For a self-portrait assignment in my second-level high school photography class, I took pictures of my shadow. I distinctly remember doing so: I was on the street right in front of my house and the sun was just starting to go down. It was a Sunday evening and I had hesitated and dawdled with the assignment all weekend. I was supposed to have my negatives ready to develop the next morning in class (it was an old-fashioned photo class, complete with chemicals and a darkroom), and so far had absolutely nothing to bring in.
Later in the week I showed my reel of developed negatives to my teacher, a blunt, gray-haired woman who was known for scaring students away on the first day of class. She fingered through them and eyed them with a magnifying glass, then looked up at me with disappointment. She then began to lecture me. “Annika, you’re an attractive, smart girl. You could do a lot with this assignment. Why, why, why are you taking pictures of your shadow? Why are you hiding your face? It’s obvious you are scared of something, you lack confidence, you are unwilling to speak your mind.”
While absorbing the criticism of my photo teacher, my high school self recognized that my reluctance to take pictures of myself was not stemmed from laziness but from fear. I couldn’t quite pinpoint precisely what I feared, but I knew that it had something to do with exposure. On some level, I think I was afraid that others might see a true part of me and reject it. Or worse, laugh at it. It was easier to express myself using shadows; it felt comfortable and safe. My audience might not “get” what I was trying to say, but at least they wouldn’t be able to judge me for it.
In her article, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” Lynn Hunt proposes that writing is so terrifying of an endeavor because it forces the writer to expose a part of him or herself to the critical eyes of everyone else. She argues that to avoid being left “naked and shivering,” writers “hide… behind jargon, opacity, circuitousness, the passive voice, and a seeming reluctance to get to the point.” When reading this passage I thought yes. That’s it, you are on point.
Exposing a raw, honest part of oneself to the world is terrifying. It is so much easier to play it safe, to mask one’s opinions with vagueness and fluff, to hide “in the foliage that blocks the reader’s comprehension.” (The picture of the cat below is supposed to represent this scared, writerly act of “hiding in foliage”). I have done this countless times in my career as a writer, artist, and speaker; dancing around my central idea and cluttering my expression with uninteresting, overused muck.
But Hunt points out that timid self-expression will lead nowhere, because “no one cares” about it. She also points out that there is no “firing line” of critics ready to “execute” the bold, solitary writer. Rather, critics are yearning for bold, challenging arguments with which they can engage in lively debate.
Even though this all seems blatantly obvious, it goes against my instincts (and I assume those of many other aspiring writers), which tell me to play it safe and cover up my raw opinions. I really want to get over this hump of self-consciousness, and I hope that this course, and the writing minor as a whole, will help me do so. I think that by bridging the gap between the solitary act of writing and the communal work of conversation, the writing minor will help me, and everyone else who feels similarly, see that we are not alone and that there is no line of “others” firing against us. We can screw up and say stupid things, we can publish awkward blog posts and submit awful assignments. But in reality there is nothing out there preventing us from second, third, fourth and fifth chances besides our own fear.
I could spent the rest of my life taking pictures of my shadow, but I really, really don’t want to. It’s no fun at all.