Better Lockdown Living through Instagram

Visual art as one writer’s escape

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All #Photopaintings here from Instagram@aimeeeliu

It’s summer in the middle of a pandemic and the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. Each day the news seems to worsen, and I haven’t dared to visit the beach even once since March, though I live just three miles from the Pacific. BUT I have a secret weapon to keep me engaged and excited as we roll from one day in lockdown to the next: Instagram is my lifesaver!

It was my publicist who first told me last fall to start using Instagram to build up my social media following in advance of my novel Glorious Boy’s release. That makes no sense, I whined. I write in words: stories, essays, novels. Books are published in print, and Instagram is a visual medium. Besides, didn’t we have our hands full with Facebook, Goodreads, Bookbub, and my Amazon page — not to mention our ongoing chase for blurbs, reviews, readings, and other book events?

Just try it, my publicist urged. Shoot images of your daily life to get your followers acquainted with you. Readers like to feel a certain sense of familiarity with their favorite authors, and Instagram can help create that connection.

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Grudgingly, I set up an account, followed a few friends to get started, and posted a picture of my novel’s advance reader copy. It felt good to make the announcement. The photograph looked okay. But then what? I couldn’t keep posting about the book, or my friends would be sick of it — and me — long before it was published.

I found other writers to follow. Sven Birkerts, Dinah Lenney, Elizabeth Rosner, Thomas Thomas, Gayle Brandeis, Janet Sternburg… to name just a few. Some were old friends from graduate school. Others were my students. Some took stunning portraits and landscape photos. A few posted abstractions that reminded me I’d been a painter long before I took up writing.

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The images that spoke to me loudest were rich with texture, color, form, and structure. Many were unrecognizable yet evocative close-ups of pavement, bark, sky, or foliage. I took my cue from them and began looking for inspiration on daily walks around my neighborhood, in the shadows of early morning, reflections in glass.

I discovered Instagram’s filters and editing tools, which allowed me to play with cropping and focus, color and shading. It felt as if I’d reclaimed a lost limb and was exercising a forgotten muscle. Suddenly, each day became a treasure hunt with discoveries in the corner of a bed frame, the geometric roots of a tree, the pistil of a bird of paradise, headlights at dusk. Even so-so snapshots could be edited into beauty.

To my delight, I realized that I can make certain photographs look just like paintings — #photopainting a process of reverse alchemy that feels to me like pure play. I caught planes of light like Hopper, flattened distance like Hokusai. #notapainting became a game, a system of goals for the creative process.

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As with writing, the real creation is in the revision and transformation of the original idea. Each picture evolves into a story of scale and distance, color and shape, surprise and wonder. I often advise my writing students to “turn the lens outward” and “use the outer world to suggest the inner world”; that’s what I found myself doing through these images. But this process of revision was new, exciting, and deliciously addictive.

What’s more, Instagram makes it communal. I’m a purpose-driven person. It’s not enough for me to enjoy what I do; I need to produce some effect on the world around me. I need to feel the splash of my efforts. And sharing these images produces that splash. Not in a big way. I don’t have thousands of followers, but those other writers on Instagram have noticed. We now have an unspoken admiration society. I look forward to their next pictures, and they respond to mine. Every post feels like a group challenge and a source of inspiration. Not competitive, but joyfully cooperative.

This all made Instagram essential for my Lockdown Survival. Mask up, camera ready, I savored each day’s solitary walk cum treasure hunt. Instead of shopping, traveling, or visiting museums, I retreated into my virtual studio to enjoy the surprise of each day’s creation. Instead of meeting friends for coffee, I met them online over our photopaintings. And when my Glorious Boy came out, I made him part of the picture.

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Has Instagram helped to sell my novel? I have no idea. I’m too busy writing in pictures to worry about the pictures working for my writing. And that is the beauty of it all. This is art for art’s sake: pure creative indulgence.

Aimee Liu is the author of the new novel Glorious Boy. She teaches in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Port Townsend, WA. Sign up for her newsletter at aimeeliu.net

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Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face and memoirs Gaining and Solitaire. More@ aimeeliu.net

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