Living the Creative Life: Embracing Reciprocity Failure

On the razor-edged border between the possible and the impossible, creativity flourishes.

When I was a young photographer, I enjoyed experimenting with reciprocity failure.

While it may sound like a philosophical or psychological concept, reciprocity failure relates to the chemical limitations of film. Back in the 20th century, photographers quickly learned that each type of color film (known as its emulsion) was rated for certain light parameters. Push an emulsion beyond its rating by using a longer than acceptable shutter speed (to capture a picture in low light situations), and you’d end up with false colors. Those were the barriers inherent in the technology that pro photographers just didn’t overstep.

But… well… I never did color within the lines.

When I toyed with reciprocity failure, I purposely pushed beyond what was “correct” to seek new creative visions. I remember one moonless night when I set up on the rocky shore below a classic Maine lighthouse. As I was loading my camera with daylight-rated Fujichrome, I was approached by a fellow photographer who proceeded to inform me that I was using the wrong film. I clearly remember him using the word “impossible,” as in “it’s impossible for that emulsion to capture this scene correctly.”

I smiled, thanked him for his concern, and proceeded to shoot all 12 slides using very long shutter speeds (and of course, a steady tripod). The resulting pictures were a surrealistic study in iridescent magentas, partially illuminated by the strobing lighthouse. (Unfortunately, I never scanned those slides, and can’t share them here.)

My experiments with reciprocity failure taught me what has become one of my guiding principles: On the razor-edged border between the possible and the impossible, creativity flourishes.

I’ve lived most of my career searching for that borderland, seeking my own personal voice in both my writing and my photography. Sure, it would have been far safer and potentially more remunerative to stay within the bounds of what was expected. And yes, many a time I fell flat on my face. But then Daniel or Dad would be there to give me a hand when I picked myself up, dusted myself off and set out on my way once more.

Daniel and Dad and me. We were a team, like a tripod’s three legs, supporting each other, providing whatever stability either one of us needed. Because of them, no matter how far off I wandered into dark, strange borderlands, I knew they had my back, just as I had theirs. I could live the creative life, because I was privileged, protected. I was loved, safe.

Four years ago, Dad and then Daniel died within six months of each other. My safety net was gone. My vision became clouded. Without them, I moved within the bounds of each day, eating, sleeping, playing with my pup Shayna, and turning in my nonfiction assignments which required that I toe the line of each publication’s guidelines. I’d never before had such a creative dry spell. I didn’t touch my cameras. Periodically, I would try to write fiction, mostly rehashing stories I had put aside years ago. But I had no joy in them; nothing new grew within me.

I needed time to grieve, not just for Daniel and Dad, but for the woman I had been with them. I needed time to learn the rules of this strange, new solitary life.

I’d like to say that when 2019 came around, I had an epiphany. But it was a slow awakening that happened one quiet step at a time, so that I know it now only by looking back on the year. I believe it started when I attended a very interesting Science on Tap lecture in Old City Philadelphia. Well, perhaps it was more of a seed than a beginning. Seated next to me was a woman from Thomas Jefferson Hospital who, when she heard I was a writer, suggested that I enter a short story contest they were sponsoring. Called 2100 Health Odyssey, the purpose of the competition was to get science fiction writers to spark ideas that medical futurists could discuss and develop, in order to improve the state of future health care by the year 2100.

I thanked her for the invitation, but explained that I didn’t write hard science fiction. (When I had ventured into speculative fiction in the past, it had always been political or philosophical.) Besides – and this I didn’t tell her – I was worried about the competition’s 3,500 word count limit. My preferred fiction form was novel or novella which gave me the space I thought I needed to develop a rich tapestry of ideas, characters and plot.

By the end of the evening, we both knew I wouldn’t participate. But I had promised to help spread the word about the contest, which I did by tweet and Facebook posts. And I pretty much forgot about it… until I didn’t.

I have no idea what made me decide to tackle the challenge. But one evening – a few months after that Science on Tap meeting – I sat down at my computer and hammered out a very rough draft of One Widow’s Healing about a home-bound nanophysician who discovers why otherwise healthy people are dying at an alarming rate. Yes, the story’s roots are in social/political science fiction, but mostly it’s hard sf which meant that I spent far more time involved in research than I would ever want to do for any 3,500 word piece.

I would like to say that it was smooth sailing from that point on, but nothing is farther from the truth. I did dozens of rewrites, constantly butting my head against the word count limit while skirting the edge of what felt quite impossible. But at no time was I bored. I was too busy crafting and recrafting, sculpting the story, adding flesh to the bones, whittling the prose. Even after weeks of rewriting and living within the story, I wasn’t satisfied, but the deadline approached, and I finally hit the Send button. Knowing I had no chance of winning, I then proceeded to spend many more hours writing a 6,000 word version. I figured that once the winners were announced (a list that would surely not include my name), I would dust that manuscript off, polish it up and start submitting it around.

"One Widow's Healing" a short story by Sally Wiener GrottaBut the strangest thing happened. One Widow’s Healing won a Health Odyssey Award. Not the $10,000 first prize, but a sizable enough check. For writers, for any artists, having a bit of money in the bank is a gift of time and freedom. What’s more the award check gave me the emotional shove I needed to keep trying, though only with short stories, not novels. In other words, if I messed up by going in the wrong direction or writing a dud, all I would lose would be a couple of months.

I tried other genres I’d never before tackled, which led to breaking lots of genre rules, reaching for whatever I might find out there in the borderlands. I didn’t really have a plan. I was going by instinct. I guess if I had thought it over, I never would have had the courage to go forward, to push myself to live outside my comfort zone, and this time without any safety net.

By the end of the year, I had written several stories, some of which were published, and others that are out there flying around various magazine transoms. More importantly, I’d finally gathered up the courage to tackle a novel that I had conceived years ago, but had feared I didn’t have the chops to do. Called Women of a New Moon, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever written. The vast amount of research required includes studying Torah and Midrash, which I am using to explore the lives and crises of six 21st century women. I think it’s fair to say that the novel is my most ambitious work to date.

Looking back, 2019 was the year I woke up to the creative truth that reciprocity failure had taught me all those years ago. Somewhere out there in the unknowable borderlands, far beyond my comfort zone are ideas I’ve yet to have, words I need to write, and colors I haven’t yet created. While I’ve no doubt I will fall flat on my face periodically, and hit a number of dead-ends, if I’m lucky, my search will last a lifetime.

Have you ever had a similar dry spell? What helped you re-ignite your creativity?


2 comments on “Living the Creative Life: Embracing Reciprocity Failure

  • Sally Wiener Grotta says:

    Thank you, Geri. I’m so pleased that it is meaningful to you. I hope you’ll share your students’ reactions and thoughts on the topic. I’d love to hear them. Best, Sally

  • Geri Featherby says:

    What a powerfully insightful essay that captures the movement from grief to grace for the creative soul in all of us! I plan on sharing this with my high school students to help obliterate the uncertainty, the hesitation, the cement wall, they often face when challenged to create or think outside the box.


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