My junior year of college, I took a photojournalism class. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I’ll tell you this was right when DSLRs came on the scene. Rather than having to learn how to develop photos in a darkroom, we were one of the first classes to do all of our photo editing in a computer lab using Photoshop.
The first project we were assigned that semester was to assemble five photos that represented our life. Our professor explained the photos would be due in one week’s time and that, in the class following the turn in day, he would select one photo from each of our submissions to critique in class.
It was toward the end of the critique class and we’d seen some really great pictures. Some of my classmates have gone on to be professional photographers, and their talents were apparent early on. Then Professor Heller put my picture up on the screen. It was one I’d taken of Jon, who, at the time, was my boyfriend of just over a year.
“What do you all think of this picture?” he asked of the class, as he’d done for each of the previous pictures.
“The lighting isn’t very good,” one person offered.
“Her subject is centered,” said someone else.
“The background is too busy,” said another.
“You’re correct on all counts,” said Professor Heller. He spent several minutes detailing the ways I could’ve taken a better picture, and I slumped lower and lower in my chair. It was brutal; by far the most intense critique of the class.
“Where is Jennifer Manning?” he finally asked, and if I could’ve bolted out the door of the classroom I would’ve. Tentatively I raised my hand. I was certain he was about to kick me out, dismissing me as hopeless, beyond teaching.
“Who is this?” he asked, gesturing to Jon’s face, filling the projector screen behind him.
“Um, my boyfriend, Jon,” I said. My voice went up at the end so that it sounded as though I was asking a question rather than answering one. I cringed further.
“I thought so,” he said, smiling. “This is a great picture.” I nearly fell over in shock as he turned to the class and told them to look at Jon’s expression.
“You can tell he loves her, just by his face. She’s the only person in the world who could’ve taken this picture. Sometimes, it’s not just composition or lighting or angles that make your pictures great. Sometimes it’s because you’re the only one who could take them.”
I got better at taking pictures than that first fuzzy, poorly composed shot of Jon. I learned about shutter speed and aperture; I started paying more attention to lighting (and light poles). But I’m still not a great photographer. I have to take dozens and dozens of shots to get just one good one, and even my best photo isn’t anything special. But I take the pictures anyway. I snap and I snap and finally, the sheer volume works in my favor and I catch a little bit of magic.
It’s the same with our stories. Some people are really great at telling them because they’re artists. They’re at the very top of their craft; they weave words and phrases and imagery in a way that feels transcendent. They are better than I could ever hope to be, and instead of letting them be an inspiration, I feel discouraged instead. Why bother at all, when there’s someone who’s already doing it better?
But these wildly talented writers can’t tell my stories. The ones in my head and scribbled on looseleaf paper and living in Google Docs belong only to me. My perspectives and my truths will only be a part of the world if I choose to share them. Maybe I’m not the greatest, but that doesn’t mean my stories aren’t worth telling. If nothing else, they matter to me—I want to capture how it feels in this moment, right now, so that years from now I can look back and remember the details that will grow fuzzy with time. So I write and I write, and eventually the sheer volume works in my favor and I catch a bit of magic.
I can’t let my fear of not getting it perfect stop me from writing it down in the first place. There will always be someone better.
I’ll write anyway.
In June, I’m teaching a storytelling class with my Coffee + Crumbs teammate Anna Jordan. We’ll be spending four weeks talking about finding the stories in our lives and how to write them down. As of today, we still have eight spots left in our class, and we’d love to have you join us. You can learn more and sign up here. (It would also make an excellent Mother’s Day gift for the writer in your life if you’ve procrastinated.) Storytelling is the bread-and-butter of C+C, and we’re excited to dive into what it looks like when it’s done well.