Voice & the Old Photo

Opal in Texas, 1929









I’ve been reading Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman. Yes, I’m referring you to Sue’s work once again; no, she’s not paying me. I studied with Sue in graduate school and the thing I like about this book is that it’s like receiving one of her feedback letters or listening to her lecture–she demystifies the writing process and gets you writing rather than just studying your notes. The following prompt is based on an exercise in the chapter titled “Between Innocence and Experience” (58).

Find a childhood photo of yourself or a member of your family. If you don’t have access to a particular photo (or would rather write than dig through a box), write from what you can recall about the image. I recommend starting with a photo from when you (or your family member) was at least nine or ten years old.

1) Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about the photo “using the voice and sensibility of who you were when the photo was taken.” If writing about a family member, write about the photo imagining her/his voice when the photo was taken.

2) Reset the timer for 10 minutes and write about the photo “through the voice and sensibility of who you are now.” Likewise, if the photo is of someone else, write about the photo through her/his voice now. If your loved one is deceased, use her/his voice as you last remember it, or from some point later in life.

Read your spills to yourself (meaning: DON’T read out loud, and this is rare for me to suggest but just try it). Take note of the differences between the two voices—even when there’s zero pressure to perform one or both.

Another option: write about your photo from the perspective of a loved one. Or, write about a photo of your loved one from your perspective now, or your perspective as a child who’s just found the photo.

I’ve seen the above photo of my grandmother, Opal, numerous times throughout my life. Perhaps I’ll write about it from my perspective at three very different ages!

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