They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So if you’re stuck or flying all over the place about what to write in your memoir, you might want to look at old family photos – one at a time. In my Memoir Writing workshops we do a couple of exercises with photographs. Some participants who don’t bring a family photo get to pick one of mine and superimpose their own family situations on it. And it is surprising what they can remember even with someone else’s picture. In one workshop, a woman was moved to tears looking at a photo of my parents and me in front of my childhood home.
And that’s what we do with the first exercise – no not cry, well, not at first. We look at the photo and list the memories it evokes and the feelings we experienced with it. As we do this we can ask ourselves questions as prompts. I list the memories and their emotions on a flip chart and we talk about them. In the next exercise we write the actual scenario as it might appear in a memoir using both narrative and dialogue and our own unique style. That is, if we haven’t done that in the first exercise which often happens. This means the photo has really sent us deep into our memories. Then we read some of them out loud. Many are very powerful.
Let’s look at the photo of my late dad under the rose archway situated at the entrance to the backyard where I grew up. My list of memories and emotions include:
Dad – How does he appear? Like a guard to the rose garden. Old, like he was my grandfather. Emotions/feelings: love, security, and even sadness (at both my dad and the rosebushes long gone. The deeper emotion is that it is all in the past, all gone, except from memory and the photo).
The archway and rose bushes – more my mom than dad because the rose bushes were her babies. Mom fussed over blackspot, cut off the dead roses and pruned the bushes. And the colours (the archway ones were a deep red) and fragrance. I also remember another rosebush on the other side of the yard by the neighbours0 driveway. I write about this in my memoir:
“The leaves have too much blackspot,” she says. “And this rose is finished.” Snip, snip go her clippers, then, “Oh, good morning, Mr. Swenge.”
I stand beside my mother and nod a “hello” to Mr. Swenge. Old, heavyset, and banished outside by his wife so he can smoke, he stands silent in his driveway on the other side of the fence. Between puffs on his cigar, he nods, and continues to stare at us. He gives me the creeps; he’s like a harbinger of what’s to come on our side of the fence. I stick my nose in the rosebush, but all the sweet flowers in the world won’t overpower the cancer connection with smoking. The multiple rosebushes and the other scented bushes seem like a rectangle of protection my mother’s subconscious dredged up. However, smelling the flowers doesn’t keep the black spot from attacking my Dad’s lungs and brain. Why are daffodil sales used to collect funds for cancer research? If it’s their colour, yellow, supposedly the colour of healing I can tell these researchers that it won’t work. Although yellow is the colour of the radiant sun, the yellow roses, forsythia tree and tulips my mother grew didn’t keep cancer away. When I combine the paltry results of my mother’s tulip-bulb planting, the life cycle of the forsythia (yellow flowers first, leaves second), the roses (red, rose, pink, white and yellow), maybe mother’s garden was sprinkled with omens of the disease and its future colours of hope. Certainly the cause permeated throughout, not just the neighbour’s cigars, but the cigarette and pipe smoke my Dad inhaled and exhaled. As a garden grows based on what you put into the soil, so can cancer grow from what you (or your environment) put inside your body.
(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford)
As you can see I got carried away into the narrative. Everyone’s memories and narrative will be different in perspective and in what actually occurred. Even with common denominators such as the writer’s age, era he or she grew up in, etc., something will differ. And the telling will also be different – it could be humorous, serious (or both) filled with dialogue, mostly narrative, told in present tense, told in past tense, perhaps include some poetry, and the emotions can range from anger to laughter to sadness. The characters will all be unique and the situation will come from your memory and your perspective in looking back.
So haul out an old family photo, immerse yourself in it, and start writing.
Only Child Writes