WORDS & IMAGES
WORDS & IMAGES: An Approach to Story Truth
Years ago I came down with a fever.
At first I didn’t think much about it. Mornings I would have coffee and read in this café in Boston’s North End, back when you could smoke inside. I’d sit close to the glass, alternating between turning pages and people watching. This is how I used to wake up.
However, on that bright October day things didn’t feel quite right. Here was a quintessential New England snapshot: white breaths, sweaters and scarves, leaves dancing seemingly by invisible strings. Admittedly, fall has always been my favorite season; I have always had an odd fondness for wool. But as the sun arched skyward, the photograph outside changed. To start, everything became illuminated, in still motion. Like I could see air particles move when the door opened. Like I could suddenly make out cars colliding with these same brilliant flecks, frame by frame.
Eventually I went back to my apartment. I stayed in bed for weeks.
My temperature reached 104.
I want to say that scene really happened. But I’m not sure.
Today, close friends admit to my two lives: before fever/after fever. And they speak in tones often reserved for former addicts or the newly converted. On one hand they appreciate my more focused self – the friend they trust when it comes to the intense snapshots of life. On the other hand they’re quick to say that they miss the old me – the friend they could call upon to offer an opinion on a really bad haircut. What can I say? Images rarely lie.
Across from me in the café that day was a woman hunched over an espresso while studying a Dorothea Lange monograph. I recognized her from somewhere, but I didn’t know where. For the life of me I want to say she smiled first. But again, this was in my fever state. Anyway, I told her Lange humanized tragedy better than anyone, which was a line that makes me cringe to write now. But that’s not the takeaway lesson. What I really want to say is capturing a story’s truth is about the commitment to opening our eyes in times of love and loss, in moments of grace and shame, for the long haul.
Seeing and writing have more in common than we might think. They are inextricably bound – each discipline informs the other in order to come to an experience (either fictional or fact) that can locate narrative truth. Learning to see more carefully will help us not only write more accurately, but the more we train the eye to stay open and alert, the greater the chance we have of capturing the story moment. Using a personal or found photograph, tell a story that convinces the reader this really, maybe, possibly happened.
Vivian, Fort Barnwell
I tell my wife, I’ll always remember this photograph of my mother. She’s out in back, hanging the blankets to dry on our backyard lines after one of our picnics, and she looks so young, the way I remember her before we moved to California. I was ten, I think. We used to have picnics out there under the water tower when my father got home from work, out in back on the grass on a set of big gray movers’ blankets. My father and the man next door had built a pool from a truck tire set in concrete, and they filled it with water for my brother and me to splash in. I remember the day this picture was taken, because my mother hand to hang the blankets to dry after we’d soaked them from the pool. My father was mad but she wasn’t. She was never mad at us. I haven’t seen that picture in years, I tell my wife. But I remember it.
And then one day, for no reason I can fathom, my wife is looking through the old cardboard-sided valise where my mother had kept her pictures, and she says, Here? Is this the one you’re always talking about? And I say, Yes, I can’t believe you found it. And she says, Those aren’t movers’ blankets, those are some kind of leaves up in the foreground.
They look like something topical, maybe rubber leaves. She’s not hanging laundry at all. I say, Wait a minute—let me see. And I laugh and say, You’re right. How can that be? My whole life I’ve remembered that picture of here hanging those blankets after we’d soaked them. I can even remember the picnic. She says, That’s funny, isn’t it? I say, My mother was so beautiful.
Our own children are out back in our own yard. It’s too cool here for a pool, but I’ve built them a swing set from redwood, and I take a look out the window at them climbing it the way I’ve told them not to.
And then a few minutes later my wife says, Look at this, and she hands me the picture again, turned over. On the back it says, Vivian, Fort Barnwell, 1931. That’s not your mother at all, she says. That’s your grandmother. I say, Let me see that. I say, My God, you’re right. How could that have happened?
- Ethan Canin
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko