Monday, August 12, 2013

Join us at the Free Library August 29th

In partnership with Groundswell and AHHAH (Arts Holding Hearts and Minds), we will be hosting a FREE SBYF Memory Writing Workshop on Thursday, August 29th, from 4:30-6:30 PM at The Free Library of Philadelphia.  Come join us!  Our theme is "summer memories" and our team of skilled memory collectors will help you to unlock those happy, suntan-scented memories lost deep in your brain.  After the workshop, all the postcards will be archived in the SBYF memory vault for future generations.

Can't make it?  We've got you covered.  Just mail your summer memory on a postcard to:

1315 Walnut St.
Suite 732
Philadelphia, PA 

...and your memory will be exhibited with all the others we've received.

This is exciting because besides exploring summer memories across many decades...we'll also be exploring summer memories across different neighborhoods.

Also, please contact us if you are interested in joining a memory writing workshop at any of the following locations, operated by the brilliant folks at AHHAH.

August 21 Philadelphia Senior Center with students from World Communications Charter School
August 26. West Chester Senior Center joined by Students at the Hood
August 27 Kennett Area Senior Center and students from the Garage
August 28 Coatesville SBYF  event and Art night, a collaboration with CYWA, Yes And Playback Theatre, Arts Partners Studio, Coatesville Library, and the Coatesville Senior Center.

*Groundswell is an initiative of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance whose focus is bringing "organizations and communities together 'to do something GOOD for change."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The SBYF Memory Library is Almost Ready!

Meet Mr. Ray Bowman, age 104.  We were so moved after meeting and interviewing Ray that we decided to create a big bundle of postcards, sent from different moments in his life, from what it was like to hear his grandfather tell Civil War stories, to what it was like to read in bed by gas lamp, to being astonished by a simple light switch, to meeting Bing Crosby, and all the way up to the present...when we watch documentaries about the Civil War on 70 inch flatscreen TVs in air conditioned houses.  What a life!  We had each moment illustrated (as above) by SBYF artist Alex Mashett and then presented them, in a fun ceremony, to his family.

You'll be able to read Ray's postcards, and many others....NEXT MONTH.  Yes, we're almost there.  We've partnered with the creative team over at VIUS and are almost ready to unveil our custom-built digital memory library.  We will be featuring postcards from our archive regularly, and you'll also be able to add your own memories from anywhere in the world just by grabbing a free library card!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Announcing the SBYF Junior Memory Collector Program

SBYF's fearsome fleet of metal and ink.

Today's a proud day for us here at SBYF.  

As we've grown over the years from a single memory (boy and grandfather, holding hands) a story scribbled on a yellow legal a road a fledgling, uncertain another, bigger road a national writing program, I've always daydreamed that, somewhere down the road, we'd be able to create a mentorship program for young writers and artists.   I think of myself at age 18 - I knew so badly that I wanted to be a writer, but I had absolutely no idea where to begin, what stories I was meant to be telling, or how to tell them well. For me, SBYF has been the most demanding, rewarding education a young writer could ever have. Thousands of times now I've met someone, listened to their story, and tried, to the best of my ability, to transform that raw material - that memory - into something more than a memory, into art (gag! but it's true). The fact that we use postcards as a medium only makes it more demanding - how can I convey real intimacy in such a small amount of space? Funny to think that I bought that original postcards and stamps with the money that would've paid for a graduate writing class. So, as I said, I always dreamed that someday I could share that experience with other young writers and artists. But it was always way out there, just a little speck in the distance.

Well, here we are.

Today we're proud to announce the SBYF Junior Memory Collector program, a mentorship program for young writers, artists, and leaders of the future.

What does a Junior Memory Collector do? In short, you explore the world around you in search of stories.  You lead SBYF memory writing workshops, operate SBYF Memory Stations, and network with other creative organizations.  You work closely with SBYF’s team of professional writers, illustrators, designers, film-makers, and sound engineers.  Most importantly, you make a real difference in the lives of other human beings by helping to preserve their memories before they are lost so they can be passed on to future generations.

Oh, and this: those chosen are issued their very own manual typewriter (some of which are close to 100 years old!), which have been generously donated from folks around the Philadelphia area!!

Without further adieu, we proudly announce of first class of JMCs, whom you'll be getting to know a lot better over the next few months.

Emily Cornuet

Four things about Emily:

(1) I am a BFA Sculpture major at Tyler School of Art
(2) My favorite thing is hearing interesting stories told by colorful people
(3)  I like words...a lot
(4) If I call you a rockstar that is the highest form of praise you can receive from me.

Carlos Miranda

Four things about Carlos:

(1) Born in Honduras
(2) Study at Drexel University
(3) I can make a loud clicking noise with my tongue
(4) I know all the words to Fergalicious by heart.

Emilie Mehler

Four things about Emilie:

(1)Emilie did ballet for fourteen years, acted, and sang in the choirs all throughout her high school career.
(2)She loves to travel and will be going to Austria, Germany, and possibly a quick stop in Prague over the winter break of 2013-2014.
(3)She nineteen years old and is a freshman at Temple University where her older brother attends and her father is an adjunct professor.
(4)Has never been to Disney World/Land and doesn’t plan on going.

