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Analysing photographs

From Description to Storytelling: Carmel Bird shares a writing exercise.

Part One

  1. Find an old photograph of yourself, one in which you are alone **.
  2. Study it carefully before writing.
  3. With pen and paper write a detailed descriptionof what you see, as if you were looking at a picture of a stranger. So you would say, for instance: ‘a girl of about four is sitting on a rocking horse’. Go into as much physical detail as you can.
  4. Then begin a personal narrative in which you own the scene you have just described. For instance: ‘I remember the old rocking horse in our neighbour’s hallway’.
  5. Continue to write as freely as you can for twenty minutes, roaming among feelings and thoughts as well as among recollections of physical details.

** I suggest you choose a picture without any other people in it because I want you to concentrate deeply on yourself.

Part Two

Another exercise entirely involves having another person in the picture, and writing two accounts, one in which you try to tell about things from your own perspective, and one in which you imagine how the other person might tell it. This second exercise gives you an insight into one of the aspects of memoir- writing that often worries the writer. How can it be, writers wonder, that I remember such and such whereas my brother remembers so and so. How can our memories be so different; who has the true story? Is there a true story?

The second story from the picture of two people, the story of the brother, is fiction. It might even resemble the first story in some ways.

But it’s good for the memoir-writer to have a go at imagining the other person’s point of view.

So you still start with the descriptionof the picture – from the point of view of a single observer. But then you write two ‘personal’ accounts of the memories – one by ‘you’ and one by ‘him’.

You will start to realise, perhaps, that the ‘I’ of your memoir is almost as much of a construct as the ‘I’ of the imaginary memoir of your brother.

‘I can sing a true song about myself’ – from ‘The Seafarer’, an Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 900

About Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird has written many novels and collections of short stories. She has edited collections of essays and also of short stories. Two of her popular books on writing are ‘Writing the Story of Your Life’, which concerns the writing of memoir, and ‘Dear Writer Revisited’, which is about writing fiction.


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