I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to an exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks, one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. The exhibition’s 42 photographs were from a series originally meant to accompany a Life magazine photo essay, but for unknown reasons, the story was never published.
In 1948, Parks was the first African American photographer hired by Life magazine. The images for the unpublished photo essay depict the realities of life under segregation in 1950. Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas, and then other Midwestern cities to track down and photograph each of his childhood classmates.
The experience of mining his childhood memories and the work on the “Back to Fort Scott,” seemed to have inspired him to write The Learning Tree in 1963, his best-selling novel about growing up poor in Kansas.
Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. Most of the photos were never before on view until this exhibition at the Boston MFA. The reason remains a mystery, although the U.S. entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.
The story of what happened to this photo essay all those years ago should resonate with us who work hard to have our stories published, only to have them passed over for unknown reasons. But, as in the case of Gordon Parks’ photo essay, that doesn’t mean that the creative work won’t eventually find its audience.
Looking back at my term as president of the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), I have to say that Hank Phillippi Ryan, investigative television reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate station and author of Prime Time, Face Time, Air Time, and three other books, including a new one due out in September, is one of the most generous authors I know. The award-winning crime fiction novelist took time out of her busy schedule to be the keynote speaker at one of our annual year-end dinner banquets. Before an audience of about 30 members and guests in the private dining area of one of Boston’s upscale hotels, she regaled us with stories of how she began writing her first novel. She talked about the long hours in front of the computer screen after her shifts at the TV station, the social events she skipped to carve out time to work on the book, the reams of paper she went through as she revised what she had written. I’m sure she doesn’t know this but her methods provide me with guidance as I work on my own book project. However there was one tactic she told us about that I would feel uncomfortable using: she had her husband read her raw manuscript pages and give her feedback.
I cannot imagine having my fiancé read my manuscript, not a chapter, section, or paragraph. He is also a writer, a very good one, with a background in journalism, like me. I know that he could provide me with insight that would be helpful in polishing the story. However, because my manuscript is so personal, has been a part of my life for more than five years, and because he is so close to me, he is the one person I won’t let read it. I plan to show it to him after it’s published, after it’s been edited, bound, and printed, but not before. Does anyone else feel this way? How do you feel sharing your work in progress with a significant other, whether it’s a writing project, work project, or other personal creative venture? I’d love to hear from you.