This weekend I am scanning old photo albums. This is a project that my brothers and I have been putting off for more than a decade, and after getting a start on it, it’s no mystery as to why. Yesterday I spent seven hours scanning nearly 700 photos, and I have completed two of nearly twenty photo albums (please send booze).
There is something surreal about seeing your childhood through the eyes of the camera lens. Moments that I have no memory of are preserved on Kodak paper, with the orangish hue of 80s photo processing chemicals. Is there a look that is more nostalgic?
Nostalgia is addictive, and a gold mine for a writer. Looking back creates emotional investment in a story whether the memories are fond or haunting. Our pasts shape our lives and personalities even when we wish they didn’t.
To keep a tenuous hold on my sanity through the tedium, I have started to see some of these photos as writing prompts. I look at the faces of people I don’t remember and wonder what they were thinking and feeling. Back before digital anything, you only got so many tries at a photo, so candids were as precious as the shots where everyone is flashing their toothiest grin at the photographer. Unrehearsed life.
When I was a teen, some of my best short stories were written using my ancestors as inspiration — people I had never known who lived scandalous lives (at least my favourites always did, my relatives were pretty easily scandalized, though), and who were related to dramatic little old me. When you think about your relatives as human beings instead of as ‘Great-Granny Smith’ they become far more interesting and complex.
If I can get through another 700 photos today, I will be no where even close to finished. Sort of like writing a novel when you don’t know what the ending will be or when. Outlines are for suckers … er, professionals. Us mavericks fly by the seat of our pants … high up in the air … without a net … over jagged rocks … you know, fun!