A Picture is Not Worth A Thousand Words

Originally published in Writer’s Digest, January 1995
Based on the keynote speech “Holograms, Time Machines, and Magic Dreams”
delivered at the 1993 Rally of Writers, Lansing, MI, April 17, 1993

This past September marked the 16th anniversary of the first time the name Michael Kube-McDowell appeared both as a byline and on a check.

The latter was issued by a concern called, straightfacedly, the Truth Publishing Company–owners of a newspaper called The Elkhart Truth. You’d almost expect the motto on the masthead to be “We’re not making this up, honest!”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the check stub also bears the indelicately ambiguous memo “9 Inches News.”

Aside from its historical significance, I realize now that I did learn an important lesson from that first sale.

If you remember 1978, you probably remember the OPEC oil embargo of a few years earlier, which brought us gas for $2 a gallon. And you probably remember the era of the four-service-station-stoplight, which the embargo effectively ended.

For those of you who don’t remember, a brief fable: Once upon a time, every four-corners in the country had four full-service gas stations. (It’s true–you could look it up.) Their owners would glare icily at each other across the intersection, study their competitors’ price boards and contemplate price wars, and bribe us with Green Stamps, collectors’ coins, and a host of other wonderful trinkets–just to get us to pull up alongside their pumps.

Amazing as it may seem, in those days, no one had to pump their own gas, check their own oil, or wash their own windshield. Smiling, personal attendants did those things for free. (Really–I wouldn’t lie to you. I wrote for the Truth Publishing Company, remember?). And if there was something wrong with your car, every station had a fifty-five year-old man in a stained uniform who could listen to the engine, look under the hood, and fix it in fifteen minutes. You could trust your car to the man who wore the star.

And then, one day, the stations went away.

The End.

This was one of those subtle little cultural sea changes, the kind that sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention. I guess I started paying attention in 1978. I suddenly noticed all the Realtors, pet shops and florists occupying the same spaces formerly occupied by hydraulic lifts, the Esso tiger, and guys named Jack and Tom who knew whether you wanted regular or premium.

Believing myself to be in undiscovered country, I decided that I’d try to come up with a nostalgic little feature on converted gas stations, aimed at one of the area newspapers’ weekend magazines. Mind you, I did this without troubling to query any of my intended markets, or find out what they paid for freelance material, or even if they accepted freelance material at all.

But, no, that isn’t the lesson I learned.

Armed with my 35mm camera and plenty of black-and-white film, I went out and photographed every converted station I could find in two counties–talked to the new owners about the old owners–dotted all my i’s, crossed all my t’s. I had contact sheets made, and then a fistful of 5×7 glossy prints. All told, I spent at least $30 on the photos–without ever stopping to think that the newspapers might have photo labs, and even photographers, of their own.

But, no, that isn’t the lesson I learned.

To accompany these splendid images, I wrote a flock of snappy captions and about eight paragraphs of text. /SIGH/ The first six ‘graphs consist entirely of sentence fragments–a kind of prose collage which I’m sure I thought was terribly arty and evocative in a sort of Tom-Wolfe new-journalism style. If I’d employed conventional prose, I’d have had a nice 1500-word feature.

But, no, that isn’t the lesson I learned, either.

The largest newspaper in the area rejected my piece. They’d run a similar piece a few months before, which I didn’t know because I didn’t query first. Nor had I been reading the publication I was trying to sell to.

No, that’s not it, either.

But the Elkhart Truth was delighted with the feature, and ran it in their Labor Day edition, under the title “Where Have All The Stations Gone?” I got the check the same week. And when I opened the envelope, I learned–well, you see, The Elkhart Truth didn’t pay for photographs. Only for copy. And for my eight paragraphs of Reader’s Digest condensed prose, I received the princely sum of $12.90.

An important lesson, indeed–a picture is most definitely not worth a thousand words. And that early discovery helped me to get my priorities straight. In the years since, I’ve sold about 400 more photographs–but about a million and a half more words.

Now, don’t misunderstand–my cameras are still an important part of my working kit (even now that I’m writing fiction more or less exclusively). Last month, I made a trip to the Thumb and the Lake Huron shore for the sole purpose of expending several rolls of film on possible locations for the middle section of the novel I’m writing now. The first third of Vectors is set in Ann Arbor, and I made more than one scouting-with-camera trip there before I began writing.

In fact, I’ve made it a habit to take my camera bag every time I go out of town, even if I have no particular need in mind yet. I’ve found that if I get interesting photos, eventually I’ll find a need. I drew heavily on what I shot during a week in Oregon for my novel The Quiet Pools. I expect to use photos from a previous trip to Georgia for my next project.

I’ve even been known to go out onto campus or into town and use a long lens to take pictures of strangers’ faces, which I then use to make characters snap into focus. Even for a fiction writer, photography is a wonderful tool.

But that whole tale about my first sale wasn’t just a long way to go for a cheap joke. I’m also quite serious about this heresy: a picture isn’t worth a thousand words.

