A Thousand Words’ Worth
by Traci Johnson Moore ’91
In high school, my friend Jon and I tiptoed with our cameras through abandoned houses. We snapped photographs of rocks. In little towns we took candids of smiling children. For who knows how many hours we huddled over darkroom developer trays, awaiting the emergence of our coveted images. That we would explore photography in college was inevitable.
At Scripps, my eccentric photography professor kept scratching her head when critiquing my work. She said that my sepia-toned images of underwater swimmers and my photo-journal tracking a teenager’s life, though interesting, lacked depth. My junior year abroad, art teachers in England were similarly puzzled by my photos with changing captions and my album of black-and-white prints framed in fountain-penned narrative. Such material, they said, was too personal.
A student less stubborn and more mature might have said thank you and used the feedback to develop her next project. But I cried, stomped my feet, and refused to change. Against my advisors’ suggestions, I recycled my old photos for my senior art show. My shallow thesis earned me a C. After graduation, commercial photographers politely told me my portfolio was too thin to warrant hiring me, and that only experienced, aggressive artists succeeded in the business. Crestfallen, I finally shoved my camera in a closet.
I first worked as a customer service representative in a photo lab, writing up orders for people who lugged around lenses and tripods for a living. Then I became an executive assistant at a consulting firm, a tax processor in an accounting office, and a human resources specialist for a freight company. The rest of my hours were consumed by a marriage, a dog, a house, and a baby; later, a divorce and a chunk of time recalibrating.
Several years into my moderately peaceful singlemotherdom, I received an inheritance that allowed me to do something crazy: make images from words.
Words had quietly danced through my life since I was seven—the year Mrs. Barra awarded me a certificate for reading 256 books. Ms. Timlin gave me my first journal in fourth grade. Daily I scribbled notes to my pen pal across the street. I labored over sappy poems about cute boys. For decades I’d filled notebooks with my thoughts—initially disguised in cryptic handwriting to deter my snooping sisters. These words even wound up in my photo projects, which often evolved into books.
As an adult, I started taking creative writing classes. I became the kind of bubbly, slightly annoying student who befriends the faculty and always raises her hand. I dove into writing assignments. I volunteered at writing conferences. I hosted writing groups. My fantasy of being gutsy enough to attend a poetry reading turned into my standing before a microphone every month and hosting a community-wide literary event.
Now I spend weekdays in my sunny home office writing stories and editing others’ words. In these cozy quarters, I use up many hours sawing, drilling, and polishing. Sometimes I work for a year hammering a piece together before it sails into a literary journal. Other times I force a smile, demolish pages, and start over.
Through writing, I take greater leaps than I used to. Next summer, I host my first writing workshop at Camp Scripps. I have wise, witty poet friends and writing partners. On breaks, when I open a book, I do more than read; I look for enlightenment.
Paging through my old photo projects now, I notice their technical precision and simplistic themes. How their trying for- meaningful text reveals my youthful naiveté. Though now I can laugh at my artistic attempts, I can also value my growth.
Scripps College gave me a chance to study what inspired me: people. While my camera allowed me to edge closer to my subjects, writing lets me study my subjects in the greatest detail: from the inside-out.
I’m grateful for all the artists who’ve been frank with me. I’m also oddly relieved that none of my quirky photo projects fit conventional containers. These challenges have strengthened my creative muscles and inspired me to expose my stories to the light.
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