show, don’t tell

Hello SE friends! Gwen with you today to share a discovery. Yep, I stumbled upon a jewel quite unexpectedly.

My household is humming with all things related to moving. Boxes stacked high, piles here and there. I’m doing my usual thing of organizing, sorting, and gifting. I’m sure you’re familiar with the routine.

Yesterday while going through some old photos, I was surprised by what I found. It wasn’t that I discovered new photographs, because I’ve seen these images many times before. Rather, I was struck by how my recall of the time frames differed from what the photos themselves conveyed. In other words, I happened upon a chasm between my memories and the evidence before me.

My memories tell me that I grew up in a large farmhouse until I was ten years old. I can describe the rooms, and what it was like to run through them. I can share stories of playing hide and seek in our yard and tell you about searching for a ball in the cotton field next to it. But when I saw this photo, I was taken aback. It’s not a large house at all.

My sisters and I slept in the attic. We loved the slanted ceiling and peeking out the window at the night sky. But would I experience it the same today? I doubt it. The vastness I knew as a child might now feel confining.

Let’s look at another photo. I was around 24 years old, living in Japan, when this photograph was taken. I remember the house distinctly. I thought it so beautiful. I still do. What’s perplexing is the image of me. It’s almost as though I don’t know her, but how can that be? I can tell you what I experienced living in Japan, but when I look at my much younger self, I wonder who is she?

I’ve sat with this image for a while and realized – again – that time changes how we see. And importantly, we are different people from one stage of life to another. This thought prompts me to consider how I might incorporate age related patterns of thinking into my stories. Perhaps you’ve already done this?

We’ll end with this photo. I love how it captures my father’s playful gesture. But what I noticed more than his playfulness were his jeans and his boots, covered with dirt and other evidence of the fields. And for the first time ever, I understood why dad always wore a long sleeve shirt.

As a kid I never thought about it, other than he only had long sleeve shirts. But upon seeing the image afresh, memories flooded of how dad always tried to hide his stump and his prosthesis (if he wore it), when he was around anyone other than just our family.

What I didn’t notice as a child, I now understand as an adult. A simple thing, really, a long sleeve shirt can hide much more than one with short sleeves.

So what does any of this have to do with writing?

Two weeks ago, Story Empire author Joan Hall wrote about picture it, protray it, pen it. Her examples were brilliant and I encourage you to read her post. When I came across the above photos, it was her article that flashed before me.

Old photos freshly reviewed can open unexpected doors and help a writer find the words to show and not tell.

Here are a few of my realizations from this photo adventure:

  1. A child’s perspective of life is limited by their experience. Their age and height shape the world they see. Big is relative to what is small, and vice versa. If we include a child’s perspective in our stories, we might need to listen carefully to their chatter or study a photo or two in order to recapture those early childhood moments.
  2. Memories are made up of threads of truth intertwined with emotions. Depending upon our age and circumstance, one or the other may dominate. I remember a big house, but that home is lodged in a little child’s heart.
  3. Our interests at different life stages affect what we see and don’t see. As a child, I never thought about my dad’s long sleeve shirts. Today I am quite moved by the realization of why he wore those shirts.
  4. Self-awareness evolves with age. A twenty-something character may not be reflective in the same way as a fifty-something character might be. If our protagonist is not of our age group, one helpful way to bridge that divide is through photographs of times we’ve long forgotten.

I’d love to hear of your experiences while looking through old photos. Did they spark unexpected memories or connections or understandings? Have these discoveries helped your writing? I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best…

73 thoughts on “show, don’t tell

  1. Yes, all those old memories observed through rosed coloured glasses, we are sustained by our memories and not by our illusions. I am always intrigued by how others do view their past, one rarely comes across someone who condemns, even my war-ravaged parents only talked about the humorous moments of the dark times. Thank you for the interesting contribution.

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  4. I really enjoyed this thoughtful post, Gwen. You have expressed here thoughts I already had; the way we remember things is different from the reality. This is so for traumatic events like car pileups and earthquakes too. People remember things differently because they overlay their own thoughts, emotions and experiences over the memory. This is why I call the book I wrote with my mother about her life growing up in the UK during WW2 a fictionalised memoir. Her memories and thoughts are not reliable and wouldn’t be even if she were older.

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  5. So true, Gwen. Looking through old photographs not only floods me with memories, but also the meaning of the moment–which changes with the years–and the mindset I was in at the time. I believe I’ve always been the same in my adult years, but that simply isn’t true.

    Enjoyed the post. 🙂

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  6. Fascinating post! I suppose it’s not only our memories that change but how we see things when we’re younger – focusing on the things that matter to us then. Love the pics!

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  7. I loved the photos you shared, Gwen, and the concept behind them. I remember returning to two of my childhood homes as an adult. In both cases I was shocked by how small the rooms appeared. Especially the first home—I remember those rooms being so vast, but they were actually quite small. Age is just one thing that shapes our perspective, but that lesson from child to adult is one I’ve never forgotten.

    Excellent post!

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    • Thank you so much, Mae. It’s been a surprising journey for me, one that helps me understand why people remember the same event, or situation, or locale differently. So much is processed and filtered through age. 😊

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  8. This is a wonderful post, Gwen, managing to be helpful and touching at the same time. I loved the photos AND your take-away from having gone through them. You’ve made truly excellent points, and I’m going to remember them, for sure, especially noting how different our childhood memories are from what we discover as adults. Amazing the change in perspective, isn’t it, in addition to the little details we notice now that we didn’t pick up on then?

