A few days ago, as I sat on a plane and snapped photos out the window, I decided pictures were going to be my ticket to writing freedom.
I didn’t used to take many pictures. For a long time I had this idea that if I wanted to remember something that much, my memory would keep it.
During college, just before I left to study abroad, a friend had to coax me into taking her camera to document my time. I only took two rolls of film, but I still have every picture I shot from that season. One of them sits framed on my bedside table: it is of me, standing against a stone wall, smiling for the camera into an unknown future. To this day I have kept the navy blue sweater I’m wearing in the photo, though I no longer put it on to keep me warm. It is so large it hangs from me now. Back then, big was in.
Maybe big was better.
In the picture, a fiery red jacket is slung over my shoulder. From my teen years through my twenties, I liked the boldness of red—red lipstick, red flats, red rain jackets. For a while, I stopped wearing red, but in recent years I’ve chosen it again.
I keep the photo as a reminder. It tells me a story: one I know, but one I want to remember, about who I was, who I can still choose to be.
Now, I take pictures to remind myself of places I’ve been. I take pictures to see something in a new light. I take pictures to inspire. Frankly, there are many days when I need inspiration to get the words going. Which is why I decided on that plane ride that for the rest of the month, I was going to use a picture every day as a jumping off point to write. Pictures often coax the story into being: What happened just before it was taken? What happened after? Who or what is missing?
Mostly, I am taking new photos, letting a small point of focus draw a new story onto the page. I took a photo of the sky from that plane window, and then wrote about two honeymooners flying toward their new life, but viewing the future in opposite ways. I took a picture of a pottery bowl I’ve owned for nearly two decades, and out tumbled why I owned it, and why I gave it up then took it back.
It’s easy to write when you let the first thing that pops into your head ramble onto the page.
Those are the best kinds of ideas—because they are so unafraid.
A version of this blog was first posted on the Brevity blog on December 17, 2015. I plan to post some of my picture project writings here in the future.