Beyond the First Right Answer: Writing Craft and Dewitt Jones

Not long ago I saw an old video about creativity by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones. I have a page of scribbled-in-colored-pencil notes with countless lessons, all applicable to my work and life. But one lessons stands out:

At the Library - Trying to capture the cuteness of my little guy playing with trains

At the Library - Trying to capture the cuteness of my little guy playing with trains

There's more than one right answer.

Obvious enough. I can write a poem in free verse or as a sestina; both can be good, or "right." But what struck me was the quote,

"Anybody can come up with one right answer." The key is to look for the next right answer ...

I don't have as much trouble doing this in some areas of writing. My picture book isn't working in prose? Try it in rhyme! Let's make the characters centipedes, set it on Mars. In other areas and other arts, however, I have a harder time: that scene that won't come together, that awkward poem, that uninspiring photograph.

Jones, a photographer, shared a bland snapshot of his daughter. The sort of picture we all have crowding albums and memory cards. Blown-out highlights, crowded frame, random use of color. He pointed out that if he judged himself on that shot, he'd put his camera away forever. But he didn't stop there. He pushed on, and the next image was tighter, more sensitive and evocative. Ahh, he'd found the Right Answer.

That's where I'm often tempted to stop. In picture making I think, "Oh, good! I got it!" and the terror at having to put away my camera subsides. For a while. Because who knows if there will be another great shot? What if there's not? Then it's proof I can't do it, I don't have the gift, my "right answer" was just a fluke, luck. I labor over a scene and finally get it. Not great, but good enough. What if I try again and make it worse? What if I lose what was right the first time?

Jones urges us to...

Look harder, to shift perspective, trust instinct, slow down. To look for the next right answer not in terror, but knowing it will be there.

The next shot of this same subject was a close-up of his daughter's face. Sensitive, full of texture and mood. Breathtaking. Another right answer.

This is what I need to do, to let go of the fear, the frantic judging of my self-worth by the image on the LCD screen or the words on my page. I need to let myself fall in love with the world. Because that's what creativity is. Curiosity. Joy. Love.

I assumed Jones's glorious images were moments of inspiration, gifts. But he said that it takes him fourteen-thousand "answers" to get those thirty or so "right answers" that end up in a National Geographic story. Just as I read somewhere else that your first hundred thousand photographs are practice.

Dewitt Jones doesn't stop at the first right answer, and neither can I. And with Scrivener's Snapshot function, I never have to lose any of my first right - or wrong - answers along the way.

The final take...

The final take...