screen memories

by Megan Abbott

A week or two ago, I wrote a post about muses and referred to a particular photograph, long lost, that had inspired me:

It was a photo I clipped from a magazine. I think it was from the early 1960s, black and white, and depicted a woman at a party, seen only from behind, the back of her head, shoulders, wasp waist. The black dress she wore had, if I recall, a dramatic “V” in back and you felt you were behind her, walking into a lively scene that she somehow owned. You felt her hectic power.

Last night, during a purgative and highly unpleasant process of getting rid of old files and ephemera accumulated during the last 15 years or so, I found the photo. Here it is:


This was an alarming discovery. Yes, it is a black and white photo of a woman, from behind. But aside from those facts, I had completely misremembered it. It’s not a party, there’s no plunging V, she doesn’t seem to “own the scene.” And I didn’t remember the man at all. And when I look at it now, it seems like a rather sad domestic moment, a hectoring woman and a put-upon fellow, maybe?

I have long been fascinated by the way memory distorts, rewrites—is in fact a kind of art in and of itself. But I’ve never seen it in myself in such plain terms. When I found the picture, I almost didn’t believe it could be the same one that propelled my first novel. And I wonder now at the power of one’s memory to make what one wants or needs from one’s experiences. (That, of course, is the kind of rabbit hole one might do best to avoid when digging through one’s past!)

But gosh, I’d even remembered her, with feverish intensity, as a brunette.

8 Responses to “screen memories”

  1. The way you describe the photo makes me think of Bette Davis in the birthday party scene from “All About Eve” – but now I am not sure that she wore a dress with a plunging V in the back, either. I’ll have to check.

  2. Oh, Clair, that sounds right—I wonder if I morphed the one into the other in my head!

  3. It DOES sound like all about eve! I had a similar thing recently–a book I had been looking for ages and ages and remembered as holding all the secrets of the universe. I finally found it again and, you know, it’s OK. But not real special or anything.

    So which book was inspired by the picture? How did that start?

  4. I’m glad that photo!

  5. My first book, Die a Little–it’s so funny because clearly I must have so transformed her in my head into the character in the book that the picture I had in my head was of MY character. Sara, do you picture your characters visually? I don’t always, but sometimes.

    Hey, Joey!

  6. I have a hard time with the details but I picture how they dress, hair, body types, etc. But the face is always a little vague–I wonder if you have the same thing, esp. since your photo is face-less? So which character was she in Die a Little, the wife or the sister?

  7. That’s how it is for me, though even vaguer I think! And never anything about the face itself. So strange!
    (the wife in Die a Little)

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