Thursday, May 1, 2014

Your memoir and the power of photos

“Listen to the music of the carousel,
The tinglelingle, lingle of the ice cream bell,
The splishing and the splashing of a moonlight swim
The roaring of the waves when the surf comes in.…

“Summer time is here wake up and come alive,
Put away a scarf and glove.
Here come summer sounds,
The summer sounds I love.”
(excerpts from the song Summer Sounds, Roy Bennett/Sid Tepper)

The day my mother died a month ago, my daughter Karen sent me those song lyrics in response to a picture I’d posted of her and her brother, Matt, with their grandma last summer. To my surprise, that photo generated one of Karen’s most vivid memories of happy times with her grandma.

Several times when my kids were little, Mom loaded them into her car and drove across the state to Spokane, Washington, to visit their great-grandmother and lots of other beloved relatives.

Mom sang all the way across the state, and the kids sang with her. Especially memorable was Summer Sounds. All these years later the kids can still hear her singing those words.

Matt, upon seeing the picture and reading Karen’s words, wrote: “When I hear this song, I can also smell Grandma’s Mercury Bobcat and hear the crinkle of brown paper sacks that had rewards in them for each 50 miles of the Seattle-Spokane trip.”

When I read my kids’ memories, I could picture my mom behind the wheel singing at the top of her lungs—and she’d be leaning forward.  She rarely sat back against the seat, being the high-energy, intense person that she was.

And that led me to another memory. Mom’s energy and intensity reminded me that she sprinted through life. If the phone or doorbell rang, she leapt to her feet and jogged to see who was there.

And that led me to another memory: Her fellow school teachers used to call out during recess, “No running on the blacktop!”—but they weren’t hollering to students, they were calling out to Mom. She hurried through life at a trot—until she had one leg amputated, but that’s another story.

Just think, all those memories were generated by that one photo.

Photos can trigger your memories, too—memories that are crucial in the development of your memoir’s significant people. That’s important because you don’t want—and especially your readers don’t wantlifeless characters, what Carly Sandifer calls “cardboard characters.”

So, find a photo of a prominent person in your memoir. Take time to look at the picture and let it stir up memories.

Rediscover that person’s quirks, gestures, body language, habits, appearance, talents, strengths, and weaknesses.

What relationship did you have with that person?

What emotions does the picture bring to mind?

Set the photo aside and let your brain and heart work in your subconscious for a day or so.

Then let your photo help you dig deeply into your story. Let yourself revisit your relationship with the person.

Think back: Who were you back then?

Let the picture remind you of sights, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds.

What was going on under the surface? What difference did that person make in your life? What if you hadn’t had that experience with that person? How would you have turned out differently?

Write life and personality into your memoir’s main characters. Create multi-dimensional, memorable, compelling characters. Your readers will thank you.

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  1. What a beautiful photo of your mother and children, Linda. I'm so sorry you lost her. I'm sending up a prayer for you and your family now.

    Great idea to use photographs to spark our writing.

    1. Hi, Betsy, thank you for your kind words and your prayers. You bless me. :) Yes, the power of photos jumped out at me when my kids made those observations. I've been looking at hundreds of old photos and oh, my, they are full of stories! :) Thanks again, sweet Betsy.