Essay four

A life lived in pictures

The American novelist Mary Flannery O’Connor once wrote that it would be useful for writers to study drawing because:

It helps you to see... makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.
— Mary Flannery O'Connor

I understand what she means. If anyone can capture detail, it’s the artist, especially the fine kind. I wish I could draw, but I can’t. The best I ever managed was a still-life of a corn sheath for my art GCSE, shaded in various degrees of pencil HB. So instead, because I simply cannot draw, sometimes when I am stuck for a description to observe and I need desperately to look closer for detail, I imagine the opening scene of some nameless film; the way the camera scans not her face, but her hand as she smooths a skirt and catches the glint of her ring. Or the way the light falls out of focus through a thin white curtain dancing before an open door. Visualising moments makes it easier to know what to look for in the details that ask to be observed, the details that might bring a moment to life in words. Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of writing, it’s easy to forget that the world is not actually made up of words. It’s easy to forget how visual, how real it is. How you can reach out, and touch it with the tip of your fingers. That’s the world. So when you find yourself stuck on the art of observation in words, picture it instead.

In last week’s essay, I briefly touched upon turning to photographs as a way to train your mind to notice the unnoticed. They also work as visual notes - there is certainly no harm in snapping a photo quickly on your phone and then capturing it in words later that same day. But more than that, photographs bring your memory back to you. They fire up your past, set alive the things you thought you’d long forgotten. They help us remember. In other words,

We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone
— Katie Thurmes, photographer

When you’re trying to write about yourself, about your past experiences, about your memories, it’s hard to know where to start, because the realm of oneself is so incredibly vast. You need an angle. And photos give you that. They help pin you down and that’s exactly what writing personally is all about: pinning down the moments that make you. And writing personally is also about perspective and point of view - it’s your way of looking at the universe. Photos demonstrate all of this beautifully - both through what the lens shows and does not show.

In short, photographs help you remember. So turn to them. Use them. Sit with them awhile. Appreciate how visual the world is. Understand how real those moments were. It might sound crazy, but sometimes, photographs can bring things, people or far-off places - back to life. And even more than that, from a writer’s perspective, a photograph helps you focus on the small moments that show something universal. And as a writer of memory, of memoir (dare I say it), that’s your job too. You need to zoom in on life and find what is universal and hold it up to the light.

For instance. I happened to take a photograph of my father in Paris a few weeks before he suffered a life-breaking stroke. In that photograph, I can feel the warmth of my father’s skin; I swear I can smell him. I don’t need to tell you my chronological family history for you to understand my relationship with my father. But I can write of the softness of his skin, the plumpness of his healthy cheeks, and I can compare it to the way how, after his stroke, his skin crumpled, thin like paper, so thin I thought it might tear. This is all you need to know, to understand what that stroke did both to him and to us. The detail of this father-daughter relationship says it all.

Another example: there’s a photograph I especially like of my young family, taken a few years ago by a neighbour on my little boy’s second birthday. We had gathered around him to sing, his youngest brother still in my tummy, and when I look at this photo, I taste chocolate cake and two-year-old kisses and scrunched-up camera smiles and though my little boy is no longer two, I still feel the hot weight of him in my arms that day, pressing into me, his body warm and clammy. I don’t need to spell out what motherhood means to me. But I can show it to you instead, by writing of this sweetness, of this summer’s day delight. And perhaps that too would be enough for you to understand.

Sometimes, you don’t even need people in your photographs to remember the feeling of the moment you captured. One summer’s night, we arrived at our holiday home in Denmark by the sea. I stood on the lawn and took a photograph of the house we were staying in. I still feel the lightness, the fineness of that crystal night air, the way it just descended like a mist, and every time I look at this picture, it makes me want to go back. It takes me back. I can write of this quality of light and I feel almost as though I am walking in air. That sense of escape, or relief; the feeling that you can exhale. Tell me you’ve felt that too.

So be crazy. Let yourself imagine your photos back to life. Study them with the intent to note, to observe, to remember. Write down everything that comes back to you on the back of that postcard. You might just write about more than what you can simply see - you might also start to notice the memories that are blurred at its edges. For when you start thinking about one moment, you’ll be surprised at how many other may begin to creep into focus. It may be the memory that seemed the most insignificant actually turns out to be the most special of all.

In my opening essay, you may recall that I asked you to revisit who you once were, to perhaps sift through old photographs. Back then, I asked you simply to sit with that feeling of being open to remembering, of trying to listen. But now, now that you have postcards and notes and observations to make, now I’d like you to think about bringing those photographs back to life too. Try to live in that moment of memory. Make it real, once more. Don’t just write of what you can see, write of what you cannot. Write of what you can feel, of what you felt. Write of the light, the faces, the moods, the nuances. Write of the whatness.

Why? Because this skill is the brushstroke of colour that will eventually paint your notecards into vignettes, into a personal flow of prose that will enable someone else to step into your world and perhaps even feel it the way you once did too.

For that is the most powerful part of writing in first-person, of writing personally, of writing your own sense of self. It enables others to see a little bit of themselves in it too.


Notes to remember

If you are struggling to find the words you need on your postcards, then visualise the moment and make notes on what you literally can see or imagine in your head. Imagine being the camera, spanning and zooming and finding the detail that paints a scene.

Turn to photographs to help you find your angle in the stories you want to tell, to help you focus and also help your mind tap into your memories. Allow moments to come back to life. Think of what you cannot see as much as what you can (for in some ways, that may well be where the most meaning, or the best story, hides).

Next week

An essay on the beauty of observing and writing of the most ordinary of things, before you think your everyday life is not interesting enough to write of.


Postcards Home

On postcards; or, staying in touch

Mini-memories, in note form

The little things

A life lived in pictures

The beauty of the ordinary