Memoir Writing


Outside the Photograph


Looking through a collection of old photographs is often a good memory jogger. An even more interesting way to use old photographs is refresh your memory is to write about what is not in a photograph. If you try this, you will be surprised how this allows you to wake up old memories that have been long neglected. Select a photograph that you feel particularly drawn to. Sit with that picture a while, and think about the things that are not actually in the picture. Write about that. By writing about what is not in the picture, you free your mind from its familiar linear connections and allow it to rummage through long neglected mental associations. Some long neglected bit of internal landscape will then catch your attention. When you write about that, you will find that bringing that memory to your attention will pull out related things that have their own special meaning to you. Once you have started your "yarn" continue reeling it in, you will soon find yourself delighted by a visit to some long forgotten element that has molded your personality.

If you are having trouble getting started, just jot down the answers to the following questions:

Below I am including a memoir I wrote using this technique


Example: Outside a Photograph Taken in China

Jean and friends

This is a picture of me, the interpreter and an engineer. The guy with the cap, the one who looks like a poster boy for the Chinese Revolution was the driver of the bus. The picture was taken in Hangchow, a City that Richard Nixon is reputed to have said is the most beautiful city in the world. That was perhaps the only thing Richard Nixon and I could have ever found to agree on.

I could tell you more about the people in the picture. At that time in China, the custom was that every decision that was to be made required that everyone in the group express an opinion about how it should be done. The driver was the oldest one of the Chinese that Bill worked with, so he was always the one to first express his opinion. But, in this exercise I am going to tell you about what is not in the picture. When I do that, I find that stories open up like a Texas rain lily after a spring shower.

When I look at the picture, I see so much more than is in the picture. The story I could tell you would depend on the day. Yesterday when I thought about writing this exercise, I wanted to tell you about a bicycle wreck Bill and I caused later in that long ago day in China. Today I want to tell you about something else.

This picture was taken at a Buddhist park. What you don't see in this picture is West Lake. We have just driven through the misty morning of an early spring along the wide boulevard beside West Lake. The boulevard is lined with willow trees just coming into leaf. The trees are so carefully trimmed that they look for all the world like those jade leafed bonsai trees that you sometimes see for sale in jewelry stores. The boulevard is wide. Since this picture was taken before China was really open to a lot of tourists, there are very few other motorized vehicles. The occasional taxi. But mostly bicycles. Miles and miles of bicycles. Phalanxes and phalanxes of bicycles handle bar to handle bar. The driver of our bus constantly had to beep his horn, to warn the bicycles that he was coming. As we drove along, the bicycles would part leaving just enough space to make way for the bus. If you had stuck your head out the window to check, I am sure you would have seen there was a scant quarter of an inch space between the side of the bus and the bicycle handle bars.

Another thing you don't see is the Buddhist Temple we have come to visit. It is over behind Bill who is behind the camera, taking the picture. And you don't see the hoards of little farm workers who have come into town for a holiday. I really don't know what holiday it was. I don't think anyone told us. The farm workers are country people, we were told. They have come in from their communes to visit the shrine. The commune workers are all dressed in blue uniforms. Each of the people wears a felt hat that is distinctive to their own commune. They like are, we are told, simple, superstitious country folk who enjoy visiting their temples. This temple is very important, historically, so they particularly enjoy visiting here.

They also have never seen Americans. We are much taller than they, so they cannot help noticing us. They find us interesting. Some of the women stand close to me. Some reach out and touch my sweater to see what it feels like. They smile and nod. I smile and nod. They move on.

The path we are on winds along beside a stream. This area must have been formed by volcanic activity long, long ago. There are dark little hills that look like cinder cones. Or to be more specific, they look like the crooked cone like hills with the pine trees clinging precariously to the sides on in Chinese paintings. Here and there smiling Buddhas have been carved into the hills. Someone has climbed up there and put camellias in their laps.

As the story goes, Buddahs are very heavy. That is the reason the monks have carved the Buddahs into the hills-to weight them down.

Long, long ago these mountains tended to take it into their heads to fly from one place to another. At that time there was a mad monk at this very Temple. And this monk knew that one of the mountains was going to pick up and fly and land, kerplunk, right on top of the city.

The mad monk ran through the city calling out a warning.

No one paid any attention.

He was, after all, only a mad monk. No one ever paid attention to a mad monk. So in desperation he ran into a garden where a wedding was taking place. He grabbed up the bride and went running away with her.

All the people at the wedding were outraged. They ran after the monk trying to rescue the bride. They were angry and making quite a furor. The people in the nearby houses heaed them calling for help and came running. The mad monk ran faster and faster. He ran out through the city gates. All the people ran after him. All but the landlord of the town, who was a very greedy man and could not be called away from his counting of his money to help rescue the stolen bride.

Just then, the mountain did decide to fly. And it did land, kerplunk, right on top of the city just as the monk had known it would. Everyone was saved by the mad monk and by their desire to rescue the poor kidnapped bride.

Everyone except the greedy landlord.

Everyone went back to the city and rebuilt it. They made it even more beautiful than ever. And all the people encouraged the monks in the carving of the hundred Buddhas into the sides of the mountain. They did this, because Buddhas are heavy. Their weight would keep the mountain from every flying again. The monks' plan worked very well, because, as anyone can see the mountain has been held in place by the heavy preponderance of Buddhas.

The path that led past the beautiful garden of the flying mountain led eventually to the temple. We entered the courtyard through a round Moon Gate. The massive red doors were flung open wide. In front of the open doors was a giant bronze pot from which plumes of smoke rose. A file of commune workers moved past each one thrusting joss sticks and fake money into the burning pot. The air was blue with smoke and incense. Red Columns soared upwards. A giant golden Buddha smiled down at us with his maniac smile. On the wall behind him a hundred small golden Buddha smiled down from shelves in unison. Each one smiled in his own unique way.

Beside the gate there was a receptacle for offerings. Bill pulled out his billfold and selected a small bill. In China, at that time, there were two kinds of money. There was tourist money, and there was the money that the people of China used. We, of course, used Tourist Money. The bills came in many sizes. They represented tiny amounts of money. I was appalled at what a tiny bill Bill had selected. So, I reached over and took the bill from his hand and put it back into the wallet and pulled out another bill. A larger one and dropped it into the offering receptacle. It was a quick maneuver. Bill looked at me with a horror. "That was too much," he whispered. "Twenty dollars," he admonished. I said, "But they must need money to keep this place going."

He said, ever so quietly, "That's as much as the people I work with make in a month."

I said, "Oh." These money translations are always difficult for me.


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