Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette
You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!
Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.
Woman with Cigarette
by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald
You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.
You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect: praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.
You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.
And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.
You perform as artiste.
Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.
Then the sound of the film advance lever.
Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.
“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”
The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.
“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”
My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.
My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t
“Raise your arm over your head.”
Not a question.
I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.
You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.
The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?
“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.
As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.
Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.
She moves quickly and purposefully.
She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.
She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.
Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!
She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.
Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.
A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.
Why we chose this entry as the winner
- Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
- Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
- Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
- Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
- Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex. We are asked who has control – of the art and of the model?
- Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
- The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.
Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.
We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…
Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!
When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.
Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.
Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.
Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.
I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?
These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?
I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.
Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.
As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.
And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!
And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.
Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.
Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.
Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.
Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.
Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).