    I had the same thing happen to me when I visited my cousin’s childhood home a few years back. I’d spend many a week there when I was a little girl, visiting with them, and playing Hide and Seek and “Mother, May I?” in what I remembered as a HUGE front yard. I was astonished when I drove by many years later and saw what a small, modest house it was, with a nice front yard, yes, but nowhere near as vast as I remembered it.

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about, and ways to use it effectively in writing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aww, I love your stories, Marcia. 💗 Thank you for sharing. Intellectually, I knew that our perspective changes through time, but I didn’t “get it” until going through the old photos. What an awakening! Thank you again.

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  9. This is such a fantastic post, Gwen. Everything we see is done through our perception at the time. I can also remember thinking the house I grew up in was large, but when I see pictures, I realize it wasn’t large at all. It’s all perception. Realizing this makes us more capable of portraying our character’s perceptions in our stories. Another aspect about writing that struck me as I read your post, was the advice to let your manuscript rest after finishing it, before attempting to edit. The reason? Because the way we read it tomorrow will be different from today. Thank you for sharing these awesome photos and stories, Gwen. But where are you moving to?

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    • Thank you so much, Jan. I like your idea of letting a manuscript rest for a while before editing it.😊 As for moving, we’re seriously considering northern NV, though nothing is firm yet.

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  10. This is a great post, Gwen, and the distinction of how a child sees the world is so important. I am working in a setting from my youth. I have been having to do lots of research about an area I know quite well, just to see if it jives with my memory. It’s been an interesting revelation.

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    • Thanks so much, Dan. I bet it’s fascinating to research an area you know well from childhood. I hope you share that experience on your blog. I’d love to read about your experience! 😊

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      • It’s interesting and a little scary. I’m trying to get my facts straight, so I’m researching the way things were in the 60s as opposed to how I remember them. If I’m lucky, this will be part of a novel I am working on. If not, it might be slew of blog posts 😉


  11. This was a lovely, thoughtful post. I really enjoyed it. Each phase of our lives seems to focus on different things: school, courting, marriage, career, raising kids, life after kids, and retirement, etc. I’m sure how we view the world and ourselves changes with each phase, but I don’t think I’ve purposely focused on that before when I write a character.

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    • Thank you, Judi, for sharing. Like you, I’ve not thought about life stages and writing, until now. Because of this photo discovery, though, I’m excited about creating characters with this in mind. All the best…😊

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  12. I absolutely love this post, Gwen! I love the brief look into your past as well as the insightful lessons you’ve learned. Your advice is spot on. Perspective is so important when writing characters, and I love how clearly you point that out in this post. Thank you! 🙂

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  13. Your posts are always so moving, Gwen. Thank you for that.

    Several years ago I had the chance to go inside my childhood home. I declined. Why? Because I knew it would ruin my memories. I love thinking of my childhood home as I remember it. As a pipsqueak, I’m sure my memories are distorted, but they’re perfect the way they are and I don’t ever want to change them with reality.

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    • Thank you so kindly, Sue. I understand your reservation about going inside your childhood home. I only had a photo of the exterior and wondered how my mom was able to raise seven of us in that small home. All the best to you! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  14. What a lovely and insightful post, Gwen. You’re so right. I remember going back to my childhood homes and being surprised at how small they were. As I and my world got bigger and more complex, I re-saw those childhood things with new eyes.

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  15. Excellent post, Gwen. I’d not thought about looking at old photos, but it’s a wonderful idea. The house I lived in until I was four had two large juniper trees in the yard. I can still remember playing beneath them and thinking they were huge! Those trees still stood well into my adulthood. They were large, but with time and growth, they had to have been much smaller when I was four. I never noticed your father’s prosthetic limb until you mentioned it.

    I have tons of old photos. This has me wanting to look at them. And thanks for referencing my post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Joan. I’ll be spending more time with old photos, that’s for sure. I think I’m more aware and attentive partially because of writing, but age has definitely offered a different perspective. 😊

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  16. This is a fantastic post, Gwen. The realizations you mentioned is exactly the reason why I’ve always loved to look at old photos, whether I know the people captured in the image or not. I remember when I was young, we’d visit my father’s family in West Virginia. One of his aunts would always break out boxes of old photographs. We’d sit in a circle in the family room and she’d tell stories about each picture that was passed around the room. Photos are a wonderful writing tool. Thanks for sharing your beautiful pictures. I love the photo of your father. xo

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    • Thank you so much, Harmony. It surprises me what I hadn’t noticed before this journey. A whole other world has opened up. I guess when it’s time, it’s time. 😊

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  18. A wonderful post, Gwen. I understand about childhood memories. One of the few memories I have of my father, who died when I was very small, are of seeing him coming into a room and thinking how very tall he was.
    I’ve also had the experience of going back to somewhere I thought big, only to find it is quite small.
    I know I didn’t think a lot in my twenties. I was finishing my studies, starting work, getting married and having children. No time for much contemplation.
    Your idea of looking at photos to give one an idea of how people think at different stages in their lives is excellent.

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  19. Your pictures are beautiful and show a slice of your life. You make some wonderful points about what we knew and felt when the picture was taken. You are so right a twenty-year-old isn’t going to be as reflective as a fifty-year-old in a story. Children do look at the world differently as we did then. Finding that voice in a book can be triggered by looking at pictures of our own youth. Showing as a photograph does, is a helpful idea to carry over into writing. I loved this, Gwen.

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    • Thank you so much, Denise. Life is interesting, isn’t it? I’ve known about the stages of life, but with this glance through old photos, I finally understood. 💗

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