journal this

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

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.

meet me at the bodega

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Journal writing got you down? Does the pen weight fifteen pounds, the paper cut you to ribbons? Does the shifting light hurt your eyes? Are you feeling totally uninspired, pooky? I have good news for you.

This may be the best ever secret weapon nearly guaranteed to make your journaling a pleasurable and inspiring experience. This information is so good it could be considered cheating – except it isn’t. It’s so good it should almost be illegal or sold with a special license. Nevertheless, here it is for you, the solid gold journaling tip of the year: pick up your journal and walk. Directly to the busiest coffee shop you can find. The kind of coffee shop is entirely up to you.

The place itself can be a youthful hipster java cave where a black tee shirt is very nearly the required uniform and where you are soo out of touch with the music, the cultural references, the technology. It can be a very groovy in a retro kind of place where the waitresses wear those polyester pseudo nurse outfits, with crisp white aprons tied in bow in the back and where the donut case is always stocked with powdered sugar sprinkled old fashioneds.  Doesn’t matter.

Once you select your target, enter the writing zone with all the necessary tools and secure a table. So much is negotiable about this drill, but this part is not: you must order enough beverage and/or food to ensure a dependable cover. Your passage on this part of the journaler’s journey requires that you honor your host – the one who provides you with the context of all this rich material – with an offering that reflects appreciation for all the trouble he or she has gone to in order for you have a nice, clean, well-lit writing surface, a place to rest your iced tea, a den peopled with characters to sketch, a platform upon which to balance a snack while you go about your journaling duty.

Here is the question: how can you not find something to write about here? My goodness, there is so much material in this fabulous den it’s almost immoral to shrink from the duty to write. Did you know that in the archetypal studies of fiction, the coffee house, the bar, the watering hole is one of the most holy places in which a plots twist, where complications arise, transactions occur?  The Mos Eisley Cantina, the bar in Star Wars, the Whistle Stop Café in Fried Green Tomatoes, the Tropicana where Ricky Ricardo occasionally allowed Lucy to perform as an outlet for her outrageous talent?  The watering hole is where information is exchanged, a place that urges the hero to fulfill her next mission in the quest. In this context, the watering hole is wherever you choose it to be and the hero is you.

The bodega is like the telegraph office, where lessons are imparted, instructions delivered. By placing yourself squarely in the heart of your local cantina, you are putting yourself smack in the middle of the most strategically magnetic place in which to attract writing material. (I recommend against writing in an actual bar where alcohol is the beverage of choice, for the obvious reason that while it might make good fiction, it makes lousy writing practice).

So here you are in your café; look around. There are so many topics to bounce into and fill all those crisp empty pages. There is food. Check out that menu! There are customers you couldn’t make up on your best, most fecund day. The décor is an encyclopedia of material. The foot traffic going by outside the window is a screenplay waiting to happen. Maybe you’ve got a host of memories stirred up by the smell of grease, fantasies ignited by the sound of a steamer frothing up milk in a pitcher.  Did you waitress your way through college and learn how to balance eight plates on your arms? What is your favorite café experience? Your worst? What about that woman you saw that firm morning in Paris when you finally made it there after so many years of promises to yourself, and found that café in the St. Germain de Pres just blocks away from the Pont Neuf? There she was, sitting in that sidewalk café looking like something out of central casting, with her black sleeveless dress, black, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, perfect blond chignon, sipping a glass of chardonnay at nine o’clock in the morning, sharing a table with a man who was maybe her nephew, her grandson, her lover? You savored your own cappuccino and croissant with a fabulous mysterious cheese and felt as if in that moment, you were somehow bigger than life.

You see where you can go with this?

So on those days when you know you should be journaling but just can’t find it in you to examine your own life? Get thee to a coffee shop. Let that java jolt seep into your blood and see where it carries you. This may just be the best tip ever. Use it, and then use it again.