a guide to writing
Photography is amazing to me, something bordering on magical. Imagine freezing a moment in time on a small square of paper (or on the viewing panel of a telephone), to slide into your pocket and carry with you wherever you go. There is something mythic about a photograph. I like nothing better than to wander through antique fairs and spend long moments flipping through boxes and boxes of photographs. There’s nothing like it. On my first trip to Paris, I found the famous Montmartre flea market and was in ecstasy to find vendors with bins and bins of dusty old photos, studying the faces in those pictures, imagining the lives that were lived beyond, before, after, the images were captured and through magic and alchemy, printed in sepia tones on thick paper. Oh, I understand the chemical process of photography well enough; I still consider it borderline magic.
I once taught a writing workshop and asked participants to bring with them photographs or postcards of sentimental value, something to write from. Everyone seemed excited by this idea – then their excitement faded to dismay and then marginal alarm when I asked them to retrieve and exchange them with their fellow workshoppers.
“I brought this picture of little LuLu and I was going to writer about her birthday.”
“But this is Barney, my dog. No one else knows him like I do; I want to write about him.”
I’m sure my darling protégées thought it a nasty trick to switch them up like that, but I had my reasons. What I was aiming at was to get them to write about the feelings that were evoked from someone else’s photo, not to write from the matched luggage of associations, memories, delights, and dark secrets that led them to choose their specific photos and postcards in the first place. I wanted them to reach back to the archetypes that we’re all hard-wired with. I wanted them to find the promise that backs every fairy tale and myth and operatic legend that we consider imaginary and yet give our lives meaning.
Things are charged with the emotions we attach to them. You might think this is a radical idea, or sounds a little too close to the far edge of woo-woo for your taste, but think about it. Words are charged with emotional impact. For instance, the words beard, tea cup, and mandolin evoke feelings, which give rise to meaning, which stirs up emotions based on memories you associate with these items. We attach words to things so we know what to call them – otherwise we’d say, “pass the tangy little granules of crystalized sea water” instead of “pass the salt.” So the words we attach to things have an emotional charge, too. Especially things that have to do with deep emotion, like family.
I would venture that an old black and white photo of your father as a young bot sitting on a pony wearing chaps and a cowboy hat, peering into the camera, stirs up a whole score of emotions for you. Of course it does. There are stories, lifetimes, imaginings, family legends, tragedies, celebrations attached to everything we own – or that owns us – and this is as it should be.
Journaling from this stew of material is easy. And, I’m sorry to say, somewhat predictable. But if you’re aiming for a family chronicle, go for it! Distribute photographs to everyone in the family, and ask them to write about what a particular photo means to them. While you’re at it, ask them to throw in a family recipe, too. If you cast your net wide enough, you will amass a collected family history, suitable to finding for an epic family album.
But what you get when you write from someone else’s photographs is access to a collective memory, a collective pool of archetypes that belong to our extended family – the human race. After all, we most of us have mothers, fathers, ancestors, siblings, children. We most of us have lived in a series of varied family homes, have traveled some, gone to church, gone to school, fallen in love, borne great tragedy, been moved to tears by a beautiful object, failed at something trivial, thrived at something meaningful, eaten strange food, dipped our feet in a mountain stream, watched a shooting star on a summer’s night, confided in a stranger, given something to someone who needed it more than we did, discovered the searing pain of betrayal, held a child’s hand, believed a lie, broke a rule, floated in absolute joy; in other words, have lived a slice of life. We all have this in common.
So when you look at a photograph of people you do not know, or you study a postcard that was not addressed to you, you have the potential to access a deeper story, sensations and passions buried more deeply than you ever thought possible. This in interesting territory. I am always enchanted by the cryptic messages on the backs of old postcards – were they in St. Louis ever again, after that trip? How was the train ride? Did they ever find love in that lifetime? Stories spin out of my imagination and I envision children and pets and automobiles long since grown or gone.
You obviously can’t write from a literal perspective by this method, but your journaling can become enriched by the subtle meanings telegraphed to your ancestral brain, where memories are stored, where legends are kept, fables are cataloged for future reference. These are jumping off places. Write from photographs – someone else’s, and stir memories you didn’t even know you had.