, knock…

Blogging is dead.

Blogging is not dead.

More accurately, as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) puts it,

The only thing that’s dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place.  If you’re blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like…I dunno…making a sex tape.  But not with a dead person.  I’ve been very clear on this, y’all.

(go read the whole post, I promise those last two sentences make total sense in context)

None of us are going to make any money blogging, unless our blog is part of a global, social-media-exploiting, traffic-driving, email-collecting, drip-campaigning, algorithmic, Twitter-metric, SEO-conscious plan. And in that case, we wouldn’t actually be writing very much, because all our time would be spent driving clicks.

Blog anyway.

Years ago I kept an old-school Blogger blog. I wrote 3-5 days a week for two years. I linked to other bloggers and participated in “blog carnivals,” which is how we shared links to stuff we enjoyed reading, back when Facebook still insisted on an “is” at the beginning of your status and Twitter didn’t exist. I posted regularly enough that if I missed more than a couple of days in a row, readers emailed to ask if I was sick.

That’s the first value of blogging. Connecting with your audience, and with other writers. Not “building platform,” although that’s a nice side effect, but genuinely interacting with people who care about what you say, and finding out what they care about. To learn what you, as a person with the ability to write, should be examining about yourself and putting into the world on behalf of every reader who has the same story and needs to tell it, but doesn’t have the words, or the bravery (yet). Jenny Lawson’s vivid, hilarious, brutal posts about depression got her a book deal, yes, but she also let thousands of readers know they weren’t alone, that they were allowed to tell what they were experiencing, too.

Blogging taught me to put out work regularly without being precious about it. I blog here for Brevity most Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes I’m sick). I keep a list of topics to write about, scribble down ideas when I have a great conversation about writing in person or on Facebook, copy-paste when I get over-explain-y about writing in an email and think, this could just be a blog post and I’ll send them the link. There are still mornings I wake up without the faintest idea of what to write. There isn’t time to wait for inspiration–as it is, I’m daily thankful I live 8 time zones ahead, so I have my morning to figure out a topic before the Brevity HQ’s 7AM. Sometimes I look at the literary news and see if there’s another essay to respond to. Sometimes I remember the theatre director Anne Bogart saying,

If what’s on stage in rehearsal isn’t working, I shout ‘Stop!’ Often I have no idea how to fix it, but I always sit in the very back of the house, and by the time I’ve walked all the way down the aisle to the stage, I’ve usually figured out where to start.

Then I open the New Post window and hope my fingers will figure out where to start. There isn’t time to agonize over every word–thankfully, readers don’t have the same literary expectations of a blog as they do a book. A blog post should be the best we can do, but it’s just as important to get it out there on time. Blogging regularly increases your speed, and your ability to turn an idea into words by force of will, whether ‘inspiration’ has graced you that day or not. Blogging doesn’t replace long, slow, thoughtful pieces that coalesce from many drafts, but it keeps us in the habit.

Blogging gives us something to share on social media. We contribute positively to our civilization by sharing an idea instead of a meme, starting a discussion about a book we liked or an essay we read or an experience we’ve had. It lightens the heart to care passionately about a subject that might stir disagreement but is unlikely to dredge up hatred.

You might like Medium, or Tumblr, where Roxane Gay keeps her blog, or a curated site like The Manifest-Station, which is a little more like submitting to a literary magazine. You might like to write long posts on Facebook, like sex-icon/disability activist Erin Clark. I use Instagram as a place to post micro-essays, because carefully crafting words for 20 minutes in an airport lounge makes me feel like yes, I wrote today, and the little hearts popping up on my phone remind me, someone’s listening. Someone likes my words. I should keep doing this.

_________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, the host of the Brevity Podcast, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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