Writers on Writing #31: Brandon Grew
A Different Kind of Photo Album
As with any other young child, the occurrence of a bedtime story at the close of each day was an essential ritual to me. Leading the pack of my favorites was The Three Little Pigs, which I had memorized in its entirety and would recite during the course of each reading. I can't remember all the details of this obsession, as I was so young at the time, but I do recall that in the edition we had, there was a certain illustration of the wolf that transfixed me. In my memory, he's no more than a dim vignette, drawn in a very Disney kind of way and wearing green overalls. He was grinning slyly of course, and his eyes and teeth were acutely rendered—both glowing against the black fur and blotchy foliage. I was legitimately frightened by him, but more possessed by a morbid curiosity. I'd stare him down as bravely as I dared while in the arms of my mother, reciting the words I was too young to know how to read.
At about the same age, I developed another odd fascination with a painting in my grandparents' collection of Wild West reference books. It was a Frederick Remington work called The Stampede, which my grandmother says I'd stare at for up to an hour at a time. Why no one thought it better to give me something else to do, I don't know. “I think it scared you a little,” she has said, “but you'd just sit there on the floor glued to it for the longest time.”
Quite hauntingly, the painting depicts a nighttime storm that has startled a herd of cattle, all bathed in a smoky green pallor. Through the rain, a skeletal lightning bolt strikes near the tail of the panicked herd. In the foreground is a charging horse, levitating in mid-gallop, whose stricken eye and gaping mouth betray the determined resolve of its young rider. The cattle flail around them as the other ranchers struggle in their muddy efforts to quell the frenzy.
Images have always seemed to be important to me, and by time I reached college, I thought I'd focus my studies on their history. Nothing really gave me as much joy or stimulation as considering an image. This of course translated into an absolute adoration of film. When it came time to declare, I was sure I was going to be an art historian.
I was clever enough to be able to push around a paintbrush in an acceptable enough way, but once the practical art courses began, I found my resolve had begun to dilute. I wasn't going to be an art historian after all.
Luckily, I had meanwhile been taking classes for my English minor and had rediscovered my fondness of storytelling. Really, I'd always been telling stories. As a slightly older child, I dictated to my mother, who patiently recorded everything on our typewriter. At that time, most were thinly veiled mysteries that smacked of whatever plot I'd either most recently read in myHardy Boys series or watched on Scooby-Doo and Murder She Wrote. The culprit in my daring tales of intrigue was usually a flatly malicious character named Smith who always wore a black leather jacket. I didn't know who Agatha Christie was in those days, but I'm sure I would have decided we were kindred spirits.
Once I determined that being an art historian was no longer a good idea for me, I quickly began my love affair with a woman who would forever change my life: Virginia Woolf. True, she had been dead almost as long and my grandmother had been alive, but once I read Mrs Dalloway, I was struck, as with that jaundiced lightning that sparked the stampede, and I wanted to learn how to do what she had done. I wanted to learn how to tell a story as visceral and organic to the human experience as Woolf had done with Clarissa Dalloway.
Meanwhile, I was supplementing my reading like any good college student does; I was watching movies. One of my writing professors and I shared a fondness for the tragic and beautiful, so we often exchanged recommendations. I slowly began to learn the language of storytelling in a way not already too unfamiliar to me: with images. In class, we dissected scenes from various films, discussing the development and employment of urgency, empathy, and originality, learning how the creation of literature was much more a sensory experience than I had otherwise understood.
Stories began to come, and poems and essays, all of which, I realized, were transcriptions of some shadowy movie flickering in my head, littered with snippets I've memorized since childhood; a nebula, Natalie Wood in a doorway, a beached whale, orange peels on a bedside table. The languages of film, photography, painting, and writing have all blurred, and now I write graphic match cuts; I add imprimatura and collage to my drafting process. Writing helps me keep a different kind of photo album—one that both records and invents the world as I’d much rather remember it.
A graduate of Boise State University, Brandon Grew currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana, where he works and writes.