The Arcanum experience

After my only brother died, almost two years ago, I felt like I lost my voice. My creativity with words suffered and dried up to driftwood. While I slowly picked up the pieces again and pasted them together, it was painful. I did it because he’d wanted me to, he’d gotten frustrated with me toward the end of his illness that I couldn’t write, but he’d understood, too, why I couldn’t, and he asked me to keep trying. The story I was writing was a brutally dark story completely unlike what I’d written before, (which will come out sometime next year, I think). When I’d started writing it, it was about a woman whose brother was dying, and she had to do something very specific, or he’d die… and if she did do that specific thing, she would die. It was her life, or his, and she chose his. What I hadn’t realized at that time was that my brother was very ill; he hadn’t been diagnosed yet, and as I wrote that first draft, so much of what he was going through made it into the story, in subliminal ways that I didn’t see. Even later, after he was diagnosed, I couldn’t see the similarities, because I hadn’t grasped yet what was going on, what the real story was beneath my determined attitude about the story.

You see, I was absolutely certain he would live. Absolutely. Certain.

I had to be, for him. He needed that positive force to go through the bone marrow transplant, which is far more harrowing than anyone can ever explain to you.

When he beat the rare cancer, and beat the other illnesses surrounding the transplant, and was told he’d go home, that he was cured, I didn’t know we’d lose him 12 days later to a brain infection. And as it happened, as it spiraled out of control, it killed me that I couldn’t rewrite that ending. I couldn’t fix that world with an edit, a re-do. I couldn’t toss out that draft and find another way to tell his story, his real story, and rewrite his ending to a happily-ever-after.

Words. They fled. I pushed and tugged them into the rewrite of the dark story, because I’d promised him I would, but I don’t know that I would have been able to continue if I hadn’t picked the camera back up and started taking photos again after so many years without touching it.

Photos were my way back. I cannot imagine how I’d have gotten through these last two years, missing him, feeling the grief of having to be the one to make the final decisions for him, decisions I never, ever, dreamed I’d really have to make, because my stories? They have happy endings, dammit. So the photos gave me a way to look at the world, and edit what I saw into something akin to art. The more photos I took, though, the more I was aware that I wasn’t taking quality images. I was having to work so hard in post production to get them to look decent, and I am pleased that people liked them, but I knew I was creating much more work on myself by not starting off with a photo of good quality. It’s stunning the difference that can make, but if you don’t know what mistakes you’re making, you don’t really know how to fix it. I downloaded a ton of classes and tutorials, learned what I could, but I needed feedback from other photographers, and unlike being an author, and having friends who could give me feedback, I didn’t really know any other photographers here who were open to questions, and willing to mentor.

I applied for an apprentice position with The Arcanum, a new mentor/apprentice style online photography school. I greatly admired Trey Ratcliff’s photos, and had even taken a couple of his courses (very affordable), but I wasn’t really growing, and I had that itch, finally, to improve. That feeling that this was the artistic catalyst I needed. I have to tell you, I was a little stunned to have been chosen so early in the process of the school by teacher A. D. Wheeler. I remember taking a look at his website when I got the invitation, thinking, “Wow,” and accepting immediately.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Andy’s (A.D.) is not only an excellent teacher, but he’s got a knack for choosing people with different skills, so we’re all learning from each other, helping each other through our critique process. But beyond that, they’re all just damned good people. It comes across, immediately, in the warmth and encouragement, and in the feeling that they genuinely want to help–and be helped. There’s a camaraderie fostered throughout The Arcanum, and frankly, I’m impressed with how they’ve managed it across the board–and it really does seem like it’s an across-the-board sort of positive attitude. I think it has, in large part, to do with the leadership of Trey, Peter Giordano, and (I think) Curtis Simmons… but mostly, it’s our teacher’s tone and nurturing that has set such a comfortable learning atmosphere. I love that we all had to start with the basics, and improve from there. Some are going to go pretty quickly through those levels, because they already have mastered those levels, but I have to tell you, there hasn’t been a single person–even the super experienced ones–who didn’t have things they could improve on, even at the basic levels.

It reminds me of my brother, as he went through the levels of his karate. Mike was a 5th degree blackbelt, and in superhuman shape (a reason the doctors think he made it as long as he had–his cancer was so rare, and so difficult to beat, that they were stunned he was still alive even a few days after entering the hospital with what we all thought was a mere staph infection). Mike had a school (which I am very proud to see has continued on with his black belt students teaching in his place), and in that school, he believed in constant practice of fundamentals, and not rushing to get to the next level until you’d mastered the one you were at. It’s always nice to hang a plaque on the wall, or look at a ribbon touting a win, or a promotion, but the bottom line was: could you do the tasks of that level, every time, consistently well? It used to drive me absolutely batshit to try to practice karate with him. I didn’t want to do all of the sit-ups and push-ups and repeating the katas over and over and over and JUSTLETMEPUNCHSOMETHING. (grin) I couldn’t even understand why on earth he’d even want to do that every day, much less teach others every day to do the same basics, over and over and over.

Now? I get it. I just had to find the thing that I was passionate about. (I’m passionate about two things–the writing, and the photography, which are two different ways to tell a story.) I’m thrilled to do the basics, to learn in baby steps, to go out and shoot and repeat those baby steps over and over and improve. I can see the improvement. Let me show you:


Here’s the best shot of the old car that is rusting in the back yard of a couple we know. I had plenty of time that day to take as many photos as I wanted, and I had a pretty decent camera, but this is the best I could get.

