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Use Pictures and Photos to Draw out Memoir Memories

Sometimes The Best Question Isn’t a Sentence

by Joey on March 24, 2010

Old Photos draw out memoir memories

In 2003, a woman in her early 60’s hired me to teach her how to write a children’s book. Three months later, we sat down for the first time and this is what she said: “Before we get started, I need to tell you something. Three days ago I was diagnosed with terminal spinal cancer.” I asked if she still wanted to write a kid’s book. “No. I want to write my memoirs.”

And so began my first ghostwriting gig. At the time, I didn’t know it was ghostwriting. I only knew that I could write in any style of writing I wanted to. That’s all well and good, but what happens when your client has been in chemotherapy for a week, a month, a year, and either doesn’t have the energy or isn’t motivated to talk about her life? What do you ask someone like that when the scent of death sits at every turn?

You don’t talk at all.

Back then, I used to have breakfast with my grandma every Saturday morning. One Sunday morning – November 30th to be precise – she told me about one of my grandfather’s high-school students, Tom. (My grandpa, Harold, died in 1998. He was a high-school music teacher in Indiana before he moved with my grandma to Arizona in ‘76.)

Apparently, grandma had been getting Christmas letters from Tom, quite steadily, for 10 or 12 years. Once, when she forgot to send him a letter, he wrote her to find out if everything was okay. She was that consistent in her letter-writing. Tom figured something must have been wrong for her to not write.

Grandma said that Tom, who played the saxophone, now lived in New York and was very involved in the theater as an actor. I had the sudden urge to chat with him, thinking that writers and actors share a common love of words and he’s likely have some wonderful stories about my grandfather that I’d never hear otherwise.

So I asked grandma about this and she dug out Tom’s address.

That’s when the photo album came out. “Here’s Tom,” she said.

There he was, holding his sax. Very quickly, this led to pictures of my grandfather gleefully playing the marimba, which led to pictures of people grandma hadn’t seen in awhile and all kinds of other pictures.

When I asked about the long-haired, blond girl holding the microphone at my grandfather’s high-school retirement party, she said, “She had a wonderful voice. She could sing better than anyone we knew and with a voice far beyond her young years. But I’ll tell you something, Joey. Your grandfather got her an audition with this well-respected opera instructor in New York and when she sang for him, the opera instructor told her, ‘You have a very nice voice, but until your heart has been broken, you won’t be able to sing opera.’”

Is this the part where I tell you that showing a picture to a client can open up stories and great quotes like the one my grandma uttered? Yes. But it’s also the part where I tell you that at the time this happened it didn’t occur to me that I could use pictures to open up the willpower and memory of my client who was struggling through cancer.

How could it not occur to me?

Easy. It was my first ghostwriting assignment. And I was so awed by what the opera instructor said about the need for a heart to be broken to sing opera, that I didn’t see a tool that could greatly help me out with my cancer client. I was seduced so much by the words that I didn’t see the pictures that brought them out in the first place.

[Photo by michab37]

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