A Thousand Heartaches: Photo Backstory for Memoir

November 27, 2019 Deborah Wilbrink

Use Photos for Backstory in Memoir

by Deborah Wilbrink

When writing memoir, handling and viewing old photos elicit memory. At my workshops, we practice using photo backstory for memoir. We tell and write stories about photographs, looking for the backstory the way an actor creates the past life of a character. This essay by creative Tanya Radic takes the story told by a photo to psychological and prophetical proportions.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Heartaches

by Tanya Radic

I ask that you drag out the shoe boxes and the albums of faded family photos, the ones that are torn and bent; the ones that are slid between yellow plastic. Maybe you will find something new.

The Photo & Backstory

This photo of my family made in 1963 in my GranBonnie backyard is a look into the future. Gran made it with her Kodak Brownie. Side by side we stand, distancing one from the other. There is no connection, no hug, no smiles, no touching.

The baby in the photo that seeks connection is turned to my mother. Maybe she caresses his hair. My brother, Dale stands in front of my father. Both stand like stiff soldiers. Neither had any military service. It is the stance of an oak tree, too stiff to bend.

The stair step from left to right in two rows: Father/Harold and Mother Bea on the back row. Dale and Clay on the front. I stand with my nose wrinkled and my eyes squinted. Little did I know that the future might blind me; that I would be the soul survivor.

What Came After

“Clay Baby” was twenty-six years old when he was murdered on Douglas Ave in Nashville, Tennessee. “If I ever see her like this again, you answer to me!” Clay told him, “Don’t you ever beat your ex like this!” He might have been the hero, but he didn’t survive the answering shotgun blast into his heart.

My mother died 26 years later, in 2012. I think it was from a broken heart. The grief she gambled at the racetrack; Kentucky Downs couldn’t save her.

My father died two years later from lung cancer. He rode the John Deere lawnmower, circles in the dirt, and drove his truck without any brakes. He couldn’t drive fast enough to run from the pain.

Dale inherited the farm in 2014, the heart attacks in 2015 and died in 2017 in Cave City, Kentucky. He liquidated his sorrow with alcohol and blew his pain up in Winston smoke.

And as the photo shows, I am standing alone with the flower.

A picture is worth a thousand heartbreaks.


DIY Photo Backstory for Memoir

Take one of your own photos. Describe it – you’ll come up with the routine Who, Where, When. Now go for it! What are they doing? How did this come about? Why are the people there? What is the significance of your photo? Can you, like Tanya Radic, find symbolism that will reveal or illustrate a new aspect of life story?

More about Tanya Radic

Tanya is a creative on the edge… she blogs at https://skirtsupwriters.com, records podcasts, write songs, paints, and is producing a new Nashville public access tv show, Miss Art & Friends, soon to be seen on NECAT. Tanya is working on her memoir, Nobody Calls Me Grandma. https://skirtsupwriters.com. My friend Tanya granted use of her essay by permission,  copyright Tanya Radic 2019.

The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) (translation by Constance Garnett)

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Best Book Ever
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“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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