Saturday, April 24, 2010

Photographic Memories

When Garce invited me to guest on his blog as part of the Why Does It Work? theme, he asked me to write a kind of “Director’s Commentary” on a short story – explaining why I wrote it the way that I did, what techniques I used, what changes I made, and so on. The idea is to answer the “How did he do that?” question.

I’m going to walk you through “Photographic Memories.” This is a short piece (1,815 words) that I wrote towards the end of 2001 when I’d been writing for a couple of years. I submitted it to Clean Sheets, who helped me edit it –they came up with the idea of putting the lecture in italics rather than quotation marks – and published it in April 2002.

At this point, I suggest you go and read the story. You can find it here:

“Photographic Memories”

The story started with me thinking about what it means to be a photographer and what the similarities are between photographs and poems or short stories or scenes in a play.

I was interested in how the photographer/author leads the viewer/reader and what kind of person you need to be to want to do this: arrogant, socially distant, manipulative (OK, so just because I can tick all those boxes doesn’t mean they apply to all writers or photographers).

But seriously, what kind of man always carries a camera? What does it do to someone to have their view of the world framed by a lens? I came up with most of Philip’s lecture statements while I was thinking this through.

One of the reasons that I write erotica is that I think sex and lust and love and the things they make us do, tell us more about a person then almost any other aspect of their lives. So I started to think about what sex with this photographer would be like. Then I realized that the story would work best if I thought about who would want to have sex with this man, who would love him and his arrogance and his need to see the world on his terms?

That was when I stated to hear the narrators voice and I knew that, to bring the photographer alive I needed to see him through the lens of his lover.

I write a lot about dominance and submission. In my mind, this story has strong elements of that theme. Philip is a classic Dom, charismatic, arrogant, narcissistic, and capable of focusing the entire force of his personality on a single person in a single moment. The narrator (I didn’t give her a name – a name would put more distance between her and the reader) is also my version of a classic Sub: strong, intelligent, introspective, self-aware and with a deep-rooted desire to surrender herself.

So now I had a Dom/sub thing in my head, with a bunch of metaphors related to photography and what it means about how we see reality. I also had the narrator’s voice in my ear. I need this. Her voice is my guide to keeping the story real. There are things she wouldn’t say or do and things that she would believe to be true or necessary. At the start of the story I don’t know what those things are. Writing the story is partly about finding those answers.

What I needed next is all the stuff that makes the story work.

This is a story of ideas and emotions, not action. In fact, almost nothing happens in this story. Imagine trying to pitch this in Hollywood:

“So, Aaron, we open with this thirty-something, Cambridge educated, introspective woman, watching her slightly-burnt-out forty-something husband give a lecture on the art of photography to a bunch of hot female undergrads.”

“Cool – though let’s make the couple younger and make it film rather than photography – Does he screw the undergrads? Does she watch? Does she join in? Is she Bi?”

“No. He gives the lecture and she recalls their life together and some bad stuff that happened to him. Meanwhile he woos her with photographs. Sex is a flashback and there’s almost no dialog.”

“For this you needed a script?”

By the end of the story, I want the reader to love the narrator, to feel sympathy for Philip and to hope that their love can survive what has happened to them.

The first thing that helps me get there is the lecture conceit. The construct of the lecture allows two views of Philip – the direct view based on what he says, and the narrator view. It gives the narrator some distance so that she can see him without interacting with him.

The opening lines show this:

The camera never lies. It is we who… elaborate.

One sentence and he has their attention. By the end of the lecture he will have their devotion–as he has mine. Poor Philip, so many devotees and so little idea of what to do with us.

Here we get a key idea – the link between elaboration, lies and meaning – the first indication of Philip as a flashy performer, and the information that the narrator understands what he is doing, sees him as “poor Philip” and is devoted to him. That’s a lot of information and a reasonable hook

The lecture format allows us to see how Philip interacts with all those undergrads and to know how the narrator reacts to that.

The lecture also supplies a way of dumping ideas directly into the story. The lecture content is a little like music in a movie, it conditions the reader’s listening.

In the coming weeks, you will learn how to see, so that you can lead the elaboration of others.

The art of photography is to use a lie to tell a truth.

The camera is a machine for trapping time. Flypaper for moments of truth.

Each photograph is a time capsule. A message in a bottle.

The lecture also allows a second voice other than the narrators.

Normally, in a first person story, the authorial voice, such as it is, is delivered via the narrator. Here the author gets a second shot via the content of the lecture.

And of course, the content of the lecture is a partial explanation to the reader of what the author (me) is doing – elaborating, leading the perception of the reader.

Finally, the lecture structure anchors the action or at least the narrator’s interior dialogue,

Truth needs distance, not context, … Context distracts, distance provides focus.

This statement leads the narrator to examine the true nature of her relationship with Philip.

