The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures


Why Outdoor Fiction Matters in the Age of Instagram

by Jeff McElroy

I love good photographs.  My mom is a photographer.  Instagram is a treat, and there’s something incredibly comforting about kicking back on the couch and thumb-scrolling through everyone’s photo diaries.  I feel privileged to be “friends” with (or at least follow) some of the greatest outdoor photographers in the world.  Even the non-professionals are posting jaw-dropping photos of mountains, waves, desert vistas, rocks, and canyons.  There is no dearth of images in our times; images to inspire, images to make us dream, images to shake us from our sedentary slumbers and propel us into adventures of our own.  But the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” has never resonated with me.  This might be because I’m a writer.

It has been said that fiction’s greatest purpose is to inspire empathy.  Photographs, too, can inspire empathy, yet, they cannot go to a special place only accessed by fiction: into the minds, hearts, intentions, thoughts, and musings of The Other.  We can gaze at an image of Edward Abbey standing in the desert and see the wisdom in his eyes, feel the rapture of the mesquite landscape behind him.  But only in a story about him can we step beyond the image and go inside his head (or inside the head of the writer writing about him).  It is the boundless scope and play of fiction that gives the writer total freedom to explore what it means to be human and to explore The Other.

Most outdoor magazines pair images with non-fiction, and this can be powerful.  We can open to a random page in any of these magazines and find a story in which a pro surfer recounts his experiences in some “exotic” land.  Or perhaps it is a climber describing her Himalaya wanderings.  Like the image, this non-fiction has the power to inspire us to seek our own adventures, but it doesn’t bring us to the empathic realm of fiction.  The alchemy of fiction is that we can be anyone of any time, place, nationality, religion, or race.  Point-of-view is the thing that makes this magic work; we can step inside the sherpa’s head and see how he sees the foreign climbers.  We can step inside the old fisherman’s head and see the surfers playing on the waves the way he sees them.

And so maybe it’s time for a Silicon Valley startup to create Fictiongram.  Please, feel free to steal this idea and make millions.  I’d do it myself, but I don’t have time to learn social media website creation; I’m too busy rambling outside and writing fiction.  But it sure would be cool to scroll through Fictiongram to see how others are imagining others set amidst the wild and wonderful places of this universe.  If you’re not convinced the word is worth a thousand pictures, close your eyes and think about Tom Joad or Willa Cather’s Antonia.  Close your eyes and think about Heathcliff searching for Catherine on the moors, or Santiago returning to the harbor with the marlin’s skeleton.  You see it?  You feel it?  No pictures required.

Join Jeff for Writing the Wild begins May 31.

Jeff McElroy’s first collection of surf noir short stories,Californios, has earned him comparisons with John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Jack London. He has found a loyal readership ranging from outdoor/surfer enthusiasts to avant-garde literary folks. His adapted screenplay for one of the stories in Californios, “Goofyfoot,” won 1st Place in the San Fernando Valley Film Festival. Another story from Californios, “Brown Pride,” won 1st Place in the Writer’s Digest Short-Short Story Contest. An avid surfer, backpacker, and writing coach, Jeff lives with his fiancée and Jack Russell Terrier in the Ojai Valley, between the mountains and the sea.