Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Surprises that Pull Our Story Together—Guest Post by Man Martin

by Man Martin, @ManMartin1

paradisedogscoverFarrish Carter, an old college friend – and by old, I mean old; we hadn’t seen each other in thirty years – stayed at our house for a couple of nights. The first night he was here, we sat in the living room talking and drinking red wine, and he showed us shots from his current series of photographs.

For these shots he’s abandoned his fancy-shmancy Nikon with its detachable lens that looks like a cannon’s mouth. Instead, he works with his cell phone, snagging candid pictures from the passing scene. Although perfectly within his rights to do so – anything that occurs in public is, after all, public – he admits to slight trepidation about taking pictures of complete strangers without permission, often as he pretends to be making a call on his cell phone. I think if the subjects saw the pictures, however, they would not be affronted. Farrish never mocks people; he doesn’t take the sort of pictures you might have seen on the web featuring, say, a morbidly obese woman at the WalMart wearing tiger-print hot pants. His shots are taken with respect, and even if the camera sees them as they do not see themselves, I don’t believe they would feel ashamed of their portrayal.

author of yearThe way Farrish describes his process is that he’ll be walking down the street and see a likely-looking subject – at which point he’ll break into a trot, “framing it up” in his mind, getting into position. More often than not, his subject moves on before he gets his picture. Out of hundreds of shots, only a few may be worth keeping. But the ones he keeps!

securedownloadSo what does this have to do with writing? My favorite shots here are the young soldier with the doll-like complexion and the little girl waving what appears to be a magic wand or a sparkler (it’s a sunflower). The big concrete pylon in the soldier picture shouldn’t be there – it throws the composition slightly off balance; surely if Farrish had more time to “frame up his picture,” he would have eliminated it. And yet. For a reason I can’t explain, that pylon is essential to the picture. It guarantees its authenticity, perhaps; it makes the scene look more raw and unplanned. Ditto for the little girl with the sunflower. The texture of the stone steps, her expression, her pink flip-flops: all of this, Farrish had seen and rushed down the street to capture. The part he could not have anticipated was the waving sunflower. Oh, he saw the sunflower, too, but there’s no way to know it would be waving, or waving exactly that way, or how the cell phone’s lens would interpret that smear of green and yellow light.

author of year 001The weakest of the shots – and weak is a relative term, because each of these is a marvel – is the young man standing behind his motorcycle. Farrish told me that when he shared these, a fellow photographer said, “Was this a studio shot?” And it really is a beautiful shot; it’s perfectly balanced with beige buildings lit by amber lights rising in the center and on either side, and a sky that looks like a back-lit blue canvas. The handsome man standing like a model, one hand on his helmet. It’s perfect, actually. And that’s its flaw. It lacks the element of surprise for both the artist and the viewer – the concrete pylon that’s out of place but inexplicably apt, the waving yellow sunflower that turns into a firework.

That’s what Farrish Carter taught me about writing; you bring every ounce of skill, raw talent, training, and craft to the table; you rush up to it, as you recognize a story line or character “framing up.” Most of your draft goes in the little trashcan on your computer desktop, as you whittle down pages and pages to the essential words. But in the final analysis, it’s that little glimmer of accident, the thing you couldn’t plan for, that moment of unexpected grace – a lopsided concrete pylon or a waving sunflower – that brings the whole thing together.

man martinMan Martin is two-time winner of Georgia Author of the Year. His novels are Paradise Dogs and Days of the Endless Corvette. He blogs at