I remember on New Year’s Eve, when I was a boy, my father’s side of the family would gather for a supper of oyster soup and games of cards—usually either Pitch or Rook. This was in a day when we didn’t have cell phones that took pictures, when we didn’t live in a society that immediately documents every moment. On occasion someone would have an instamatic camera or a Polaroid, so sometimes there would be a few moments frozen in time—people sitting around a kitchen table, cards fanned before them, my cousin reaching out to gather in a trick, or my mother in the midst of conversation, her head tossed back as she laughed.
These days we take countless photos and post them to social media or just leave them on our cameras or erase them, and it seems to me that we’ve made our experiences fleeting and disposable. In the days when photos were fewer, they meant more, particularly for the memoirist who years later studies these pictures for the stories they tell or the ones that they don’t.
When beginning to write a memoir, it’s often a good idea to gather photographs from the time in question. Looking at these pictures not only immerses you in the time period, it also provides an emotional connection between you and the people about whom you’re writing.
Here are some things that can happen while looking at old photos:
1. A photograph can suggest a scene. You look at the clothes people wore, the way someone held his or her hands, the things on the wall of the kitchen, the radio on top of the refrigerator, the old percolator in the corner, etc., and suddenly from these details people begin to move and talk.
2. A photograph can suggest other scenes. You look at the picture and remember the night of the New Year’s Eve party, and that memory triggers other memories, and the next thing you know you’re constructing a narrative.
3. A photograph can make you curious. Why did your father’s eyeglasses never fit properly? Why didn’t he take the time to get them adjusted? What does that one detail say about the story of your family?
4. A photograph can suggest the secrets your family tried to keep. What does that pained smile on your mother’s face try to cover over? What do you know about her that’s there just below the surface of the photograph?
5. A photograph can carry you forward into the present. What would that New Year’s Eve party be like now if everyone would have been allowed to live and you could interact with them as the adult you are? How does that moment from years ago connect to the person you are now?
For the memoirist, old photos can be keys to making your writing a vivid inquiry into past, present, and future. Meaning resides in those photos. If we start with them, we’ll be well on our way to finding what they contain. Photos can document experience while also sparking our imagination. Take the time to look, to remember, to question, to think, and to imagine.
Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you all a prosperous 2015 full of love, and health, and good words.