Words & Pictures: Teaching Writing and Photography

May 19th, 2018

Doing my most favorite things

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My two classes in one month, writing and photography. ABOVE: I snap a panoramic while the class writes. BELOW: The photo class poses for their own panoramic.

The email came it at 4:06 pm Wednesday, “Call me as soon as you can. Need to discuss something with you.

It was the Executive Director of a bone marrow group I volunteer with. I take pictures at their annual symposium and have been doing so since I, myself, had a transplant — courtesy of my big brother’s stem cells. My Thursday flight out to Denver for this year’s symposium was scheduled in less than 24 hours.

Along with photographing the symposium, would I be able to teach a few writing seminars, she asked? Their original teacher had a death in the family. Take photos/teach writing, sure, I’m in!

It’s been a while since I taught Magazine Writing and Literary Journalism at Michigan State University. But it’s only been a couple weeks since I last taught photography. That was to a class down in Detroit. I helped them learn photography through an Oakland University program designed to affect social change through participatory photography. That sounds like a mouthful; really I just teach them how to use their cameras, while sharing photo techniques and exposing them to renowned professional photographers, past and present. It’s great fun.

It’s not always easy explaining to people I’m both a writer and photographer. My business card says 

Words & Pictures

in fonts outlandishly bigger than my name and contact info.

It’s even more difficult explaining that I really do teach both.

But I do.

The symposium had already locked in the topic — “Express Yourself: The Role of Expressive Writing in the Healing Process.” Everyone had already signed up for the two courses offered, so the pressure was on.

In the intervening hours before my flight, I reached out to my family asking for thoughts about how they handled my medical saga and healing process. My wife and younger daughter shared some thoughts about how to go about tackling the topic. Then my oldest daughter — who was days away from graduating with two masters degrees at Columbia University — came through with some key insights about Narrative Therapy, a topic she’s well-versed in as a future counselor and professor.

I also contacted my double mentor, Dr. William Palmer, who was originally my English professor back in the 80s and has since become a dear friend, as well as my writing/teaching coach. His counsel was sage, “my deep hunch is that you know best what to do,” he began.

Then he went about sketching out a quick, rough outline of how I can present the course and it was simply, unequivocally brilliant. And in just a few paragraphs, this particular writing workshop puzzle was solved for me. He concluded by assuring me everything would go well but I should “Sift all this with your Rodney soul sifter.”

I sifted.

When Sunday morning barreled down on top of me, I had spent Friday refining the workshop, then Saturday morning til late at night photographing the conference and putting together an audio slide show for the closing luncheon. I was exhausted, nervous, excited and ready to roll.

And “suddenly” there I was, standing in front of the class. Surprise, attending my first seminar was my fabulous aunt, the same one who helped me navigate my own healing process. She just happened to be a speaker at the same symposium, seeing as she spent her whole professional career as a doctor studying my exact illness. How nice of her! I made that joke off the cuff at the outset and immediately teared up — see exhaustion above.

Me leading the writing workshop. Photo by Thom Stewart

But both workshops rocked.

My photo class wanted to take a selfie with me.

In the back row sat several members of the bone marrow organization I work with; they actually participated in the class too.

 “This is what I’ve dreamed about,” I thought to myself as the class was free-writing, working on their own narratives. For several years I’ve held this very fantasy in my head; leading a writing workshop somewhere in the mountains, helping people bring their words onto the page.

When I’m leading photography workshops, we show our pictures. The folks I just finished teaching in Detroit liked coming up to me and showing me the shots they took on their phones or on the cameras we provided them.

So of course, in the writing workshops, we shared the stuff we just wrote. Their words were incredible. A woman talked about being on the way to getting her nails done and to buy a motorcycle when she got the call about her cancer. She canceled the Harley order but kept her nail appointment. A man in the class talked about how everyone kept asking him what it was like to go from being a doctor to being a patient.

Even my aunt jumped in to talk about what it was like being on the opposite end — being the one who has to give the bad news. “Just look at the young kids here at the conference; I transplanted them,” she says. And she’s right; several young, former patients have been running around for the past couple of days making us all laugh with their antics.

“Can I get a photo?” the young woman asked, walking up to me with her iPhone at the end of my session.

“Sure,” I said, reaching out to grab her phone to snap a photo of her and her friend. After all, that’s why I was here originally, to photograph people at the conference.

“No,” she explained, “a photo with you!”

The adrenaline shot through my dopey face and made my smile so insane, it felt like my teeth would explode.

My smile stayed in place long into my drive to Mesa Verde with my dad’s cousin who picked me up at the symposium and drove me to my next adventure, as seen in those other entries below.

My wonderful aunt, Dr. Roberta Adams, jokes around with me at the Denver symposium during my photo stint. photo by Thom Stewart



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