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Writing Inspired By Experience

March 29, 2011

My niece Wendi is our family genealogist, mapping our familial history through the few remaining documents and traces of existence that verify and preserve their lives and experiences. Few of them created these scraps of evidential living with the intent to let others know how they lived, what their motivations and inspirations might have been, or with any thought at all that anyone would even care about them long after they were gone.

I look at these letters and photos and want to know so much more. I want to read their stories, hear their voices, know them as the individuals they were—in general as well as on the day they wrote that letter or posed for that picture.

Who were these people that have contributed to who I am today?

I look at pictures like the one here and feel compelled to share stories. This is my niece Wendi with me, riding the chariots on fire at the now defunct Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, MD USA. This picture was taken in 1972.

Just from that little bit of information, I am inspired to write about any of the following:

  • Wendi and I grew up as friends as much as we did relatives. With only 4 years between us in age, we experienced a lot of the same things growing up. Our relationship today is grounded firmly in memories of red pistachios, riding around in a ’68 Ford Falcon, and growing up with our fathers and brothers putting their lives on the line fighting fire.
  • The Enchanted Forest is long gone, but I now teach just a mile away from where this picture was taken. Every day, I pass by the big iron entrance gates  that we would ceremoniously walk through (all that remains at the original site), leaving behind a boring childhood and entering an enchanting world of fantasy and possibility. Every day I enter my school, I wonder if I can offer my own students the same opportunities.
  • Less than a month after this picture was taken, Hurricane Agnes ripped through the Chesapeake Bay region and central Maryland. The floods killed my two neighbors who attempted to swim in the rapid waters of our local reservoir. The date the hurricane hit—June 13— is the same date my daughter was born, 24 years later.

Now, from just these three points, I could pull another three inspired stories from each. Every story would be both inspiring and even a little therapeutic to write about.

I can do this, simply because I know these words are for my eyes only. I might share one of these pieces via publication. I might not. That’s my choice entirely, though; I am always in control.

Set aside an hour or two and go through some old photos (hard copy or digital) and brainstorm a list of possible memories associated with those pictures. Which of these are you inspired to write about in your daybook or journal?

Once you find a picture you want to write about, set aside a good 15-20 minutes and write without inhibition. Do not worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. You have the all-powerful creative license to take risks, experiment with words, and paint pictures. Bring those memories alive for you, and let go of the worries and concerns about what others may think!

9 Comments
  1. March 29, 2011 6:13 am

    This is such a good idea. I often worry about losing the stories that built me, so I do tell them to my kids and try to make them understand what life was like “when I was your age” as it were. What’s extra fun is when they come back, weeks or months later, with comments or questions about the stories. Their interest makes it all the more exciting, fun and in some ways urgent that I tell these stories, either just for me or to them as well.

  2. March 29, 2011 9:41 am

    Wow, that is such an awesome idea… I use things from my life all the time in stories (setting, events, etc.) but I’ve never actually sat down with a picture to write about the picture (or memory, etc.)

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. March 29, 2011 3:54 pm

    Great idea🙂 I really like how unique of an idea it is to gain inspiration from old memories, and stirring those memories with pictures. Thanks.

  4. March 29, 2011 5:18 pm

    Thanks, all. I love digging in the background of my photos, as well–even the ones that are worn at the edges and folded just so to fit in my wallet. It’s like watching your favorite movie over and over; you know the lines, the plot, the motive; now it’s time to really check out that old book on the nightstand that you borrowed but never returned, your widow’s robe that was discarded on the floor by the bathroom door, or the homemade bookshelves that you were so proud of…before they separated from the wall and rained Thoreaus and Hemingways all over your room (so THAT’s why anchors are necessary when building such things…). The stories we find in the incidentals can distinguish our characters in ways that make our readers forget to exhale, if for just a second or two, when you tap into their own memories of borrowed regrets, lost loves, and failed projects. When we, ourselves, are taken aback by what we see in the background, we can only imagine what our readers might experience as well.

  5. March 29, 2011 8:30 pm

    That’ll work. I do a version of that by finding pictures that fit my protagonist and antagonist and all the others. It helps me build their stories.

    Don’t be such a stranger.

  6. March 30, 2011 3:53 am

    Jacqui–We can do that for our settings, as well. I often take pictures of settings I like, seen from all possible perspectives and angles from my characters (and narrator), and then prop them up around my computer as I bring those places to life. Sometimes, the smallest of details (flaking paint on a bench, a lone individual by a tree staring into the ground) can add the unexpected twist I was looking for in my story.

    Stranger no more…🙂

  7. March 30, 2011 10:07 pm

    We are what we have read and mostly it is those early observations and experiences (emotional brushes) which prompt up the writer inside us.

  8. March 31, 2011 3:31 am

    Great idea. It’s already got me daydreaming.

  9. March 31, 2011 9:49 am

    Now that’s an idea that worth pulling my camera out, recharging the card and going for a walk.

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