A Writing Exercise Using Photographs
If you’re starting a new personal essay or you’re working on a memoir, try this writing exercise shared by our instructor Brian Gresko.
Photographs bring me back into a memory, and also remind me of people, events, and places that have slipped from my conscious mind. They sometimes confirm and deepen what I recall, and at other times complicate or even contradict the story that I’ve come to tell myself about myself. Memory is inconstant and flexible, but photos are hard proof, a primary source of your personal history. This kind of research—because that’s what going through old photos is, really—has become an essential part of my process when I’m writing memoir or personal narrative. So much so that when I’m brainstorming I’ll take time to look back without any goal other than inspiration, allowing the photos themselves to spark ideas for pieces.
Your prompt is this: Take fifteen or twenty minutes to closely look at old photos, either on your phone or in an album. If you find yourself drawn to one in particular, stop and write. Begin with simple description, writing what the picture shows. Then move beyond the visual, into the sounds, smells, and feels of that moment. Imagine the world beyond the frame, and pull whatever you need into your piece to tell the story of that photo, or explain its importance to you, or at least why it’s tugging at you in this particular moment. Memoirs are trips through time, and writing from a photograph can help you kick open the door to the past.
Did you enjoy this exercise? Check out Brian's Catapult page to check for upcoming classes with us.
Brian Gresko is a widely published writer and editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. He cohosts Pete’s Reading Series, the longest running literary series in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him online at briangresko.com.
Enter your email address to receive notifications for author Brian Gresko
Confirmation link sent to your email to add you to notification list for author Brian Gresko
More by this author
Will my intestines turn the sacred bread into holy shit, or does the miracle not extend that far into the digestive process?