By Lyssa Tall Anolik
A picture’s worth a thousand words
On cold gray days, do you ever cozy up on the couch beneath a blanket, with a mug of coffee on the side table, and an old photo album on your lap? Yes, you read right: a real photo album. Remember those days before digital cameras and, well, digital everything, when we printed photos and pressed them into physical books?
Those old albums, it’s true, are weighty and take up a lot of shelf space, but for me, there is something visceral about turning those physical pages. I succumbed to the ease and space conservation of digital photo storage over a decade ago, but the big stack of actual albums that I painstakingly put together during my younger years are one of my most treasured possessions. I love the musty old paper and ink, the crinkly plastic covering each page, the way the past stares out at me with heft and weight, as if I could crawl into each scene and go back there again.
There I am at two-and-a-half, sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a curly-headed friend, staring up with a mischievous grin. Every one of my toys has been pulled off the shelves and lies strewn across the white shag carpet – baby dolls with splayed legs, Raggedy Ann, a plastic Halloween pumpkin, toy cars, a Playskool telephone with rainbow rotary dialer, books.
There I am at twenty-one, wearing a Stetson hat and army green jacket with the arrowhead-shaped National Park Service badge. I’m standing in the trees at Olympic National Park, holding out a “tree cookie” (a cross section of a tree trunk), explaining growth rings to park visitors. This was my summer job when I was in college.
And there’s that giant otter in the Amazonian rainforest, gnawing on a silver-skinned fish. My husband snapped a series of photos of those fierce, Gollum-like creatures on our 2005 excursion to Peru. I can still hear them crunching fish bones and growling with contentment. The memory makes me shiver.
Photos as fodder
For memoirists, photos are goldmines of forgotten information about our lives and families. All the old people and places, the clothes we wore, the objects and décor captured in those images can supply us with details to make our memoir pieces come more alive on the page in a way that memory alone can’t always achieve. Sometimes a single object in a photo can pull us into a story or help us make a new connection.
Old photo albums my mom put together during my childhood were recently sitting out on my sister’s kitchen counter. We flipped through them together. The leather binding has split and the pages are loose and yellowed, but there we all are, in our bell-bottoms and big hair. One photo especially grabbed me:
My young father is holding out a plate of steaming food – it’s unclear what it is – his hands in oven mitts. He wears a self-satisfied smile. My mom, sister and I sit around the table, smiling, too. I am around ten. The caption, hand-written in my mother’s flowing script, reads: “Craig’s first cooking class.”
Looking at that photo, I remembered when my father took that class, but wait a minute! Those plates we’re eating off of – those light brown ceramic plates with the chocolate brown raised flat lip around the edges – “I still have those plates!” I shrieked to my sister.
Because I use them daily, I take them for granted and had forgotten the history behind them: How after college, I scavenged the family attic for old, discarded furniture and kitchenware to furnish my first apartment. I took those plates. I have always liked them, so I’ve kept using them. That photo reminded me of all the detailed history I do not regularly remember – all those family meals eaten on them during my childhood: from Mom’s homemade, slow-cooked mac ‘n’ cheese, to the burritos and salads I subsisted on in my twenties, to the gluten-free lasagna I baked last week.
The plates became a pressure point in my memory. When I pushed on it, hundreds of associations flooded up – the progression of foods my family ate, the progression of foods I have eaten as an adult; how during a long stretch of chronic illness in my thirties I did not have the energy to cook, so meals were often pre-packaged mac ‘n’ cheese or scrambled eggs. But now that my health is recovered, I relish preparing more time-consuming meals – like my mother did when I was a child – still served on the same brown plates.
Mining your photos
I invite you to retreat to the couch once again with your mug of coffee and your old family and personal photo albums (digital are ok, too!) and try some of the exercises below to rejuvenate your memory and enter into that place of story.
For generating new work or seeking inspiration
Peruse your photo collections and pick a handful of pictures you’d like to explore.
Make a list of details present in as many photos as you want:
People: describe clothing, hairstyles, facial expressions, body language/posture
Places – exterior: describe the landscape, weather, landmarks, signage, architecture
Places – interior: describe the décor, objects, lighting
Pick one photo as a prompt. Enter into the world of that photo and freewrite for 10 – 15 minutes. See where it takes you.
Pick one object in a photo that is distinctive to you (a green chest of drawers, a brass clock, a street sign) and use it as a freewriting prompt. Write for 10 minutes.
Search for photos that represent the time/place/people you are writing about. Follow the instructions above to generate a list of details found in each photo. Use details from your lists to layer into the descriptions of people and places in your writing. If you’d like to go deeper, use one or both of the freewriting exercises above to explore further.
Through this process of exploration, new layers of meaning will often emerge in your stories, essays or poems. Each photo is a time portal, beckoning you to enter.
This is VoiceCatcher’s thirteenth article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.