Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Guest Blogger Christin Geall on Insta-prose: Developing an Audience Through Images

Christin Geall is a Canadian writer, designer, photographer, and author of Cultivated: Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020). Her writing and floral work focuses on the intersections of nature, culture, and horticulture, and she teaches internationally. Trained in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, she completed a BA in Environmental Studies & Anthropology and a MFA in Writing (at the Stonecoast Program in Maine, which is where we met), and has been a writing professor and gardening columnist for Gardenista. Architectural Digest called her book “delightfully vibrant” and the Seattle Times recently quipped "Geall might just be the M.F.K. Fisher (American grande dame of food writing) of flowers." 

Please welcome Christin Geall

Flash nonfiction? The segmented memoir? The prose poem? When I was in graduate school studying creative nonfiction, I mastered none of these forms. Despite a background as a lifestyle columnist and editor, I couldn’t write both poetically and short. But I yearned to, so I studied stylists like Abigail Thomas, MFK Fisher, and Annie Dillard.

To get one thing straight right away: I’m a terrible storyteller. And not a great consumer of aural nonfiction stories, either. At dinner parties I’d sooner listen to someone tell a tale as watch them pick their teeth. I like ideas, conversation, and a bit of banter, yes, but I didn’t think myself ironic enough, clever enough, or frankly even online enough, for Twitter. And Facebook, well, I found it either too political or too congenial for decent exchange of thought, much less story.

Enter the image as a writing prompt. A subject for discussion, and suddenly all my storytelling and audience problems were solved. Looking back on how I accumulated 97,000 Instagram followers, and the success of my recent book Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020), I see now how my training in the micro-essay changed my career as well as my relationship to nonfiction.

I had evolved into a personal essayist, memoirist, and an academic by the time I joined Instagram in 2015, yet I had always struggled to write the longform pieces that my career required. I did possess a deep knowledge and love for plants, so I had thirty years of passion to write about, in addition to a fascination with the ideas and language of the fine arts. Creativity is universal—what I’d learned in grad school about the process of writing, workshopping and critique, I applied to my work with flowers – and then to how I’d tell short stories around them.

On Instagram, where a post is driven by one image, you are limited to 2,200 characters, or roughly about 350 words. Given I’m more sprinter than marathoner, the platform fit. Those 350-ish words, I found, are ample space for a concept to be explained, an idea explored, or even a bit of narration.

As I lobbed ideas to a hash-tagged audience and reflected on their comments, I found my thinking (and opinions) refined. As I encountered friction, or clarification, I entered into conversation. I made friends, of course, learned, networked, and steadily over the past few years, became a sought-after voice in my field.

 When the speaking invitations arrived, I was ready; I built my talks with multiple short “stories” about flowers and the ways they connect us with nature, painting, history, ourselves—just as a good essayist, memoirist, or columnist might do on the page.

By the time the book deal happened—a book combining my photographs with short essays on style, creativity, and everything from Baroque music to wabi sabi to the psychology of colour—I not only had an audience who wanted to learn more, but also 20,000 of the 40,000 words needed for the book.

Photography was not something I’d ever truly wanted to learn, but now that I have, I’m grateful for its silence and the way it pulls me creatively. At first, I had to stretch to create images I thought worthy of an Instagram post, let alone a book, but as I learned to use a camera I found the art itself became another subject for inquiry, which is of course, always a good thing for an essayist. Long or short form.

Note from Lisa: You can connect with Christin at her website, and on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. You can find her book, Cultivated, at major online retailers, or order from Indiebound or through your local independent bookstore.