In class yesterday, we talked for a little while about photographs. It was a “which picture works, which picture doesn’t” sort of conversation in the context of our Journalism lab journal. While that was important in itself, it slipped for a few minutes into something else; into the idea of taking a photograph that helps one write—a photograph that you can return to time and again, looking for that one detail you first missed, that one detail which could transform your writing in an instant.
I’m at a stage where anything to do with writing intrigues me. I’m also at a stage where I fear that I have nothing to write about, where I feel like I have no story worth telling. I know this isn’t true, I recognise that everything around me has and is a story. But to be told that I can just look at a photograph and write makes me feel strangely elated, not only happy, but excited.
And so I went through some old photographs when I got home. They weren’t technically very well taken pictures, but I looked in them for those details I had forgotten over time, details that my memory could no longer provide. I wish I could provide for you the pictures I looked at, but perhaps I will do so later, when I find a way of doing so. I then looked back at small things I had previously written and added details that the photographs now provided to the experience. I actually wrote.
At six she would kick off her slippers and walk across the cold floor, trailing behind her the small and often empty bag she liked to carry, erasing in a swift movement the marks left by her feet. The lingering smell of paint and varnish, the newly built cupboards, now empty and waiting to be filled, reminded her of times to come. Amidst people she neither knew nor would know, she would climb onto the wooden divan recently built into the wall, tapping at the wood with her hands, her feet, the heavy sound lost in the more persistent pounding of hammer on nails. She made no sound apart from the heavy tapping, no words uttered; only heard. At six she did not want to know what her room would look like, it did not matter whether the walls were cream or white, or whether the closed balcony in her room would have a glass window. At eighteen, this is what she remembered. But memories with empty spaces are not really considered memories, and in a frantic desire to have anchoring, vivid recollections, the empty spaces are often unconsciously filled, leaving an almost whole fragment.
She was almost sixteen, when she first left home for boarding school. It was the familiarity that she missed, the comforting smell of freshly brewed coffee, the throaty noises of pigeons, and the walls slightly brown with the traces left by her hands over the years. Those known walls, the black and dusty gate with 201 neatly written in blue chalk, now fading, the plants that lined the corridor demanding to be watered, all images that reminded her of days passed.
Four months later, when she returned home for the holidays after her first term in boarding school, she entered her room rather cautiously. She was scared to find something misplaced, the convenient position of her bed by the window changed, or her table cleared. And yet the room remained the same, displaying a constancy that was broken only by vacancy. As she entered, she felt like it had been aired out, expecting to be used again. Her bed was neatly made, the open window next to it creaking, inviting her to nights of loud songs and laughter from the compound next door again. On the other side was her bookshelf, bending under the weight of books she once used to read, shielded by those she now read, or hoped to read.
Her table was as cluttered as she had left it four months ago. Pens that had enough ink to write were lost among those that did not, textbooks she no longer had use for and books she hoped to read hid sheets of paper she had begun to write on before changing her mind. When she was twelve she had sat on the bed in her room, pencil in hand, and written on the wall. Her shaky words read Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasely. She looked over to that point on the wall, the words smudged by time but still clear, and then at her cupboard, where old Harry Potter stickers were now hastily covered with photographs.
Suddenly I was reminded of what John Berger and Jean Mohr said in their book on photography, ‘Another way of Telling’, on the difference between memory and photographs. “Yet there is a fundamental difference: whereas remembered images are the residue of continuous experience, a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant.” For me, memory, experience and the photographs seemed to come together.
Perhaps I’ll give this a try again.