What’s In the Box?

wooden box of old photographs

Mar 2, 2022

When I was in grad school, one of my seminars spent an entire class on what I like to call the question of “The Box.”

We aspiring Historians (unknowingly in-training to become jaded Academics) were presented with the following challenge:

If you found a box of photographs and postcards from 100 years ago in your closet, what would you do? Would you use them to write a book, or would you put the box back?

Does the story matter?

The question revolved around the issue of truth. Without the ability to authenticate some sort of “true” story about the items in the box, are they worth our time? Do they matter to History? Should someone bother piecing together their story?

You may not believe this, but intense debate ensued – for nearly 2 hours if I remember correctly! Arguments twisted and turned around the room over the responsibility of telling a story from what was in the box.

One group argued that the postcards and pictures – because we didn’t know who collected them, or how, or why – should just go back in the closet. They should maybe be dusted off now and again for family memories or the like, but they shouldn’t be shared publicly. They shouldn’t be valued for the ideas and emotions and meaning they embody. They shouldn’t lay the groundwork for any story from the Past.

Another set of students argued that we should track down the story of the objects, and then we could begin to consider writing our book about them. If we had letters, maybe, or other forms of “official” documentation, then telling a (hi)story based on the boxed artifacts would be okay.

scattered vintage postcards

YES, the story matters!

I was in a third (very small group).

Like you (I hope), I was ready to start writing! How exciting to find a box full of some mysteries of the past that could give a little hint into how someone lived their life, or what they liked and collected. This was “real” enough for me – evidence that some average person (like me) once collected things (like me) and then forgot about them in a closet (also like me – ha!)

I couldn’t understand how someone could find something so fabulous and conclude it did not offer amazing insights, flashes of life, hints of personality, and all the other important sparks of a great story.

Where to begin?

So, my Nonfiction Friends, Memoir and Narrative alike, where would you begin with this treasure box? Where would you start and what stories would you tell?

As with any story, you need to know your WHY. And there are two big “whys” here: Your WHY and the box’s WHY.

WHY? is a key question for any story you write, but it is especially important if you are working with artifacts from the past, or source materials like journal entries and articles.

 

  • WHY is this a story that you must write? Be as specific as you can be about why the story here calls to you and why you can do to bring it to life. Think about what motivates you to write, and to write about this collection in particular.
  • WHY do the contents of the box go together? What is the central factor that creates a story from the chaos or the haphazard collection? As a nonfiction writer (narrative & memoir alike) you have the tremendous honor and power to make order out of chaos. With a stack of artifacts, this goes from a theoretical to a very material and exciting opportunity. Embrace it!
    stacks of old photographs

    Let’s begin.

    If you have pieces of the Past that are calling to you, inspiring a story, let me know.

    I’m here to listen and help you talk through the story these artifacts are telling you.

    And if you need a plan, I’ve got those, too.

     

    I'm ready to write my book!

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