One of the neat things about being a reporter is getting to go to a lot of different events and see many things. I’ve talked to people who have painstakingly restored a family Bible and I’ve seen dinosaur bones unloaded from crates. The list goes on. I get to cement these experiences in my mind when I start to write them down in a news story. It’s these stories where I get to go out and witness events firsthand that always seem to write themselves. After an event I usually find myself eager to get back to the newsroom and start the writing process.
A part of this, however, is that while I consider myself excellent at recalling conversation, I’m horrible at remembering my surroundings, especially when it comes to the details. I couldn’t tell you whether the walls in my favorite restaurant are blue or red. I don’t remember what order Starbucks arranges itspasties. I can’t remember whether my neighbor this morning was driving a Chevy or a Ford.
The ability to recall these details might seem silly to some, but to writers and reporters remembering the color of the walls can make or break a story setup.
One mantra we carry in journalism is “Show, don’t tell.” This is a concept I admittedly still struggle with. I love telling. I tell stories and I reiterate what I’ve already been told.
But boy, can I tell the difference when I’m able to show. When I can describe the soft glow and the hushed voices of a live nativity, or hear bubbles of laughter fill a room in a library, it comes through in the stories I write. I live for the opportunities I have to get out of the newsroom and experience stories firsthand and show — as long as I can remember what it is that I’ve seen.
Therein lies the rub.
Thankfully, we live in a modern society where I have access to cutting edge tools to help me remember what I’ve seen. Of course, I’m referring to a camera.
I cannot begin to list the number of times I’ve looked up the photos I’ve taken to help me tell stories. Events and stories that were buried in my memory come to light the minute I go through photos — from my college days traveling abroad, to visiting a local museum and remembering an exhibit that I had resonated with. Photos bring these memories back to the surface of my brain, and I’m flooded with images I want to preserve on paper in my writing.
In my news writing, I always thank my lucky stars when I remember to take photos not just of an event, but an image that resonated with me. As I’m writing and setting the scene for my readers, I’ll pause as I struggle to remember the simplest details. Just recently, I couldn’t remember whether the rope for an exhibit in a museum was red velvet or a simple chain. I pulled up my camera and looked to a picture I’d taken. I hadn’t taken it for any particular reason. The woman I was with was in the middle of an explanation of the scene, and for some reason I just knew this was a photo I needed to take.
Sure enough, I ended up describing several elements from the scene, not just the rope I’d seen, which was velvet after all, and I was able to do so using the photo I’d taken.
In this age of taking selfies and Instagramming photos of food, I say these practices are great. These are the photos that document our lives. It helps us with the practice of showing instead of telling and makes our experiences more real. And, most important of all, it helps us remember.
Miranda Wilcox is the managing editor of the Anna-Melissa Tribune, the Prosper Press and the Van Alstyne Leader. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.