(Writing) Life Imitates Art: Finding Inspiration in Ralph Fletcher’s Instagram

I haven’t figured out how to use Instagram yet, not in a way that feels like it is adding something to my professional or personal life. Blogging is my tool for thinking things out. Twitter is a forum for interaction and idea sharing, for staying connected to the larger community. But Instagram. . . I haven’t found my why or my how yet. It still feels clumsy, like a chore—something I should be doing that I’m (typically) not. It doesn’t feel authentic yet. 

Ralph Fletcher has figured it out. 

All photos in this post used with permission from Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher’s Instagram (ralphoto17) reads like a visual writer’s notebook. Ralph is a photographer and a birder, which makes sense in so many ways. Like a writer, a birder’s sensibilities are finely tuned to notice detail, to differentiate between an endless number of visual and auditory cues. There is an intentionality to tracking a live subject—waiting, watching, making decisions about distance and angle, shutter speed and composition. Like a writer, a birder has to work for those images, knee deep in the marsh, sunburned, perhaps coming up empty, and yet persistent enough to grab that camera and head back out day after day. 

There is a level of nuance to Ralph’s photography that parallels his choices as a writer. He catches living things in the most unexpected moments, prompting me as the “reader” to notice something I might never have noticed on my own.

Birds, bats, snakes. . . Ralph’s photos evoke a sense of wonder, whatever the subject. His simple captions observe and inform; sometimes they’re poetic or funny, adding context to the image and insight about his process as a photographer. 

Because Ralph Fletcher has been a professional mentor for as long as I can remember, I appreciate every opportunity to learn more about the interplay of his artistic life and his writing life. Scrolling through his Instagram feed, I can imagine how the creative act of curating images and crafting captions primes the pump for other writing, how the immediate feedback of likes and comments on Instagram motivates and connects him with his online community.

In a recent post, Ralph mentioned that he took 11,000 photos on his nine day safari in Botswana. Clearly, the volume of images required to generate the handful he’ll ultimately share on Instagram mirrors a writing process that depends on dedicated time with pen in hand, doing the work. With each of the 11,000 shots he takes, Ralph is experimenting, learning, and refining his craft. A photographer can afford to take risks and be playful when he knows he has the time (and memory card space) to take 11,000 pictures.

Engaging in the process consistently and with intention is how he gets better—just like with writing. Even now, with the expertise he has grown, I’m certain Ralph would never venture out expecting to stumble upon the perfect subject, snap a pic or two, and nail it immediately. That’s just not how photography (or writing) works.

I’m curious to dig a little deeper into what Ralph’s dual identity as photographer and writer might say about the creative process, especially how these concepts might apply to our work with young writers.

Writing Identity

My most important job as a teacher of writers is to help kids to develop identities as writers. Sometimes the entrypoint to seeing ourselves as writers doesn’t come from writing at all. Before we can write, we have to believe that we have something to say and someone to say it to. We need to see ourselves as people with stories to tell. We need to experience the power of communicating a message and seeing evidence that it connects with another human.

As we launch our writing workshops in the coming weeks, how might photography support this goal of kids seeing themselves as storytellers? What images might kids capture (at home and at school) that encourage them to tell these stories? How might we display these images publicly and intentionally connect them to what we say, draw, and write as storytellers? I wonder if generating and sharing ideas for writing through photography might tap a different well for some of our writers.

The Writer’s Notebook

The writer’s notebook as a tool is essential—and we all know writers who struggle to use it effectively because the physical labor of writing is still challenging (or because they are not writing in their native language or for a multitude of other reasons). I wonder if expanding our definition of how that writer’s notebook could look might make the process of using the notebook as a tool more accessible to more kids. 

Making choices about moments to capture with a camera/phone/iPad serves a similar purpose to jotting a note in the writer’s notebook. I would argue that it is the same thinking work. The power is in the noticing, the habit of writers to recognize the significance of a moment coupled with a desire to stash it away because it matters to them. It’s about reading the world like a writer, seeing potential in everyday moments. 

A photo in a “notebook” could document the visual details in a snap, enabling a writer to circle back later to put those details into spoken or written words. Such a concrete artifact might even enable a young writer to be more descriptive than relying on memory alone. 

A system for organizing those images—whether it’s Instagram, a Google doc/slide show, or printed, cut, and pasted in a physical notebook—could provide a writer with the opportunity to see connections between moments over time. Those images could serve as seeds for future writing, just like handwritten pages in a notebook.

Forms of and Audiences for Writing

I also wonder if there might be a lesson in the kind of writing that happens on Instagram. I think some kids believe that writing always has to be this long, drawn out process, a painfully crafted product.

Sometimes writing is quick. Sometimes our goal is to capture a moment, so that we can swing back to it later (or perhaps not). Sometimes we’re putting an idea out into the world to get a little feedback before we invest time developing it. Sometimes we’re just trying to connect. This kind of low risk, low stakes writing is important for writers of all ages. Like Ralph with his 11,000 shots, we approach writing with a more flexible and experimental mindset when we know we have time to play.

Alternately, sometimes—especially when we have a specific audience—we agonize over the crafting of a single sentence, making every word count. There is power in a message intended to communicate a big idea in very few words.  

How might Instagram-style writing open up a conversation (or a study. . .) around reasons we write and choices we make as writers in the real world? (#somanypossibilities) Imagine the relevance for young writers who are already primed to communicate in a constantly evolving variety of ways. 

Real World Inspiration for Writers

As writers ourselves, how are we sharing the things we find in the real world that inspire us—with each other and with kids? If Ralph Fletcher’s Instagram is a source of creative joy for me, then that is something I should be celebrating with my writers. Inspiration comes from life, and that life should come crashing into our workshops.

Discovering and seeking out what inspires and challenges us is part of being a writer. Becoming self-aware about our own process includes strategies for priming our own writing pumps.

A random pre-writing trick I stumbled upon (and now consistently return to) is browsing through Penzeys Spices before I go to write. There is something about wandering across those creaky, wooden floorboards, opening the lids of jars and inhaling cooking smells that taps into scent memories for me. I always leave ready to write. 

As a writer, I had to notice the impact this errand initially had on the writing that followed, and then it was up to me to intentionally try it again. Now I have a writing ritual that works for me.

When we share these a-has with kids, we invite them to take ownership of their own writing lives, to be on the lookout for sources of inspiration.

The creative lives we maintain outside of writing fill us up as humans with stories to tell.

When we bring this life into the writing workshop, it builds community, and it lays the foundation for lifelong writers who have strategies for sustaining their own writing lives. (You might say, it’s nurturing independence from the start, to borrow a phrase.)

At this time in the year, I’m thinking about all the kids who will be members of our writing communities. I’m thinking about all the teachers (and myself) who will be writing beside them. I wonder how we might leverage platforms like Instagram to support their writing lives. How might capturing images—noticing moments on purpose and sharing them with others—how might this practice spark new strategies for generating ideas for writing? For broadening our ideas about what a writer’s notebook could look like? For simply reveling in the artistic process, even if it never translates to our writing but feeds us in a way we need to be fed? 

Thank you, Ralph, for sharing your creative life with such generosity! Thank you also for sharing permission to include your incredible photography and Insta-writing in this post!

Just a few of my (many) favorite books by Ralph Fletcher

If you’re curious about other ways we might use Instagram with our young writers, check out Stacey Shubitz’s post from last summer, “Playing Around With Instagram Stories” as well as “Instagram can Help Treat Writer’s Block