by Laura Childs Gill
Fifteen years ago, I walked El Camino de Santiago, and I did not bring a camera. Instead, I brought a journal I rarely used because I considered myself a fledgling writer, and I didn’t think photographs held the same weight as language. I thought I had to “write every day,” and I believed having a camera would influence my experience too much, not just as I walked, but as I remembered the walking. I didn’t want to remember the man walking the long, dirt road, carrying more than he needed from a photograph I may have taken, but by what I felt as I watched him: I am so much smarter than him—he really shouldn’t have brought so much. I can’t know how taking photographs would have impacted the experience itself or my memories, but what I do know it’s been fifteen years, and I’ve never written about the walk, except in bits and pieces. Sometimes, I wish I had both the photographs and the feelings. I want to know the contours of that same man’s face, and remember the embarrassment I felt when he handed me his extra towel in the hostel as I wept, having just realized I’d left my tiny, quick-dry one, the size of a hand towel, at the previous stop. I want to know the exact color of the towel he gave me; I want to capture the texture. I’m not sure if having a visual of either would help me describe the comfort he brought to me, or the confrontation I had with my own hubris, but I’m no longer convinced it would hinder my ability to get it on the page, that it would in any way take away from getting the words down themselves.
Reading Maguerite Duras’ Writing this year was a physical experience for me, in the way that books are a physical experience when they demand you hold the pen in your hand and keep it there because on every page, there’s a place to comment, underline, and place exclamation points. I’ve read many books about writing, and I was wary to read another, worried I’d see in it what I often see—“get your butt on the chair,” “create a routine,” “write every day”—but I had a feeling Duras would deliver something new, and she did. For her, writing doesn’t simply mean putting words on a page; for her, “everything is writing:” a fly on a wall: a conversation with a friend: a walk across a frozen pond: solitude.
I’ve never had a regimented or consistent writing routine, or, at least I believed I didn’t have one, until recently. The journal I rarely used on El Camino became just like every other journal I rarely used. I’m not good at journaling. I’m not good at writing “what comes to me” daily, and I’ve never been able to create a routine for either. Even when I was teaching full-time and working on my MFA—a time where a structure would have helped me a great deal—I still couldn’t stick to one. Some weeks I woke up early, some weeks I worked late at night. There were days I read, and days I wrote, and many days where I did neither. But every day, I took photographs. I took photographs of the light creating concentric circles around the mug on my desk; I took photographs of water droplets holding onto a railing and the moss in the crack of the building. And every day, I walked, but never without a camera. Walk and pause, walk and pause. For the blossoms covering cars, concrete, and asphalt; for the discarded shoes in the trunk of the tree.
After reading Duras, I started to realize that walking, and taking photographs as I walked was not simply a part of my writing practice, but it was writing, in the same way that Virginia Woolf’s walk through London in her essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” is the writing itself. The essay is about a trip to buy a pencil, and she tells us she’s made up the excuse of buying a pencil just to walk the streets, to “ramble” and observe. She desperately wants to describe her surroundings, and her surroundings only, even though, as she writes it down, she can’t help but analyze, intuit, and reflect. And so she stops herself, or tries, writing, “let us dally a little longer, be content still with surfaces only — the glossy brilliance of the motor omnibuses; the carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”
Let us dally. Let us dally a little longer.
Woolf goes onto write: “the eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” and I’m starting to realize that photography is how I’ve been able to capture this resting. It is a way to chart the surface of my various paths, and to see what shows up on the other side. Photography is the journal I use daily, and it is how I draft, using, as Woolf says, the “eye,” to notice what is on the stream—I have to see the stream before I can figure out just why I came to it in the first place. I have to notice the color of the water before I can recognize my particular thirst. When I take photographs, my brain “sleeps” as I pull the camera out of whatever pocket I placed it in seconds before, and take shot after shot of a vine grabbing onto a fence.
And yet, this is not the ultimate goal. I also want to explain what I’ve seen. Like Woolf, my goal is the pencil, even if my writing practice doesn’t always require one. I need language to tell you that the vine is not just a vine wrapped around a fence but a lover grabbing her partner’s waist from behind. Woolf’s essay is an essay because she was unable to simply observe—she had to write her walk to fully explore it. Even Duras was not satisfied to simply see the fly on the wall. She, too, had to communicate the ways in which the fly was writing, and she needed language to do so. And so: let us dally, but let us also reflect on our dalliances. Who knows who we might inspire with both.
Laura Childs Gill is a writer and photographer living in Washington, D.C. Her essays are forthcoming in Agni and The Carolina Quarterly and have been published in Electric Literature, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Swamp Ape Review, Windmill, Solidago, and The Blue Mesa Review. See what she’s published in AGNI here.