Monday, February 11, 2013

Wordcraft -- Every picture tells a story

A recent workshop at the Dallas Writer’s Garret included both University of Alabama professor Michael Martone and author Robin Hemley, who co-edited the short story anthology, Extreme Fiction. I wrote previously about Martone’s half of the workshop. This week, it’s Hemley’s turn.

For his portion of the workshop, Robin Hemley asks us to bring family pictures. Since Hemley is known for his book, Turning Life Into Fiction, I suspect we will use these tangible objects as writing prompts. And, well, he doesn’t say the picture had to be of our own families -- so I raid my father’s stash of World War II-era photos of families of New Guinea natives. Aren’t other people’s stories more open to interpretation than our own?

Hemley tells us not to show our treasure trove of objects to other members of the workshop. The prompt: To write a description of our actual picture, and a picture wholly imaginary. He challenges the group to determine which description is of the “real” picture, which one fake.

Strange to say, we often find descriptions of the imaginary pictures more compelling, more evocative than the real ones. Is this because the actual picture limit us too strongly to the realm of “it really happened this way”? Are we emotionally tongue-tied at describing things too close to our hearts? At any rate, the imaginary pictures often evoke more complex descriptions. After a few tries, the degree of detail becomes a clue to which is real, which unreal.

“What do you learn?” Hemley asks.

“That memory has a different lens,” a participant says.
Writing instructors often advise us to choose “telling” details for our descriptions. But, Hemley say, “the (telling) detail could be different for me than it is for you. . . There is the emotional memory, but even when you think you’re describing it, you’re still recreating it. . . We think that fictionalizing is a taint, but we can’t help fictionalizing.”

It’s a view science supports. An interview in the March 2013 issue of Discover magazine suggests that, far from being fixed, our brains revise memories every time we remember them. In fact, one participant is slightly embarrassed to see, after looking again at her “real” picture, that she didn’t remember what it showed. She remembering a picture of Disney character Goofy when in fact, it’s a picture of Yogi Bear.

But whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, how can we use these photographs to enrich our writing?

“It really works to frame memory in terms of a photograph,” Hemley says. “Consider creating a kind of tableau where you extract the memory within the photograph. Thinking about the photograph is a really poignant way to extract memories. It forces you into a
real world relationship with the memory, so you‘re able to rein habit the episode.”

Even in a fictionalized setting, imagining a scene as a photograph gives us an opportunity to visualize a setting and the characters within it. “If this were a photograph, what would it be?” Hemley asks.

Already, some participants frame their photographs, both real and imaginary, as before and after versions of the same scene. Hemley applauds this for “giving the reader a sense of ambiguity but also of history before this story,” but urges us to move beyond the scene within the photograph’s frame.

“I often think,” he says, “what are the secrets the characters have? Not only the secrets they keep from others, but the ones they keep from themselves?”

For more about Hemley’s work, see

For Martone’s portion of the workshop, see “A new word for writing critiques” and “New critique technique, part II,” at this site.

For more about the Dallas Writer’s Garret, see

(Next Monday -- Wordcraft looks at a book built from pictures, Mark Doty’s Lost Dallas.)

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