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Imagining Images

One nice thing about being addicted to reading as a writer is finding yourself inspired or provoked to start writing about memories or ideas that your reading has somehow triggered. Over a period of a few days I happened to read a posting on Facebook by Leslie Carol Roberts, a writer whose work I like, author of The Entire Earth and Sky and Here Is Where I Walk. She asked her readers, "Tell me about the first book you wrote" and mentioned writing and illustrating a book at age 8. I responded at once with a story I've written about a couple times before. Here's what I told her:


I haven't been able to find any copies of my earliest writing—a good deal of it was destroyed by mold in our basement—but I have vivid memories of coming home from a matinee showing of Superman and the Mole Men with my neighborhood friend Bobby Hall. We both were excited about the movie—it later was shown in two parts on The Adventures of Superman television series—and when we got to my house we pried open my mother's typewriter and sat down on the living room floor to write adventure stories. At the time, in addition to reading superhero comics and faithfully following adventure series in the Sunday newspapers, I was also a big fan of the old Flash Gordon serial being shown daily on local television. All that influence came together that day in my creation of several one-paragraph action stories about Tiger Boy. He had superpowers and lived on the Tiger Planet, modeled on Flash Gordon's planet Mongo and ruled by an evil emperor like Mongo's Ming the Merciless. The various civilizations in peril were all part human, part tiger, like Tiger Boy, whose secret identity I've forgotten. Bobby and I had a good time—his stories were more sports related, I think—and when my mother read my typed tales, she eventually got me a toy typewriter of my own so I wouldn't break into hers again. I've been a writer ever since.


Around the same time I responded to Leslie's post, I read an essay titled "Dear Me" by Ann Napolitano in the New York Times Book Review. Starting at age 14 she'd been writing letters to her future self to be opened ten years later, her most recent one at age 44. I've blogged about that essay before, but along with admitting that, at my advanced age, I might not be around to open such a letter ten years from now, the convergence of Leslie's post and Napolitano's essay set off something else in me.


Revisiting that Tiger Boy story again I realized a couple of things about it that I hadn't thought before. One is the way the story might have shifted its emphasis. It's an autobiographical narrative about something that happened to me that I remember fondly. It is also a personal anecdote about the influences of popular culture on a young boy (I think I was eight years old) and it could lead in a couple of directions, towards the idea of private creativity arising from public creativity or towards an argument about the nature of contemporary culture influencing the creation of further popular culture or towards a memoir of a young writer's interactions with his family (my mother wasn't always supportive, as I mentioned in my memoir Happenstance). It's also a tale about learning how to use a typewriter.


But, possibly because I've been thinking about writing with images more often lately and have done a certain amount of such writing, I realized that every time I've told about Bobby and me typing our one-paragraph stories, I have re-entered that "first living room" (as we called it), the room at the entrance to our house, and seen the two of us on the floor not far from the coat rack and the front door and the front wall mirror opposite my mother's piano and the staircase leading to our bedrooms and the hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house and the open archway into the "second living room," the one where we watched television and listened to records and read. I could go on. Just mentioning any one of those features sets off memories of many more of them.


Mostly when I think or talk about writing from images, I think about the ways we can find an old photo and imaginatively, psychologically, enter it, walk around, check out the nature of the place and the personalities of the people in it, re-acclimate ourselves to having occupied that space at one time or, more challengingly, assess how the living presences in that space interacted even if we weren't there at the time. But I also think that it's possible to reverse that process—to re-enter a scene through memory and by writing about it re-inhabit it fully. In my writing classes I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves as a time-traveling drone that can approach their home from the exterior and look through a window into a family room—perhaps the living room or the kitchen or the bathroom or their own bedroom—in order to first of all describe what that drone would see and only later interpret what the things being viewed might reveal about the occupants. If you could take a photo of that room from one angle, what would be in the picture? What would a casual viewer realize about the people who used that room? What does examining that picture do for you?


We carry a wealth of images around with us all the time and they offer us abundant entries into memory and imagination.


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