The lecture constantly brings the narrator and the reader back to Philip as he is today, keeping him literally centre stage in our imaginations and setting the expectation that something has to happen at the end of the lecture.

The second thing that gets me there is the narrator’s voice. By making the story first person I create the opportunity for intimacy. The tone of her voice shapes our view of the narrator. She comes across as calm, articulate and self-aware with a slightly dry sense of humour: for example she says this of Philip:

His voice is rich and sensual. The serpent spoke to Eve with such a voice, I think.

This shows that she knows Philip is a trickster but that the tricks still work. The structure of the second sentence uses a phrasing that betrays a trained intellect and a love of language and perhaps just a hint of being too serious.

I needed to make her more human than Philip. She is fun underneath her calm exterior. After all, it is partly her joy in life that Philip feeds upon. Hence the reference to pop culture…

Unbidden, a pop song that Philip would wrinkle his nose at, slides into my mind and refuses to leave: “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.”

…that returns quickly to her habitual level of analysis…

That was how he caught me the first time, with his kiss.

I had been kissed before, many times: flirtatious kisses, passionate kisses, eager kisses; but no one had ever kissed me like this. This kiss was a contract, a promise. It was a connection that couldn’t be broken; an indelible brand that changed who I was.

…that leads to the only direct depiction of sex in the story and even that description shows that, for the narrator, sex with Philip is about connection…

The sex that followed was an extension of his kiss. Philip stripped me and pinned me to the floor, entering me without asking, holding my arms out in a cruciform, letting me writhe and struggle but making his cock the pivot of my world.

Finally, I needed to make her vulnerable so that she is easier to love and her later loss can be felt more deeply

When it was over I was crying. Crying because it was over. Crying because I knew he would leave me. Crying because no one would ever fuck me like that again.

Two more things were needed to make the story work – a tragedy to bring the characters into relief and create the opportunity for loss, forgiveness, redemption and hope (hey, why not aim high? If you go there you’re readers will follow you) and a way of using the timeline to add dynamism to a static situation.

I used a train crash to break through the shield that Philip holds between himself and the world. Here was carnage on a scale that he could not change by fiddling with composition, lighting and focal length.

The train crash is real. It was a route I sometimes travelled. I drew upon the emotions I felt when I saw the footage of the crash to help channel some emotion here.

I also wanted to see what would happen to a Dom/Sub relationship when the Dom breaks and the sex goes sour. The narrator told me that all there was left fall back on was love and memory. Philip told me that you could also add hope.

Playing with the timeline is an important part of what makes this story work.

We start with an image of Philip and the narrator in the present day. We perhaps wonder why she is so tolerant of his philandering and why she sees him as “poor Philip”.

Then the lecture triggers a flashback and we get “the cute meet” scene beloved of romantic comedies followed by a lightning-bright brief sex scene, music video style. Then the reflection leads to carnage, death and impotence.

By the time we get back to the lecture our perception of the narrator and Philip has changed. We have been lead to the point where the lecture tells us:

Truth needs distance, not context,

Which triggers the narrator to take a here-and-now look at Philip. Her introspection is no longer a flash back. Her attention and ours are on the lecture.

This sets up Philip’s love song to her. His invitation through photographs. His elaboration on the next step in their lives. Finally we get to see the narrator through Philip’s eyes and what we see is strength and love and hope.

The ending is symbolic. It mirrors the language Philip used in their first meeting but it gives the Philip role to the narrator. It is now her job to lead the elaboration.

I believe a writer makes the reader and implicit promise: if you stick with the journey I take you on, I promise you will know when you’ve arrived. This ending is me trying to deliver on that promise.

So that’s how it works. At least, that’s how I think it works. You may see it differently.


  1. Mike,

    Welcome to the grip.

    Your stuff is always so stylish and professional. It's a pleasure to read your work and see some of the mechanics supporting the story.



  2. Yes it is. Thanks for being on our blog this week. Very instructive. I was inspired by your post on ERWA about crits and went out an bought a book on critiques.


  3. Helen,

    We writers often say our stories just happen, but here you've shown how much thought you put into each step of the story. This doesn't just happen. This is a lot of work, which is why your stories resonate.

  4. Hello, Mike,

    I hadn't read this story before, and I like it very much. I don't know, though, whether I agree with Kathleen.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but your analysis of your own work gives me the sense that you are looking at your own craft and explaining it post hoc. You followed the trail of your thoughts, let the revelations occur to you as you wrote. Later you reviewed what you'd written and figured out just why it does work so very well (and indeed, it does).

    I know that you are something of an analytical person, but I also have the feeling that when you're writing, the emotions and images lead and the intellect comes afterward. Of course an essential part of the craft is the instinct to make choices that ultimately support the story.

    I'd be interested in knowing, btw, how long it took you to write this, and how much time you spent editing/revising the story.



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