Alex Ferguson

(1) I am currently an Advertising major and Spanish minor at Temple University.
(2) I didn’t know I had two middle names until age 13, it was something of an identity crisis.
(3) I am a huge music person, I love attending concerts and I love making people mixed CDs, especially to cheer them up.
(4) I studied abroad in Spain for a month and fully intend on returning to live there someday.

Note: The SBYF Junior Memory Collector Program operates on a Spring/Summer - Fall/Winter cycle.  Applications for our next class will open in August; all info will be posted here on the SBYF Blog.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Project Update - Winter 2013


Unfortunately this will be brief, but I wanted to give you a glimpse into what's going on here at SBYF HQ now, and what you can expect for 2013.

What's going on is this:

We asked you to mail us memories in 2012, and Whoa Lordy, did you ever.  THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!  We are currently going through them one by one by glorious one. I can't even guess yet what the number is going to be, and it's growing faster all the time.  All these amazing memories (plus the ones from the Memory Stations) will be archived in The Vault, for future generations, as promised.

For example:

So you want to know What It Was Like On a Random Winter Day in Maine in the 1950s?

(click for full size - strongly recommended)


You want to see them too, right?  We are currently designing and building a digital system where you will be able to explore our Library of Human Experience (at least a small part of it, to start), and maybe even have beautiful postcards from different decades delivered directly to your inbox.  That is our number one priority right now, and it's going to take a while to get it together, but it's coming.

In the meantime, you can still create postcards with your local communities/schools, or just with your own friends and loved ones at home.

We are also excited and honored to be presenting at several conferences this year, including:

*The Meeting of the Minds, March 2, in St. Paul, MN
*Generations United, July 30-Aug. 2, in Washington DC

And several others come see us!

And finally, if you are in the Philly area and interested in volunteering with us or joining as an intern, please email us at  There's lots to do and it's gonna be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Columbus ----> HOME (Digital Postcards)

This is the story of a young postcard.  

It spent the first three months of its life inside a cardboard box with 10,000 of its identical siblings.  The box itself was inside a car, beside a trash bag full of sweaty socks, t-shirts, and underwear.  Bottles of motor oil and transmission fluid swished around whenever the car turned.  For months the car turned this direction and that - somehow not breaking down - zigging and zagging, sometimes up to ten hours a day.

Then one day the postcard heard a sound: snipping.  Someone was cutting the plastic bands on the outside of the box.  And then another sound: tape ripping.  

Light poured into the box.

A hand reached down...

Okay, that's enough from the postcard's perspective.  By the end of this post you'll see who ended up getting that 10,000th postcard.  But first we start in Wheeling, West Virginia. 

I don't want to badmouth Wheeling, so I'll just say it's a rotary phone in a digital world.

It did have a beautiful path along the river, though, which you should walk if you're ever there on a perfect Fall day.  

And if you look close, there's subtle beauty where you least expect it.   

Remember when you actually had to put coins into parking meters and then turn the knob?  Remember that feeling?  Remember that sound

So I was sitting in my car beside this meter, reading the HUGE map I have (it's practically life-sized), plotting my route eastward, when suddenly I heard a snap!

And then a boom!

"Holy crap!" someone yelled.

I lowered the map, looked behind me.  Didn't see anything.

"Holy CRAP!" the guy said again, incredulous.  

So then I got out and walked around back, where I stood with my hands on my hips.   

"Did you see that?"  the guy asked.  "Dude, this HUGE branch just fell off this tree and just missed your car."

"Yeah man, I see that."

Here's the bizarre part: there hadn't been a lick of breeze all day.  Not even a tickle on the leaves.

Imagine a very tall man standing there, waiting for a bus and, for no reason, his right arm falls off. 

"HOLY CRAP!" the guy said.

If I'd parked one Shaquille O'Neal sneaker-length further back, that branch would've smashed through my back window.  One full Mugsy Bogues and it would've cracked my windshield.  Look how close it was to the bumper - which somehow it didn't hit.   

Note: I've already made my argument against fate, but, jeez, that was pretty weird. 

And then...

I drove on to Pittsburgh, where I was staying with my friend Quelcy.  Just as I parked outside her house she pulled up with her boyfriend, Jono, who I'd never met.  We shook hands and exchanged the normal pleasantries.  "Oh where you from?"  "Oh, Philly, me too, that's funny, where exactly?"

Turned out, we were not only from the same town, but had grown up on the same block!  I'm seven years older, but we shared many of the same memories: same school, seam teachers, same local park, same neighbors, and so on.

I purposely held off on giving out the 10,000th postcard the next day, so I could present it to Jono at the final public 10,000 Strangers event.   

And wouldn't you know the memory he chose was the same duck pond in the parable that began this whole project?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

New Orleans -----> Columbus, OH (Digital Postcards)

I set off on a journey I thought was about talking; turns out, it's been about listening.

This is Alisha.  I met her at the Memory Station I set up in New Orleans.

"Hi.  What you doin'?"

