Über-celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz has a new book out called “Pilgrimage.” It’s a collection of stunning photographs of places that have deep meaning to her; the places depicted within the book are purely American, and in many cases, simplistic yet compelling in their beauty. Leibovitz began the book in 2009, during a critical turning point in her life. Her partner, Susan Sontag, had died, as had her father, and she was in a dire financial crisis. She made the unconventional decision to start the book, even though she was told by some advisors that it was a bad idea and that it wouldn’t sell. However, she felt compelled to move forward with it, despite the negative feedback. She has said the book itself was a pilgrimage to “save herself.” She told writer Dominique Browning of the New York Times that she completed the book because “I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.”
Leibovitz has likened a person’s talent to a “big baby.” She says that talent requires serious attention and care. Artists and craftspeople have to participate, even when they don’t want to. It may be the last thing in the world a person may want to do at that particular moment, but it is necessary, even in moments of pain and transition. So it is with writing. The necessity of practicing a person’s craft on most days is essential. Perhaps it’s because of the way our brains are wired, or perhaps it’s because of the way our hearts are plumbed. When something like talent is left alone without care, the passion and ability a person may have once had can slowly fade away, like the images in old photographs when they are left out and exposed to light for extended periods of time.
Leibovitz says that talent can be universal; it’s how a person cares for their talent that matters. ”Talent is something anyone can have. [But] It can go away. It needs to be nurtured, taken care of. The best thing about getting older is that you kind of know what you are doing – if you stick with something. It doesn’t get easier. But you get stronger.”
Forging a new pathway is never easy. I’ve certainly found that to be true. I’ve transitioned my career from being a full-time real estate agent to being a full-time writer. For many years, I believed my dream of being a writer would die when I died. Now I know that the only reason my dream would have died is because I never did anything to turn the dream into a reality. But when the economy crashed, I knew that the real estate market wasn’t going to improve for many years. I realized I had to do something, so I decided to go back to school to finish my degree. I had dreamt about returning to school for years, but my life had been “too busy” to pursue that particular fantasy.
The first year after I graduated was painful, to say the least. We are a two-income family; my earnings have been important to the well-being of the people who I love the most. With my newly minted college degree, I tried to jump headfirst into a new career that I knew nothing about. But then reality slapped me hard in the face: no one would hire me. I (like 9.1% of the population) couldn’t get a job. So when the poop REALLY hit the fan, we did what millions of people have done in the last few years: we pared our lives down as best we could. We short-sold a property that we just couldn’t afford any more. We drove old cars because we couldn’t afford new ones. We quit eating out. Compound all of that with the general malaise of the economy, a near-total loss of a fairly healthy income and two kids in college, plus one more scheduled to go in just a few short years, and you have a potential recipe for panic. In my marriage, our stress increased to record-high levels. It was the first time that I thought my marriage might possibly fail. Many days, I felt like a ghost, floating around trying to recapture what we once had, but not having the corporeal ability to do so.
The last 24 months have been a true learning experience in so many ways. My husband and I have created a new kind of existence that has far less to do with our material possessions than it does with our willingness to do whatever we need to do to keep the gift of our relationship not only alive, but thriving. Our family remains as tightly knit as a woolen sweater that’s been through the dryer accidentally. We’re looking forward to what the future holds now, instead of dreading it with the fear of the unknown.
Fortunately, even in the thick of it, I’ve been able to keep my head down and keep going, even when I’ve had to take jobs that paid poorly, or my work was unappreciated. All of those experiences have led me to recognize that it’s critical for me to keep focused on my talent. My happiness (and the happiness of my family) depends upon my ability to do what I believe I was born to do.
Through it all, I’ve tried to do what Leibovitz recommends: I’ve continued to practice my craft. I write most days of the week. I have clients that continue to ask me to write for them, and I’m gaining new clients regularly. I’m caring for and nurturing my talent, even when I don’t always feel like it. As Leibovitz says, “You should always try to do what you love to do.” The rest will follow.