An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past and Present (How to Retrieve the Lost Pictures of Your Past):
Ask a child to create a scrapbook without the benefit of photographs or tangible mementos, and he will surely rely on memory to conjure up pictures of his favorite things, making them real and touchable (at least to him) by drawing or writing them on paper. Our challenge, as writers wanting to record our own thoughts and feelings about our pasts, is to do the same thing. But unlike children, who are closer in time to everything they’ll record, we sometimes have to draw on memories that have been tucked away for so long that we first have to find them. In other words, we have to “get the picture” before we can write about it.
Photographs, no matter how precious, tend to get lost or buried or tossed away. Similarly, memories that have the potential to become good word pictures (highly detailed, written descriptions), or ideas for writing, get lost in the shuffle of busy schedules, buried beneath the debris of other thoughts, or tossed away, that is, given up as being too trivial to think about, let alone write about. In order to draw those memories back to the surface, the writer needs to drag out the mind’s camera, dust it off, and start getting some good images that can be developed into word pictures and then turned into meaningful poems or essays. Dusting off the camera might be compared to “getting the cobwebs out of our brains,” as our teachers used to say, so that we can observe what’s been stored there and is just waiting to be retrieved. Although some details of the past may be temporarily out of sight, it doesn’t mean that they are lost forever. There are ways of bringing them back to mind, and photographs, or snaps, are just one of those ways.
On my ninth Christmas, I received a Kodak Baby Brownie Special and a few rolls of film, after which I became responsible for paying for my own film and processing. I soon learned to shoot wisely in order to avoid wasting film. Still, I looked diligently for interesting subjects to photograph, and when there didn’t seem to be any, resorted to taking seemingly dull shots of home, church, and school. Dull, I thought, until recently, when the details in some of those pictures jogged my memory and gave me some unexpected writing material. One example that comes instantly to mind is a black and white photo taken by a teacher, of my third grade class at Lincoln School, in Pekin, Illinois.
It wasn’t the Why are you taking this picture? look on some of our faces that caught my attention but, rather, the background: a wide, brick stairway attached to a back corner of the school, on the girls’ yard side of the building, with pipe railings running up each side and a thick concrete landing at the top. The steps led to double steel doors that seldom, if ever, were opened. So no one minded that, every recess, my girlfriends and I climbed the steps and took claim to the landing in front of those doors, to resume the girl talk that had been cut short with the previous return-to-your-room bell. From that photo, then, I immediately made a journal entry (word picture) that covered ideas for at least two more childhood poems—one about the brick stairway and landing, and one about those recess talks.
It was during my Kodak Brownie years that I learned to carry a camera most everywhere I went, a habit that still has me grabbing one or more newer models from the closet for any special occasion. (The Brownie was retired in 1967, when an emaciated cow in Banaris, India, kicked it from my husband’s hand and sent it flying through the air.)
While a large percentage of the photographs I take are close-ups, mainly because I am more interested in the color of a person’s eyes than in the shoes they are wearing, my search for childhood memories taught me a valuable lesson about the pictures, written and otherwise, that I want to leave for my descendants. Designers of today’s scrapbook kits advise us to sort through our photographs, get rid of the bad ones, and give (or throw) away any duplicates. Then we’re to take the good ones, cut away the backgrounds, and put what’s left in the scrapbook. Had I followed those instructions with the picture of my classmates at Lincoln School, I would not have a picture of the brick stairway that led to the unused doors, that was so much a part of those days, and that inspires me to want to write about it.
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