When the visual details are all that matter, photography is far superior to writing. Read a few pages of scene-setting description from any 19th-century novel of manners, and you’ll see just how tedious a drawing-room or a country estate can be. But photography’s strength is also it’s weakness. A photograph can only tickle one of the five senses. Writing is capable of invoking all of them–and of unlimbering the imagination as well.

A photograph documents a moment, captures an image. Writing goes beyond that–it communicates ideas, emotions, impressions, sensations. Writing captures experience.

A photograph coaxes you to believe that you’ve witnessed something that, in truth, you haven’t. But writing gives you access to someone who is a witness–to history, to life, to the ineffable moment.

Photographs are deceptively concrete and objective–they offer a seductive illusion of reality. Because of that, over the last century, we’ve come to believe that photographs are more truthful than words. The camera does not lie, we’re told.

But that, of course, is a falsehood. Every movie ever made is a lie told with a camera. Not to mention that every family snapshot you’re in makes you look ten pounds heavier than you really are. (Perhaps, like me, there’ve been times when you were sure it was closer to twenty.)

The truth is that photographs lie–and liars can photograph. Now, I expect that over the next decade or two, we’ll become more aware of this truth. The crude tabloid-style doctoring of photos will soon be a thing of the past. Digital image processing technology is already very close to being able to create an image of a place that doesn’t exist, depict an event that never happened, and drop you in the middle of it–and defy you to prove even to your own satisfaction that you weren’t there. With Photo CD and a personal computer, you and I can even have some of that power for ourselves.

But for now, photographs get better PR. Compare “the camera never lies” with “don’t believe everything you read.” Writing has no protective coloration (no matter what you call your publishing company). We know–or we ought to–that the words we’re reading or hearing are subjective, that the version of reality they offer has been filtered, captured and interpreted by intelligence.

And that’s exactly what makes those words so valuable.

Christopher Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin, said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

With all due respect to Mr. Isherwood (and overlooking the conceit of objectivity), passively recording and not thinking is a job for a camera, not for a human being. As writers, we can aim a little higher than that: Communicating ideas and emotions. Exploring the realms of imagination and ecstasy. Capturing the experience of being alive. Witnessing to history–from the personal to the cosmic. Interpreting all of it with intelligence and humanity.

Language can do all of that with a power and an elemental eloquence no photograph can match. And writing can do all of those things while breaking the barriers that lock us into the here and now.

Have you ever seen a time machine?

I have hundreds of them at home–from The Teaching of Buddha to Darwin’s The Origin of Species to last month’s newspaper.

Have you ever experienced virtual reality? Have you ever shared someone else’s dream?

I have, thousands of times. Realities created by Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. (I’ve even created a few myself.) Nothing they tell us is real, and yet they have the power to make us believe, for a time. The printing press is the original virtual reality machine.

My son and I are reading Kipling’s Captains Courageous together–the first time for both of us. Neither of us has ever fished the Grand Banks aboard a 19th century schooner. But a man who’s now dead has succeeded in giving us a vivid experience in that time and culture that no longer exist–tying the past to the present with words.

The next book we read together will probably be one of Robert Heinlein’s young adult SF novels, Tunnel in the Sky or Star Beast or Citizen of the Galaxy. I fully expect that when we do, we’ll find that a man who’s now dead has succeeded in giving us a vivid experience in a time and culture that exists only as a vision and a possibility–tying the future to the present with words.

Time machines–dream catchers–the ability to create something out of nothing, something real out of pure thought. What wonderful powers these are.

Writers are the custodians of the very best magic the human race has ever discovered. It beats fire, jet propulsion, and even dark chocolate hands down.

When we think of writing, we tend to think of information, and entertainment. But we should be thinking of glue–the glue that holds a modern society together.

Consider for a moment how important the oral tradition is in a pre-literate hunter-gatherer community. What happens if the crafts aren’t passed on, the old stories aren’t told, or their lessons not learned?

In a word, disaster. Extinction of a way of life.

Writing stands between us and the same kind of disaster. The most significant development of the last few millenia has been the way human beings have supplemented and supplanted the oral tradition with a written one. The library is the defining symbol of civilization.

We simply can’t sustain our way of life without the thoughts and memories that have been–and continue to be–captured in words. In fact, we couldn’t have built our culture and technology without that tool. If we’d invented the

Polaroid Land Camera ten thousand years ago instead of writing, would we have come as far as we have? I don’t think so.

Which can teach us more–a photograph of Adolf Hitler, or a copy of Mein Kampf?

Would you rather have a snapshot of Jesus, or his personal diary?

Choose one of the following: a portrait of the attendees at an international scientific congress, or a transcript of the proceedings.

Which would mean more, to see Old Kingdom Egypt in glorious Kodachrome, or to see it through the eyes of Imhotep, or Unas?

Give me the words, every time.

