Recently I started a writing course with WordPress, titled Shaping Your Story. Week one was finding your angle. It’s one thing to have a subject for your story, you also need an angle for telling it.
The first workshop included this tip from Amy Tan:
I try to see as much as possible — in microscopic detail. I have an exercise that helps me with this, using old family photographs. I’ll blow an image up as much as I can, and work through it pixel by pixel.
–Amy Tan, from an article in the Atlantic
Inspired, I dug out my box of old photographs and a magnifying lens.
I found one of me sitting on the floor in my grandma’s kitchen, playing with Curly, a Springer Spaniel.
The only dog they allowed in the house. Or ever would.
I remember the aroma of bread baking and the tobacco from Grandpa’s pipe.
Using the magnifying lens, I see my hands gripping my feet, fingers laced through my toes.
I recall my mom’s obsession with curling my short hair, even on vacation, on a farm, when in all likelihood I’ll spend the day searching for toads and traipsing through the woods behind my grandparents’ house.
I move on to more photographs, studying them carefully, looking at every detail. I notice the time on a clock, the continual smirk on my brother’s face, how my mother wore the prettiest earrings.
Then I notice something else.
In several photographs – not every photograph, but several of them – I’m wearing something. Something particular.
It’s on my left arm. Do you see it?
Here. Let me blow it up for you:
It’s an ID bracelet. Engraved on it was my name, my dad’s name, our address and our phone number. I wore it every day until I was about six years old.
Or at least, I thought I wore it every day.
According to the photos, I only wore it when we were home, in Phoenix. When visiting family in South Dakota, it is noticeably absent.
Hmm. Could there be a story here?
I remember that bracelet well. Before I could read, I knew what it said. To anyone who saw it, they would know my name and where I belonged.
To whom I belonged.
Sometimes in high school, I’d wear the ID bracelet thinking I was being ironic.
(In high school, everything is worn either ironically or with the greatest sincerity, in which case we look back on it ironically.)
What I’m trying to say is, I loved that little bracelet. I particularly loved wearing it.
So if I didn’t wear it on vacations, it was because my mom didn’t pack it for me.
Clearly, she didn’t think it was needed, but why?
Why wear it in Phoenix, where I rarely left my family’s view, but not in South Dakota, where I regularly wandered off in search of toads and bugs?
And then I saw this photo.
The last photo taken of my family before we left South Dakota.
My mom was 32. She was about to leave everything she ever knew, every relative and friend, to live in a place she knew nothing about and where she knew no one.
Where no one knew her. No one knew her children.
What if the little one wandered off? What if someone took her?
Maybe she saw an ad in a magazine for children’s ID tags. Maybe they were in a store. Or maybe it was the suggestion of my dad, an Army vet.
Let’s give her dog tags. That’ll work.
No, a bracelet. She’ll wear a bracelet.
Yes, that’s it. A bracelet.
I may have found my angle…
4 thoughts on “Magnify the Past to Find Your Story”
I hope you have sent this to Amy Tan or will do so. She might love to know how successful her advice is has been for you. You’ve inspired me to do the same thing.
That’s an interesting idea, I’ll have to consider it.
I’m glad you’ve been inspired as well, it was a great little exercise! 🙂
This brought tears to my eyes little sis. You hit it spot on!! I think I still have mine, it was a necklace, more like a dog tag for us older kids. I do remember wearing it though.
You mean we ALL had them? I honestly had no idea. This is a better story than I thought!
I’m pretty sure I still have my bracelet, I just can’t remember where it is. 🙂