You know how it goes. You’re looking for something and you stumble across something else. That’s what happened to me last week. I was looking for a glue stick and stumbled onto a hodgepodge of old photos in one of my seldom-used craft boxes. Why I put them there, I’ll never know.
Some of the pictures I didn’t remember I had: my high school graduating class at our ten-year reunion. Some were photos I’d looked for but couldn’t find, like those taken at my first book signing at Dutton’s in Brentwood. I unearthed pictures of an old boyfriend or two, and spent a moment wondering where they were now and how gracefully they had aged. I also found a few miscellaneous items like a program from the funeral of my friend Nick and a haiku my friend Kath wrote after my beloved Tigger Boo died.
Many pictures were from my travels. Some were ghostly shots of landscapes I can no longer identify. A few were duplicates. In most of them the color had faded. I suppose I should dump the whole lot. They are just my memories not the key to unlocking world peace. When I go, the pictures will go, too, into somebody’s recycling bin.
But when I lingered to study various shots, I experienced flashes of emotion, remembering the circumstances surrounding each photo. A crushing weight pressed down on my chest when I came across a picture of Nick. It was taken at a book signing in Seattle for my first novel. His cancer had so ravaged his body that I barely recognized him. Despite his illness, he vowed to come to see me even if he had to travel there on a gurney. He died shortly after that. The funeral program I mentioned above was for his service.
The picture below was taken at the Tokyo airport many years ago. I’d just arrived after a trip to China, which was one of the most mind-bending journeys I have ever taken. In that photo I seem so young and hopeful. And dorky. Those socks! Okay, so they matched my blue button-down Oxford shirt, but seriously.
But I didn’t feel dorky back then. Seeing my expression I remembered how alive I felt and dazzled by the people and places I had seen: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the terra cotta soldiers at Xian, the young man who shouted to me from the second floor window of a Beijing apartment, asking if I would write out Rocky Mountains in English for him. He had watched a TV program about the area and wanted to see what the words looked like.
I also found pictures of a long ago trip to Phuket, Thailand. In 2004, years after I’d been there, those beautiful tranquil beaches were obliterated by a tsunami caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Around 5,300 people were killed nationwide. Nearly 250 of the dead were in Phuket, many of them tourists like me. A few years after that I saw the movie HEREAFTER. The film began with a terrifying scene of a tsunami. I had stayed in a hotel on the beach much like the one in the movie, so the thought of "what if" still haunts me.
Scene from Hereafter
So what do old pictures have to do with writing? Everything. One of the challenges we face as scribblers is to imbue our characters with real emotions. We sit at our computers and struggle to write about how our acrophobic hero feels on the 117th floor of a swaying high-rise. All of us have experienced fear, sadness and joy but sometimes we intellectualize our emotions. We’ve been schooled to be stoic. It’s safer that way, both at work and at home. However, when we’re writing, the feelings have to be raw and on the page in order for readers to be moved. Perhaps one way to get out of our heads and into our guts is through the stories behind our fading photographs.