Writing for Self Discovery Using Childhood Pictures

Writing Exercises to Use With Childhood Photos

We love pictures of children, don’t we? We ogle over images of our adorable offspring, our friends’ kids, our nieces, nephews and grandchildren. We delight in the antics of these little people, how funny and free they are. But how often do we look at our own childhood photographs?

There is great potential in using pictures to reconnect with our child selves. Below are some writing exercises we can use to spark memories, generate excellent material for memoir pieces, and tune in to the energy we naturally had as children. Attending to this energy, remembering the kid that is still alive inside, can also be a tool for self discovery.

A Girl and Her Bike

girl on her bike.jpg

I got a new bike on my seventh birthday. My mother must have taken this picture, though I certainly don’t remember her standing there with a camera. And if I hadn’t now stumbled upon the snapshot, I’d have forgotten that I was growing my bangs out for a brief time at that age. I would never again have recalled the shape of our family’s old station wagon. I can see how cute I was – and hopeful and determined – though I usually remember myself as plain.

What also returns to me: the feeling of pedaling around and around our driveway in the sharp light of early evening. The popping of gravel, the smell of my mother’s garden, the barn swallows chattering and swooping from the nearby barns, how delighted I felt.

There is a grab in my solar plexus, knowing that things became so complicated later. And that, for many reasons, I didn’t grow into the self-assured adult I’d expected to. I was cautious, reluctant to take risks. While my college friends rode their bikes to class, I walked.

I didn’t own a bike again until I was almost forty, after I was divorced. Watching my young daughters wobble on their two-wheelers, and seeing their triumph when they succeeded – balancing, zooming down the street away from me – I suddenly recognized how closed-in I’d been, how self protective.

I went out and bought a bicycle that first newly-single summer. For weeks I sped through my town, breathless and in awe of my freedom.

Looking at the photo now, all of this comes alive for me. The images, sounds, even smells of a summer evening when I was small. The sad truth of how I allowed myself to contract over time. And then the joy of finding I could ride, and the pride I still feel in how I finally reconnected with the confidence of that little girl.  

Who’d have thought all of that (and much more) was contained in one old picture?

The Exercises

1. Locate a photo of yourself from a vivid time in your life.

(If you can’t find a photo, look around for an object that reminds you of childhood, such as an old toy or a book you’ve kept. Use the object to call up a scene from your childhood. You could also bring to mind a photo that you’ve seen in the past, and try to recall as many details as you can.)

2. Set aside some quiet time and space to sit with the photo, and gaze at it. Take in the small details in all parts of the picture – what you’re wearing, who else was there, the furniture or surroundings, etc.

3. Write a paragraph or two describing what you see, including as many details as you can. Write about the sights, sounds, smells that were in the scene. Also write about what you were thinking and feeling (speculate, if you can’t remember).

4. Now write another paragraph or two (or more) answering these questions:

  • What sort of child was this?
  • What did s/he care about?
  • In your current life, what situations bring out this child’s character traits, his or her spirit? Are there times that you remember the way you felt when little?
  • If you’ve lost touch with this child’s character or spirit, what can you do to honor the child now? What might be missing from you life that you can add in?

This sort of exercise can spark rich memories. You might be surprised at how much material is generated; it can be excellent kindling for a personal essay or memoir piece.

It’s also possible that doing this writing will call up painful recollections. My advice is to ride the waves of those emotions – ask for support from someone if you need to talk – and try to connect with the living spirit of that child.

No matter the nature of the memories, the child is still present in your being. Attending to her/him can help you rediscover your essential self, and nudge you toward a more authentic life.