Photographic Memories: Using Photos to Prompt Writing

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At some point while he was running, the kid’s batting helmet must have fallen off, because you can see his light blond hair—still short from the disastrous haircut his father gave him before his First Communion—practically glowing under the California sun.  He’s in the second grade and his t-ball team is the Reds.  Inexplicably, their t-shirt (the only “uniform” t-ballers get) is orange.  He is sliding, kicking up dirt, but he has already passed home plate.  Afraid that he’ll wind up short, he always waits until he has already tagged up to begin his slide.  Sliding is his favorite part of the game—that, and the free snow cones they get after they play.

Obviously, this young athlete is me, and this is my wife’s favorite picture of me when I was a kid.   I loved to play t-ball, though I obviously wasn’t very good at it.  In t-ball—at least in our league—there were no strike outs, probably because swinging at and missing a stationary ball mounted on a tee wasn’t the sort of thing that tended to happen.  It did to me, though.  All the time.  I would approach the tee confidently, bring my bat back, and then twist my entire body into that swing, to the point that my eye left the ball long before the bat in my hand woooooshed right over it.  The grown-ups would let me do it over.  Eventually, I’d wind up on a base.

I wasn’t an athletic kid—and I’m not a big sports guy now—but looking at this photo reminds me of why I loved playing (mostly, it was about being with my friends), and how important that game was to me.  We take pictures of the stuff that matters, after all, and my father apparently had the presence of mind to realize that this was an experience I’d want to look back on.

Each semester, as an exercise in writing memoir, I ask my students to look at a photograph that has a special significance for them and to write “the story of the photo.”  I encourage them to avoid family portraits or landscape shots (unless there’s something really unexpected lurking behind the smiles in the portrait or beyond the scene captured in the landscape), and instead focus on those photos that capture a moment that someone realized was worth holding onto.  Maybe it’s a photo from the junior prom, or graduation.  Maybe it’s a picture from the last big party before the old gang had to pack up and move away to college, promising to keep in touch even while knowing that something important was coming to an end.  Maybe it’s the picture of a little kid, carving a pumpkin while her dad—out of frame except for his hands—guides her efforts with the knife.  The photo itself isn’t what’s significant—it’s the memory that the photo represents that we’re after.  As I said, we photograph that which we decide is important enough to capture forever; we write memoir for the same reason.

I’ve mentioned before that the most common challenge for the creative nonfiction instructor is disabusing students of the belief that “there’s nothing interesting about me—nothing worth writing about.”  Students often think that nothing short of climbing the world’s tallest mountain while battling cancer will qualify them to become memoirists.  This exercise is designed to emphasize the idea that the point of this type of writing isn’t to write about an experience that’s fascinating on its own, but rather to write about an experience so well that it becomes fascinating for the reader.  As V.S. Pritchett has written, “It’s all in the art.  You get no credit for living.”

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on April 17, 2012.]] 

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.