Old car


After going through a few beginner levels of The Arcanum, (and some practice in the intervening two years), here’s the shot I was able to get this past Labor Day. I had very little time–we’d been invited for a party, which is going on just past the back of the car–I cloned out some guests and other distractions. Plus, I was losing the light, as we’d been invited over for 6 and with the garage that blocked the light, I was losing all the light by 6:30. I had just a few minutes to set up and grab the bracketed shots. But this time, I understood more about what angle to get, what I needed to have in order to process a decent photo. Here’s the result:

Barbara's old car


The irony is, the more I’m improving on the photography side, the easier the words are coming back to me on the writing side. I’ve got two projects up and writing–one in the draft stage, one that’s a collaboration with women I greatly admire. I’ve got the dark book finished and polished and there are editors circling, so we’ll see what happens to it. And I’ve found my creativity again–I have so many things I want to write, and so many photos I want to take, I’m grateful for every minute I am able to practice both.

Thanks to The Arcanum, I feel like I’m back in the saddle again, doing the things I was meant to do. I know my brother would be beaming right now, so happy for me, so proud.

He would still want me to tell you to be bold. He’d want me to tell you to grab the opportunities you have and run with them. Dream big. Live loud. And never quit learning. It’s never too late to start.

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14 thoughts on “The Arcanum experience”

  1. Toni, just beautiful as usual. You are so talented, words & pictures. I think photography makes you notice the little things in life most people never see. I’m not very good but really enjoy taking pics.

    I know how you feel about Mike. My brother & buddy died 13 years ago & I still miss him something fierce. Mike will always be there for you, urging you on. Keep up the beautiful work.

  2. Toni
    I can in no way, relate to the loss of your brother,,hopefully, I never will. The love, admiration and respect you have for your brother, shows through in every single word you write.
    I can only say, with the utmost respect intended,,,, I am positive he would be so proud of your continued growth. Your photos are amazing and beautiful!!

  3. Toni–that’s a very moving post. When something cracks us wide open like your brother’s death, we have to look to art to let the light out, while we process the emotions around the dark that seems to envelop us. It was such a privilege to shoot with you last week, and to hear some of your story first hand. Thanks for sharing your heart and bearing your soul. You are an artist of words and of images. I’m glad you’re back in the game.

  4. This type of photography moves me and is the type I like to take. Winter trees in their stark nakedness also draw me in. I’m happy for you that photography sustained you and even happier that you have your words back

  5. You rock. Plain and simple. I’ve traveled part of this journey with you and while I never met Mike, I know he’s sitting there grinning like a fool and so proud of you that you should be surrounded by sunlight. Thank you for finding your way back to passion. Your words have always touched me deeply–haunting me and giving me much needed laughter in turn–and now your photography just lights up my life. Did I mention that you rock, lady? Yeah. You do. <3 you!

  6. Toni, I love this post. I love that you’ve found the bridge back to creativity. Your photos are amazing, and your words even more so. So many blessings on you, darling!

  7. Toni, you clearly have a gift. To write and communicate your emotion, tone and presence. I’m not a writer, I’m a photographer, and I’m sure the passion you bring to your photography will help you create images as expressive as your words. I’m also an Arcanum Master and can say with confidence there is indeed a rare and unified camaraderie across the board. I am seeing growth in so many amazing apprentices and in the masters/mentors who now call the Arcanum home.

  8. Thank you, everyone, for all of your beautiful thoughts. I really appreciate you stopping by and leaving a note.

  9. Hi Toni, a little over two years ago I lost my father to cancer; two months from diagnosis to the end. Photography helped me deal with that in a major way and while I can never know what you went through, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story, so much of what you wrote really hit home for me and what I experienced. I also love the positivity and encouragement I receive from everyone involved in The Arcanum. Cheers to your continued growth and creativity in both writing and photography!

  10. I have greatly missed your writing. As sad as learning why you’ve been in the writing doldrums makes me, I’m still happy to know that there was a reason,( even though it was a most somber one), behind your hiatus. I’m thrilled to hear there are new stories in the pipeline. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that whatever you write, whenever you write it, I’ll be there to read it! Have fun writing and perfecting your photography skills, and bless you for the willingness to share this tender story about your brother.

  11. Toni, thank you for sharing such a personal story, part of your soul. As I read your post I couldn’t help but reflect on the loss of my Father almost 2 years ago. You helped me remember him and how he inspired me to create. In the end it was losing him that forced me over the edge. To rethink everything in my life in the context of truly leading a life full of meaning. My introspection led me to understand that I had to be more vulnerable in my life in every regard. With my family and with my creativity. Opening up and being vulnerable is scary, but extremely rewarding. It brought me closer to my family and helped me rediscover what I had to do and how to live a life of meaning.

    So you see, it’s for people like you that I do what I do now, within The Arcanum. People that lean into life and move forward. People that want to help others be the best that they can be.

    You humble me by saying The Arcanum had some part in getting you “back in the saddle” – This is the fuel that drives me forward. Thank you so much for being part of this grand journey. THANK YOU!

  12. Toni! not the first time that I have read this for inspiration. Saw it come up on my blog list today so I had to leave a comment! I am glad that I have inspired you, you make me very proud, but also inspire me as well! Love ya! ~AD

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