A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 11: Saved Photos

“Do you want some of our old pictures?” my dad said one day.

When you’re a child, you get a lot of things from your parents. They come pretty regularly, such as clothes and food, that you don’t even notice when it happens. Then there’s times when you get a lot of things from your parents during your birthday and Christmas every year.

A lot of kids have the impression that they don’t get a lot of things from their parents when they are older, especially after they turn eighteen. That turns out to not exactly to be the case. You do tend to get things, but the types of things that you end up getting tend to be different than what you got when you were younger. Sometimes those things are valuable and are things you would love to have, while some have more (or less) sentimental value and not necessarily things you would love to have.

What all those things would have in common is that the parents typically can’t keep them anymore. Either your parents or other relatives are moving into a smaller space where they can’t fit as much stuff into it like the old place, or they’re getting ready to try and not have as much stuff before they aren’t around anymore to be able to get rid of it. It’s something that either older people, or the children of older people, know well.

My father spent nearly 50 years of his life helping to build and design engineering projects all around the United States and around the world. Even when he was around 70, he was touring around the US keeping busy with projects.

However, he kept busy with other things. One of those was photography. He was always taking photos of what was going on with me and Mom, of where we traveled, and where they eventually traveled in the years to come. It became a passion for him, especially as he got older.

I’m going to eventually tie this in to writing at some point, I promise.

I’m not a fan of clichés, or at least relying on them. By their very definition, they are sayings (or perhaps memes, nowadays) that are used so often that they are “tired,” so to speak. Sometimes, however, they can be of use, or spark something different.

The cliché that I’ve got in mind is the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” From my quick Google search on the subject let me know that the saying as such originated from a Fredrick R. Barnard, who wrote it in the December 1921 edition of Printer’s Ink. The intention behind the saying is that an image or graphic can tell a story or convey information just as effectively as a large amount of text.

Again, although I am not a fan of cliches, I do think there is some truth to this statement. However, I also believe that a slightly related statement, made (to my knowledge) by me, has just as much truth or more, and more relevance to me as a writer. That statement is this:

A picture can prompt a thousand words or more.

For me, images have always been a stepping off point for me in the creative process. Exactly what the creative purpose of those images is depends on what type of images they are.

For example, I’m a big fan of maps and diagrams. I have to confess that I always had an interest in geography, for example, and was interested in any schoolwork that had to do with the subject. There is a tradition, going at least as far back as J.R.R. Tolkien, of writers including maps of their worlds. It always helped me visualize the worlds that I was reading about, especially worlds that were wholly part of the author’s imagination.

I remember staring at the map of Arrakis in the novel Dune and not being able to make heads or tails of what I was seeing until my tenth of twelfth read, but I was still appreciative of the effort of Herbert to include it. I also remember getting a copy of The High King by Lloyd Alexander and being a bit disappointed that it didn’t have a map of Prydain like an earlier edition I had read back in… middle school, I think? Maybe late elementary school? I’m not sure.

I also remember, much later when I was a young man, scouring the Sunday edition of the local newspaper. Every week, in the Home and Garden section of the paper, they would have a featured home of the week and would show a nice little photo of the front of the house. I could care less about that – I preferred reviewing the floor plans of the house. It gave me an idea of what the space would look like, would feel like. I would be able to sketch a scene from that information, and I would be able to take it from there and be able to have a great setting for the story I wanted to tell.

Photographs, though… that is a slightly different thing.

(I told you I’d work in those photos my dad sent.)

What I talked about before involved the creation of new memories. That often applied to new photos, those that I hadn’t seen before. But photos of my own life, however – that’s a bit different.

Recently, I wanted the Pixar movie Inside Out as part of a class I was teaching. It’s an interesting, kind-hearted, and moving little film about what makes up a person and growing up. I found it true to life when it comes to how emotions can influence people and how growing up changes you.

There was one part of the story that was particularly intriguing to me. The emotions of the young girl main character are in charge of her memories. Core memories are kept near the girl’s “control room” and other older and less traveled memories are kept in storage, eventually winking out or no longer accessible if they haven’t been recalled after a time.

When I got all of the photo files from my dad, there were a lot of pictures of me and my family from decades in the past. There were easily hundreds of them that my father scanned in after he’d gone into retirement and had more time for such activities. As I started clicking on some of the thumbnails of those photos, some of the dimmed memory globes of my past memories started to flicker a bit.

A tiny few of those photos I’ll include here as an illustration of how sometimes those memories can reawake with a couple of images. All photos courtesy of William Liegois.

Both of these were me in March 1976. I had thought that this playground that I was at had been in Muscatine, Iowa, but it was actually near Seabrook, Texas, where I spent my pre-school years. I also deduced from some other photos that it was apparently called Busch Bird Park, after the Anheuser-Busch company, apparently. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Dad, I realized the photo I was talking about was actually from a trip to Busch Gardens in Tampa. I’ll credit the opaqueness of memory for that slip-up.]

Again me in March 1976, trying to look cool riding my bike. I think the training wheels finally came off a year or so later

Me on the Gulf of Mexico, July 1976. I loved the ocean but was always a bit wary of it after one encounter I had with a jellyfish there.
Me (center, yellow shirt) October 1980.

This is Muscatine, and I believe I am playing one of my first organized games of soccer. I remember those games as two groups of 10 kids each chasing a ball around the field while the keepers just stood around at either end.

This was just a small open spot of ground tucked into a residential neighborhood called Iowa Field (original, right?) I remembered it for all of the woods surrounding it and how you could walk through the trails totally hidden from anyone on the field.

My first trip to Washington DC in October 1981.

I was so excited that I was vibrating this entire trip. Dad was taking Mom and me along for a business trip. Being a budding nerd, the Air and Space Museum and the other Smithsonian institutions were my favorite stops.

Me showing off the height of early 1980’s fashion in the front yard of my home in Muscatine, October 1984. Pretty soon after this I decided to give up trying to be a fashion icon.

There were so many other photos that triggered old memories for me, images of people I hadn’t seen in decades and pictures of my parents as young people like I once was. I do know that I’ve got a lot more photos to look through and a lot more memories to start reconnecting with. Remembering where you came from is a good way to let yourself know what you’ve gone through and what you’ve learned, all of which inform your knowledge of the human experience. It also has the advantage of getting more of your cerebral synapses firing than would normally be the case, and that’s a good thing to do for yourself the older you get. That’s good for everyone, but especially a writer who needs to keep those synapses firing and be connected to all those experiences.

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