By Jane Roper
Last weekend, I had the fun of hosting the first-ever Zoom version of a Follow Your Art writing drop-in. We started with a few minutes of free-writing, just to get our writing muscles warmed up. (Little known fact: Pandemics can sometimes make you feel a little creaky in that area… too much Netflix, food, wine and/or anxiety are notoriously bad for creativity—I find, anyway.) Then we did a few writing exercises.
One of those exercises involved using a photo for inspiration—specifically, a photograph that I discovered when helping my mother go through some of her own mother’s old things. In it, four people sit at an outdoor table laden with food and drink at some sort of party or gathering, two of them looking at the camera, two not. There was nothing written on the back of the photo to identify the setting or the people, only a date: 1959.
I told the drop-in participants to choose one of the people in the photo and write a brief first-person monologue in which that person talks about the party. We gave the people names—Mabel, Frank, Merle and Dorothy—and were off to the races.
The writing that came back was fantastic, full of rich detail and fully imagined histories of love and jealousy and loss. The diversity of the stories was fascinating, as were some common threads between some of them.
Take a look:
By Elizabeth Christopher
Fourth of July had always been the same. We gathered at the Cape house. Mom and Dad, Merle. The twins taking pictures. The smell of Dad’s kielbasa reaching all the way to the beach letting you know it was dinnertime. But the summer of ’59 was different. Paul was dead. His motorcycle twisted under a truck the summer before. We didn’t talk about it. Instead we sang our songs: Yankee Doodle. Blue Tail Fly. Over There. We lit firecrackers. Dad didn’t like that I had started smoking. Washing dishes later that night, he said, “they’ll kill you, those things.” And I knew he was thinking of my baby brother Paul.
Labor Day Potluck at Uncle Frank and Aunt Dorothy’s Cottage on Elk Lake – 1959
By Christina Goodwin
My cousin Mabel brought a bottle of cheap rum, even though she’d promised to bring coleslaw from her mother, Iris’s, recipe. Stayed out too late with her fancy friends in the city… again. Aunt Dorothy was in fine spirits, literally; the stain from the spilled daiquiri (that she didn’t even want, but she didn’t want to be rude to Mabel) still visible on her holiday-appropriate navy skirt. We heard the story about Joshua, her youngest, for about the hundredth time. Yeah, yeah, we know—he saved that door-to-door Kirby salesman’s life. The story never alters its course, although its retelling becomes livelier and more detailed with each whisky sour. The bulk of the discussion around Uncle Frank centered, as it does every year, on how long potato salad can safely be left out, and why people even continue to serve it at all. If only his customers at the dry-cleaning shop knew how hard salad mustard was to remove from a tablecloth—to which Dorothy would reply, “There’s no tablecloth today, Francis, give it a rest.”
The Outdoor Shower
by Jane Foley
Ever since we kissed in the outdoor shower last weekend, Mabel’s been acting like she hasn’t loved me since she and Merle were college roommates. Mabel was the smart one, had a guy at Harvard, and shared polite niceties with me while Merle and I went to the parties and built a life together. Merle, who could never hold her booze and was oblivious to my ways with other women.
Harvard guy is dead now. Merle invited Mabel to our Cape house for a reunion. After a swim, there we were rinsing saltwater off our bodies—our old bodies. Forty-five years later, and I finally kissed her.
By Kylee Sartwell
I honestly have no recollection of this photo or the people in it. I think I was on my 7th or 8th can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But I do remember Glen Miller playing in the background on the old Victoria, and I can’t help but think about the time I met my first husband Jim at the county fair and we shared a corn dog and a strawberry milkshake. I should have known he was no good then.
By Joanna Rosenberg
I never liked socializing with my relatives when I was growing up. I always felt like they looked down on me or saw me as inconsequential because I was the youngest. At this moment, I view them differently – and I think they view me differently too. I am one of them now. Smoking a cigarette like a big shot. Uncle Frank seems to think I am interesting. But do I really care?
I have so much ahead of me. I’ll be doing other things soon and these relatives will seem less important to me. I’ll be smoking cigarettes with influential people who are going places. I’ll work hard and get out of this town. My reward will be that you will see me with people who are changing the world.
By Sara Reish Desmond
What if I hadn’t let Mabel stay over the night before? What if I’d pushed her out onto the street, next to the yellow VW beetle her father had bought her the previous summer, drunk on May Tais? What if I let her get home all on her own? Instead, Mabel crashed on the couch even though I’d told her that I was leaving early for the Cape. My Uncle Frank and Aunt Dorothy have a famous bbq every summer and they say everyone’s invited but I don’t really mean her.
I woke (early; I can’t sleep when I’ve been drinking) and told Mabel to assemble her things. I drove to the Cape, like promised, not entirely sure what I was suggesting about Mabel’s presence and role in my life. Still, we were 3 cocktails in when Frank drew a hand around Mabel’s shoulder and gave her a squeeze under the table, sensing her wildness. She took a cigarette then, sensing what we’d all discovered about her that took its grip in every living thing.
If you’re ever feeling uninspired or stuck, or you just want to give your imagination a little workout, try it: Find a photo that includes people you don’t know (archival stock photos can be a fun place to start) or an image of a painting. Then pick a person in it and start writing from their point of view. Better yet, write about Mabel, Frank, Merle or Dorothy and share your story on the Follow Your Art Facebook page—we’d love to see it!
Find more inspiration on FYACSWriters Facebook group.
Jane Roper is the author of a memoir, Double Time, and a novel, Eden Lake. She received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Cognoscenti, Writers’ Digest and elsewhere. She has taught writing at GrubStreet, The University of Iowa, the Sanibel Writers’ Conference, The Muse & The Marketplace and at FYACS. Jane is currently at work on a novel.