When it comes to writing your own life stories, sometimes what's called for is inspiration, plain and simple. Sure, you can get plenty of tips on how to approach the process; there are some notable books that can guide you on the journey, and our blog regularly offers advice on the topic. But beautiful words, strung together like pearls and simply telling a story, may be a far richer bounty.
With that in mind, here is another installment in our “Pictures Into Words” series, contributions from other memory-keepers who know the joy and process of using a photograph as a prompt for writing. Each provides not only a wonderful short read, but a fine and unique example of how you too may approach telling the stories behind your family photographs.
This short piece by author Beth Kephart has been previously published; it was the opening to her 2002 memoir Still Love in Strange Places. In her poetic contribution, you'll find inspiration for writing about a photograph that holds more mystery than memory; sometimes it's the wondering, the imagining, that brings life to an old photo—that carries your ancestors from the past into the present and finds the narrative thread in our connected lives.
Pictures Into Words:
“Torn Photograph, Sepia Stained”
By Beth Kephart
The tear runs like a river through a map, hurtling down toward his right shoulder, veering threateningly at his neck, then diverting south only to again pivot east at the fifth brass button of his captain's uniform. Below the tear, two more brass buttons and the clasp of his hands, and below all that, the military saber; the loosening creases on his pants; the shoes with their reflections of the snap of camera light. He is one of three in a sepia-colored portrait, and someone had to think to save his face. Someone had to put the photo back together—re-adhere the northeast quadrant of this map with three trapezoids of tape so that his left hand would fall again from his left elbow and he would still belong to us. We suppose he is the best man at a wedding. We suppose that it was eighty years ago, before the matanza, before he was jailed and then set free, before he saved the money to buy the land that became St. Anthony's Farm.
“Did I ever tell you what my grandfather did the year the farm first turned a profit?”
“He threw the money into the air, the bills, and they got caught up with a wind.”
“And so he ran after those colones through the park. Chased his own money through the leafy streets of Santa Tecla. Imagine that.”
I do. I am often imagining that. Imagining that I know him—this man whose likeness is my husband's face, whose features are now borne out by my son. His are the sepia eyes that passed through me. His is the broad nose, the high cheekbones, the determined mouth, the face not like an oval or a heart, but like a square. He died long before I'd ever meet him, but I carried him in my blood. Just as the land carries him still, remembers. Just as St. Anthony's Farm will someday, in part, belong to my son, requiring him to remember what he never really knew, to put a story with the past. Words are the weights that hold our histories in place. They are the stones that a family passes on, hand to hand, if the hands are open, if the hearts are.
“You look like your great-grandfather.”
“Yes. Come here. See? That’s him, in the photograph.”
“Him? My great-grandfather?”
“But he looks so young.”
“Well, he was young once. But that was a long time ago, in El Salvador.”
We remember. We imagine. We pass it down. We step across and through a marriage, retrieve the legacies for a son.
Beth Kephart is an award-winning author of 21 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, which we recommend in a previous post. Her current book is This Is the Story of You (Chronicle). The above was excerpted with permission of the author from Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2002).
Kephart has recently launched Juncture, writing workshops where the locale plays an integral role in inspiring and enabling the writing process. Sites have included
an experience-enriching Pennsylvania farm and, in the fall, a sunny gathering place along the coast in historic Cape May. “Participants will learn what memoir genuinely is—and what it is not. They’ll study the words of the greatest memoirs ever written, respond to daily prompts, and work toward a fully developed memoir prologue that summons both the themes and tone of work yet to come,” details her site.
And they will enjoy the unique surroundings of their chosen environs, gathering formally and informally for readings, conversation, and inspiration.