Let me tell you a story. When I was a junior in high school I was selected to participate in a statewide graphic arts competition. I don’t remember the particular sub-event, but at some point during the competition, I was working with an X-Acto knife (you know, the kind with those super sharp precision blades), and I sliced my finger open. It was a big cut. There was a puddle of blood on the table. There was blood on my clothes. Yet, there was so much adrenaline pumping through my body from the nerves of competing, I didn’t even notice! I just kept working on my project, strewing blood all over the damn place. Soon enough a judge had the decency to walk up to me and let me know my body was spewing fluids. I looked down. How the hell didn’t I notice that?

I got cleaned up and attended to, and soon enough, all was well with the world again. I ended up placing second overall in the statewide competition. It was a big deal — I was a junior, and it was a rare occasion for a junior to place.

Fast forward a year. My graphic arts teacher asked me to represent the school again in the same competition. I had flashbacks of extreme nervousness. And puddles of blood. Hell No. That was my response, although I’m sure my language was a bit more timid at the time. “But you could win,” she said. “You could compete in D.C.” Again. Hell no.

And I didn’t compete. I was too scared, too scared to feel that level of nervous ever again.

Let’s just say I pretty much gave up competing in any sort of timed event. Or really, any event. I was never a fan of competition as it was, seeing as how it often made me want to lose my lunch.

Now fast forward too many years to count. 😉

I was asked by my co-worker to participate in Adobe Creative Jam, as I mentioned in last week’s post. And saying no sounded like a total cop-out (and I had forgotten about the X-Acto knife debacle). So I said yes with a certain amount of trepidation and managed to convince myself it would be a day of creativity and thus, fun.

I got an email with the theme for the competition the night before. We were told to create a photo representing that theme in any way we wished to interpret it.

The theme was: Something from Nothing.

I opened my sketchbook, created a brain dump, and brainstormed a good three hours. I had all sorts of ideas, but one that kept coming back to me was the idea of books — how a person can read a book and an entire world evolves in their mind. That world comes from nothing (ok, not totally nothing, but it comes from ink on a page, and that’s pretty freaking amazing). I thought about how no one person creates the same world in their mind from the same book. Sure, there are similarities, but we’re all creating something different. We’re all creating something completely from our imagination. When you really think about it, this reality totally gives you one of those WTF moments. It’s amazing. (Or is that just me?)

So I set to work planning a photo project that would encompass a woman holding a book, surrounded by a fantasy land. In front of her stood a giant open book (clearly the book she was reading). She was stepping into the book, and coming out of the pages of the book was the world of her imagination. Oh, and did I mention she was casually holding a crow? Don’t ask me where the crow came from…my imagination can be rather vivid.

I sketched it out. I packed up my equipment, made a list of shots to get, and planned my commute to Valley of Fire for the next morning.

I had never pulled together a composite as complicated as this before. Matter of fact, I had never really done a composite. I had no idea how I would pull it off in the editing stage. But I didn’t care. This was a creative competition, and I decided: Fuck it. Balls to the wall. 

And the next morning, I headed out. I arrived to Valley of Fire just before sunrise. I drove down the empty rode, stopping once to take a few test shots, and headed to my planned spot. I decided I would be the woman in the photo (surprisingly, I don’t know many women available at a moment’s notice to head out of town at 4am on a Thursday). I took all the shots on my list. I headed home with a bucket full of beach-like sand in the cuffs of my jeans (have you been to Valley of Fire – that sand is effing awesome).

At home, I took a few studio shots of the book.

I then loaded the shots on my computer and scanned through them, hoping to choose the files I would edit later that night. Oh shit. There was a big problem with the main photo I needed in order to make the composite work. I kept looking for a version that would pass. None of them would.

My heart sank. Those nerves I talked about earlier? They were back in full force. I thought I would throw up. How can I make this work? How can I make this work? My mind was racing. I didn’t take any “just in case” shots. I didn’t take any extras to fall back on. Balls to the wall was right. Except, sometimes the best laid plans just don’t work. And this one didn’t.

For a moment I considered crawling inside myself and calling in sick. 

I knew there was no way in hell I would do that. But in honor of full disclosure, the thought did cross my mind.

So what did I do? I remembered that test photo I took when I first arrived at Valley of Fire. I took a few different studio shots of the book to use in the composite. I used the same concept (of imagining worlds from books), but I simplified it tremendously. I took a few moments to sit and breathe and collect myself. And I then I kept working. 

I showed up at the theater that night uncertain as to whether I could pull off a decent edit. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had a feeling I could stumble through it. And I reminded myself of what I constantly tell my students — you have to be willing to fail. If you want to accomplish something awesome, you have to take risks, and you have to be willing to fail. This was my chance to walk the walk.

I could have picked one photo and edited that photo to look pretty stunning. I could have acted as if that was my plan all along. But my intention had been to create a composite. And although my original composite idea wouldn’t work, I could still create a composite of some sort. So I was going to do it. And that was that.

Funny thing? I had been so stressed all day. But as soon as I arrived at the event, even with people walking all around me, watching me as I edited, I felt myself relax. What was the big deal? These people weren’t here to watch me fail. These people were here to support me and the other creatives that were willing to give it a shot and try something new.

And it was awesome.

I had such a great time. I met great people. I discovered there actually is a pretty big group of people in Las Vegas that support the arts. I had friends that showed up to support me. I laughed. I did what I could, and I presented, and it felt great. 

So if you ever find yourself afraid to do something that you know in your heart you kinda sorta want to try — I say, try it! If the worst that could happen is that you might embarrass yourself a bit, put your heart on your sleeve with pride, and give it a shot! You might even surprise yourself!

And for those of you wanting to see what I created, here you go!