This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Dog hair and rough carpet burrow dents into my knees as I crawl across the living room floor towards the white cabinet. I make this pilgrimage every time I’m about to start a new story. Behind those doors are mangled, busting-at-the-seams photo albums my mother kept for all three of her kids. Mine, her only daughter’s, are noticeable by their pink tones and floral patterns.
Inside, my mother’s handwriting poorly documents moments throughout my life, from birthdays to dance recitals. 5×7 photos are thrown into plastic casings, often more than one bundled into the same sleeve. It’s a mess of memories preserved by a woman who realized one summer, not that long ago, that she had let her album-making motivation slide and needed to cover tens of years in the span of a handful of months.
As I crack open the first book I hear the spin creak with age. The paper cover is tearing at the seams, pink paint giving way to the white cardboard underbelly. I flip through each page and the plastic crinkles at the submission. If I especially love a photo I will take it out of its protective covering, place my fingers against its sticky surface, bring the image closer to my face. Shoulders bent, eyes narrowed, I ask myself: what can I find here?
Memory is fallible so I turn to photographs at the start of each new project. Not always physical ones — sometimes just a jaunt through my phone’s camera roll is enough. And not because our versions of memories or memories of memories are not valid creative fodder. In fact, I’ve heard the term “speculative nonfiction” repeated throughout the entirety March, my first time hearing the term. The idea behind it is that all we do is speculative. Who decides what’s real and what’s pretend? Memories, even the ones we most fervently hold, are at their nature speculative.
So I don’t turn to photos or visual archives because they’re “true,” but because details live there. Metaphors live there. In the dark corners of images we filed away. Clothing can reveal so much. How the people in each photo look at each other matters. Can you find glints in their eyes? What is revealed here, in this frozen piece of time, that you hadn’t realized before?
And, in the most basic sense, photographs remind you of what happened before you could remember. Or after you forgot. For example, I was born with extra-pigment around my right eye. Purple shades paint my skin, and spots of blue, black, and lilac float around inside the white of my eye. For most of my life, after I was old enough to realize my perpetual black eye was something unusual, I was incredibly insecure about it. Thus, my pigmentation occupied most of my brain space and writing.
In my mind, the skin around my eye had always been dark. But, after discussing it with my mom and looking back at photos to prove what I thought was impossible, I discovered the pigment only grew in when I was eleven. I ripped through pages of photographs, unable to believe what was captured in front of me. How could I have missed it? All those times I looked through these same albums, how had I not noticed I’d been lying to myself?
Looking to photographs didn’t limit me by claiming what was true. Instead, they opened up a chasm of writerly possibilities. They challenged everything I thought I knew and from that, I was able to dig deeper into myself, my stories, my history. From then on, looking at these albums has become an inextricable part of my process. Before I can even begin to write, I have to gather archival information in the form of photographs. If anyone is to appreciate the attention to detail I’m able to include n my pieces, I point them here. To where the life force is.
As I go through the albums one by one — earliest to latest — I pile important photos around me or, if I want to keep the albums intake, take photos of the photos on my phone, building a digital collection. In fact, just this week I’ve officially run out of space. Attempting to delete a few I no longer need, I discovered just how cyclical my photo album now is — baby photos interspersed alongside images of grad school friends interspersed among professional dance pictures. It’s a kaleidoscope of momentos that replicate memory itself.
Throughout this entire process I never once moved from the floor. Once a photo album has been exhausted, I place it to my side and pull out another one. Each time, the albums haven’t changed but I notice different pictures, as if I’ve never seen them before, depending on what my initial questions are when I greet them. By the end, my back sore, my legs rippled in texture, I have pulled an entirely different story out of the same images.