We often cherish literature for its ability to illuminate—creating scenes that we can visualize, projecting ideas from a written text that we can internalize and make dimensional within us. So does offering a visual counterpart to this experience take away some of that reader’s responsibility? When interacting with a video essay, will a reader simply need to think less, to visualize less, because they are being presented with a set of images already formed?
I’ve heard this argument, and frequently, in response to interdisciplinary essaying. The video essay certainly has the capacity to dispel, but I think it’s already an established risk in every genre and medium. A writer can hold a reader’s hand just as tightly from the page as they can from the screen, and it would be impossible to argue against this frequency. For me, the most exciting complication that the video essay can introduce is the tension between two disparate ideas coming together. Where perhaps the “braided essay” has worked to create a conversation between two seemingly unrelated threads, video essays can do this more cohesively than print can—we can truly engage with both threads at exactly the same moment.
That’s not to say I’m sure that’s what I’m doing here. Often, I don’t know if it’s within reason to use images and video in my own work, other than wanting to, craving to somehow. Does this mean that the images can do something the text alone cannot, or is it merely my desire for something exciting, something splashy, or even some distraction and welcomed relief from writing?
In the case of this essay, I tried for a few months to conceive of it in print, but couldn’t get the seams to hold together. I started juxtaposing images and drawings with segments of text, but the relationship between the two didn’t feel compelling to me—they seemed to illustrate one another, and what I was really driving towards, or trying to, was a sense of movement and conversation between them. This has recently become my process—wrestling with an essay as text, then an essay as image, and then finally giving into its need to exist beyond the page. Sometimes I feel I’ll do whatever possible to keep it outside of this realm, since I know translating it into video will open myself up to a whole new set of problems and complications. But I’m also interested in replicating the process of revision—in writing, editing, memory, understanding—by creating images that morph into other images, or other forms of themselves when we are confronted with the cruelest parts of ourselves. I’ve always responded to the stagnant/movement juxtaposition of stop motion animation, and I wanted to nod to that here.
“There are some frightening implications in writers making short films,” wrote Liz Stephen, Managing Editor of Brevity. “Only one of which may be complicating readers’ relationship with the author’s work.” While I recognize and respect this concern, I don’t see a video’s complication of a reading as a cause for trepidation, but rather the entire point for its existence. I simply don’t think that multimedia essays have a place in literature if they’re not creating interesting complications. In Ross Mclwee’s great film Time, Indefinite, he suffers the unexpected death of his father in the middle of the project. He films nothing for months except shots out his window while he lies in bed. The result, the almost unchanging stillness of the solitary images, before abruptly cutting to white, backgrounded by his dry narration, is unshakable.
So: if the concern of dismantling a reader’s imagination is realized within the video essay or essay film, then we are creating the wrong kind. Perhaps the biggest obstacle we face as artists and writers is how we can craft visuals that do more than just offer a narrative that mirrors the text. Images of the landscape a writer is describing may be lovely, but they do little more than take the power of imagination away from a reader. But the richness of video, I hope, can be realized when the visual elements bring us someplace else. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do here.