If we lose this magic, it’ll be like going from quadraphonic digital multimedia back to hissy monaural AM radio, from premium cable back to three fuzzy TV channels. We’d be facing a technological, intellectual, and cultural lobotomy.

So–who’s minding the library?

We are. We who write do. We take what we see–what we know–what we dream–what we understand–what we imagine–and try to pass them on. It’s the writer’s place to keep knowledge and ideas alive long enough to become tools–in the hands of our own generation, or the next.

Now, all this earnest, high-toned talk may have started you thinking that you have to write for The National Review and The New Yorker, win Pulitzer Prizes, and hit the Publishers Weekly nonfiction best-seller lists in order to be equal to the responsibility.

Nothing could be further from the truth. All you have to do is write, and put your writing where someone else can read it. (A novel seen by no one but the author isn’t art, it’s therapy.)

Why is it that simple? Because the library I’ve been speaking of isn’t a public building, or a particular indexed collection of slowly disintegrating dust magnets. Not the Library of Michigan, or the New York Public Library, or the Library of Congress, or even the Great Library at Alexandria. The library I’m talking about is the library of everything that exists in written form anywhere on the planet, in any form, in any language–one copy, or millions.

I’m talking about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the unauthorized biography of the Grateful Dead. The Greater Lansing Business Monthly and The Wall Street Journal. The East Bend Weekly Fishwrap and Pravda. National Geographic and the newsletter of the Manganese County Historical Society. It all counts. It’s all part of the glue.

I’m talking about Joe Neopro’s novel that sold seventeen copies and Beverly Megabucks’ cookbook that’s been in print for seventeen years. The scripts for PBS’s The Civil War and for ABC’s Civil Wars. The Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopedia of Sexual Positions. Cat Fancier Magazine and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

I don’t mean to pretend that everything that’s written will have the same reach, or carry the same weight. And I know we’d all like to be, if not award-winners, then at least recognized and respected in our chosen endeavors.

But it’s important for you to remember that it all counts. The memos for our bosses, the minutes of the town councils, the filler poems in magazines, the documentation for the new software packages, those letters to the editor, the booklets on our churches’ histories, our work for high school newspapers, the short stories we shared with our mothers and six of our friends–they’re just as much a part of this process of social cohesion and cultural memory as any name-brand author or mass-circulation magazine.

A community is made of many parts, connected at many points. It takes a lot of glue to hold it all together.

I remember being at an estate sale several years ago, watching the auctioneer gamely trying to get a few dollars for a box of hundred-year-old family photographs. He eventually had to bundle them with something more desirable, just to get rid of them. Why? Those photos had no context to give them meaning.

The people pictured were strangers to all of us. There were no names, no notes scrawled on the back, no stories–no words.

Photography opens a window. But writing unlocks a door. I would have bid on a box of hundred-year-old family letters. But there weren’t any. There was nothing to bring those photographs–those people–to life.

I’ve been doing a little family genealogy in recent months. And as happy as I’d be to discover a photograph of my great-great-grandfather McDowell, I’d trade it in a eyeblink for a letter in his own hand. But the chances are that Samuel McDowell couldn’t read or write. The chances are that he never added anything to the great human library. And because of that, I’ll never know him.

You see, it all counts.

In the last 16 years, I’ve written science-fiction novels and stories, book reviews, slide-show scripts, speeches, training manuals, teleplays, teaching materials, erotica, op-ed columns, hard news, happy news, how-tos, and a hundred-page annotated bibliography for which I was not paid a single sou. I’ve been published by tiny newspapers and international media conglomerates, by amateur magazines and in best-of-the-year anthologies.

And I haven’t the foggiest notion how to evaluate what I’ve done so far.

I think the secret is that we mostly can’t know what difference we’re making–and because of that, we can’t let ourselves worry overmuch about it. All you can do is follow your loves, or let your passions drive you–whichever is closer to the mark. Write because it gives you pleasure, or because it helps keep you sane. Finish what you start, and find the best home for it you can. And then go try to write something better.

Don’t expect to be honored in accord with anyone’s lofty vision of the writer’s importance. Do it because you know writing’s important–and because it gives you satisfaction. Your contribution may be small, or great. It may be momentary, or lasting. It may be a hobby, or a lifelong career. I have a secret to tell you: no one’s keeping score.

Most of all, never forget that writing is only half of the magic. Reading is the other half. When we read, we have available to us as our mentors, teachers, and entertainers every person whose thoughts, actions, and words someone took care to record, preserve and pass on. That’s a vast and undervalued treasure–the real riches of humankind. If you have a chance to add something of yourself, however small, to that treasure, let yourself be proud.

And let me thank you, in advance, for your gifts to our children, and to tomorrow.

Philadelphia native Michael P. Kube-McDowell has been riding the roller-coaster of the full-time freelance wroter and novelist for more than ten years. The high points include his Hugo Award nominee The Quiet Pools (Ace), and seeing three of his short stories filmed for the television series Tales From the Darkside. His most recent novel is Exile (Ace).

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