Why a Writer?
The same question could apply to my being a picture framer off and on since 1966. Or driving big trucks, riding motorcycles, surfing, traveling to distant places, and even getting sprayed on top of a volcano in Rwanda by a teenage female gorilla.
When I was four, I asked my mother to teach me how to type. I had noticed that when she was setting type or printing, none of my siblings were around. I would have hours of access with no interruptions. And as we stood laboring away at the mind-numbing business of printing, we talked. And in our way, we verbally wrote stories.
Mom took notes on three-by-five cards which were rubber banded together with a red and a blue printers band. They’re made from vulcanized rubber and don’t turn brittle and snap. Years later, after she had passed away, my father gave me the packet, saying, I think she wanted you to have this.
One day, I cracked the packet apart and a small piece of yellow paper fell on the floor. There was a single word written on it. It was my entire inheritance from her. The word was: Publish.
Even at the time, I knew it wasn’t about the stories we created. It was about me creating my own, and pursuing having them in print. Our stories will always be ours alone.
A few weeks after that epiphany, the editor of Rider magazine called and wanted to talk about publishing my first article. For the next twenty-six years, photojournalism was what we now call my “gig job”. But that side job took me to report on the Paris Airshow, the world’s largest military sales convention and show. It gave me amazing access to the armor in the Tower of London, It belted me into a car traveling over 260km per hour across the Australian outback, and as I mentioned, to the top of Volcano National Park in Rwanda to track and take pictures of the Mountain Gorillas. At thirty-one, sitting at 9,000-foot elevation, in a steaming overgrown forest, and reeking of gorilla piss all over my back; I realized that my life was literally all downhill from there. I had traveled to a place few people have been. Seen a mother gorilla teach her child how to use a stick to probe the rotting earth and pulled out ants to eat. And to top it off, a young female had reached across the barriers of communication, species, and ten-million years of evolution, to tell me and the world, she liked me. No other date could ever come close.
Taking photos trained my eye to find the story in the mass of a panorama. In the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania, there are enormous swaths of grass land. The lions hunt, the antelope, black rhinos, wildebeests, and zebra graze, as a single bull elephant lives out a long and storied life there. The image I sold needed no words. It was a panorama shot. In the miles of sun parched grass, was a distant solitary elephant. He quantified the existence of every other bull elephant in Africa. The herds are all female. It is a matriarchal society. A female in heat will separate from her herd to find and wander with the bull. When she is pregnant, she returns to the herd.
Over the years, I have written about humans who live the same kinds of existences. We like to think we are unique, but evolution hasn’t created anything new; we just walk different.
In college, I read a lot of plays called the Greek tragedies. A new movie would be all the buzz about how fresh and unique it was. Except, I had already read about the same story presented in a stone amphitheater twenty-three hundred years before.
A picture framer’s job isn’t about the four sticks, some paper matting, and glass. It is about telling the image’s story—better.
The difference between a snapshot and an image is the snapshot grabs the entire context, and the story gets lost. Where the image, or one that gets published, frames the story inside of the context. The lonely bull elephant in miles of grassland and the great blue sky above with only a single tiny white cloud to one side.
Everyone has a story. But the better story is the story inside of the bigger story.
What I like to do is find the inner story, and then tell the story behind that story. It’s the one that motivated the character. It’s the better of the better stories.
Every year there are half a million stories written about a young girl. Finding the unique backstory placed in a stressful situation that calls for extraordinary action is what can set it aside as a unique story.