Nothing can get words and memories flowing for a life writer quite like a picture. Whether you’re journaling, writing a simple story or crafting a memoir, pictures can bring back memories as fresh as wet paint, and having the picture as a focal point may enable you to revisit the memory from many angles.
The general wisdom is that looking through your own photo stash will spur memories. I gave an example of how that can work in Photographic Memory Jolts, in October 2007.
Before the days of digital cameras, most people only took photos on special occasions, so reminders of everyday life are rare. Fortunately, there is an alternative: browse through magazines and picture books, or do keyword searches on sites like Flickr.com to find thought-provoking photos.
When you find a picture that resonates with you, tear it out, or copy digital ones into a writing prompt folder. Write about it right away, or stick it in a collection to use when you feel stuck or want to do some freewriting. I pulled the picture above from a pile of illustrations I tore out of magazines a few years ago to use as writing prompts for myself and writing groups. I love the look of astonishment and maybe a few other things on that fresh young face. The pile has served well, and writing from it is a popular group activity.
Whether you find pictures from your own photos or enticing new sources, here are tips for using them to best advantage:
- Let your mind wander as you look at the picture. Run your eyes over various aspects of it. For example, in the one above, notice the expression on the girl’s face, her wide eyes and gaping mouth, the time of day, the expanse of table. Look at her hair, perfectly combed into cute pony tails.
- If this is a familiar picture, try to look at it as if you have never seen it before and set aside as many memories as you are able.
- Assess your feelings about the picture. Do you feel happy? Sad? Anxious? Indifferent? Excited?
- Ask yourself what the picture reminds you of. Make a few notes about any memories that come to mind.
- If the picture is of someone else, try putting yourself into the other person’s situation. For example, pretend you are the girl in the picture above. What might you be seeing that has your eyes popping? Were you ever in a situation where you reacted like that? Do you think others know she’s there?
After dwelling on the picture and thinking briefly about your reactions and memories or imaginations, begin to freewrite about whatever comes to mind, keeping the picture in sight as you write. You may be surprised at what comes out.
If a picture evokes especially powerful emotions, try writing about it another time or two taking different perspectives each time. Your creativity will get a boost, you may have material for a great new story, and you may have some fascinating and helpful new insight for unclogging a memoir or your life.
Write now: find a pile of old magazines and start a collection of meaningful pictures to use as writing prompts. Keep them loose to reuse, or paste to the page you’re writing one. Alternatively, copy and paste a significant picture into a new document and write about it on your computer.