"I'm collecting memories."

"From who?"

"From anyone."     

 "Hmmm.  So how's it work?"

"Simple.  You tell me a memory - anything you want - and I'll type it up here on my typewriter.  When I get home, an illustrator will illustrate the memory, and we'll preserve it in our archive."

"Why you wanna do that?"

The Memory Stations are really peaceful for me.  That probably seems like a strange word choice, but I just spent the past thirty minutes rummaging around in my brain like you'd rummage through that bag full of Scrabble letters, and it's the best I can do.  It's peaceful.  And fun. 
I usually set up the Memory Stations around 5 or 6pm.  After a hectic day of being a disruptor (albeit a very polite and earnest one) - it's nice to just sit and be still.  The hardest part of the whole process is NOT finding a public area to "open up shop" (that's easy), but finding a place to park close enough to that area.  This is necessary because my typewriter weighs as much as a small donkey. 

As I said before, so much of art (any art) is shaped by constraints, and in this case, the most interesting constraint is time.  The best metaphor I can come up with is that it's like being a caricature artist - you sit down and I render the image (your memory) as best I can, based on the raw material you give me...with the twist that at any moment you may abruptly get up and leave whether I'm finished or not (when the bus comes).  All you leave behind is your unique handprint traced onto a postcard and, if you want, your name and a photo.  

"Is it okay if it's not a happy memory?" Alisha asked.

"It can be any kind of memory you want."

A postcard is limited in so many ways...but the one thing it can do, and do well, is capture and share just one human experience.



So I'm down in New Orleans and I want to know what it is like to live there.  Or to have lived through Katrina.  That is a human experience that I am capable of, but have not had.  Same when I'm talking to someone who lived through the Depression or fought in WWII.

So Alisha began talking, and I scribbled notes as fast as I could on a yellow legal pad.  And after she got on the bus, while it was fresh in my head, I typed it up.

New Orleans

I have to warn you, this is not a happy memory.

Earlier this year two guys invaded our home.  They went out back first and shot my uncle in the head while he was sleeping.  They shot my auntee in the eye, though somehow she survived.  There were more shots, and then they came back inside.   

There was no time to run.  I felt in a daze.  “Please don’t kill me,” I begged, “I have a one year old son.  Please don’t kill me.”  He raised the gun. 

“Please,” I begged.  “What do you want?”

I’ll never forget his chilling response.  He said: “Souls.”

Then I heard a click.  The gun was out of bullets.  He ran outside, and the cops shot him.  He bled out in the street.  They caught the second man and he is awaiting trial. 

Apparently he had some history with my uncle.  I don’t really know the whole story, or even want to.  Every morning I kiss my son and I thank God for letting me be here today. 

We still live in the same neighborhood.

How many of you reading out there have had a gun pointed at your head?  How about had the gun pointed at your head and the trigger pulled, but the gun was out of bullets?

When she told me what the man had said - "Souls" - that was literally the most chilling thing I had ever heard or read or could ever imagine.

And this was just the person next to me, waiting for the bus.

She got on the bus and went on with her life.   

I've never had an experience remotely close to that, and I don't have a one year old son.  But I felt that, you know?  I was there.  It shook me.  And that's remarkable, this power of empathy we have.  I do know what it means to love someone, and to lose someone, and to be afraid, and I can use the fragments of those emotions to put myself in her place (just for an instant). 

Another thing: it's amazing - astonishing - how open people have been, within seconds of meeting me.  This doesn't have to mean a "confession" or some sad, heavy trauma (although I get that); just as often I get a total stranger telling me all about the first time they fell in love.      

So anyway, on to the photos, but, as you can probably sense, I have been totally inspired and energized by this whole experience.  It's brought such clarity, such perspective, such - here's that word again - peace.

Which is strange...

because it's been so effing crazy.  

 Here's your obligatory skyline shot of Atlanta, featuring just a few of the 10,000 bugs I killed on my windshield. 

You slap a few stickers on your car and some a-hole just has to come along and one-up ya.  

So, I went from New Orleans, to Gulfport, to Mobile, to Montgomery, to Atlanta, to Woodstock (Ga.) to Athens, back to Monroe (Ga.) to leave a postcard for the current oldest person on Earth (116...I showed up at 8am but she wasn't seeing visitors...left a postcard...fingers crossed), then up to one of my favorite places, Asheville, North Carolina (pictured above, 12 Bones BBQ).

From Asheville I drove north for a return visit to the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN.  Here's a beautiful little backstreet there: 

 And then I drove north again, up into Kentucky.

I followed the sign above to a nursing home in rural Kentucky and showed up unannounced at about 8am.  There I talked with a woman named Muriel, who told me all about what it was like to grow up on a farm in Kentucky in the 1940s.  Do you remember where you went on your first date?  Hers was picking blackberries.   

I stopped in Louisville, then it was on to St. Louis.


And another....
And another....
And this....
As I was packing up the table and the typewriter after a long day in St. Louis, I witnessed a woman being reunited with her lost dog.  I mean, I saw the exact moment it happened, right next to my friggin' car!  She told me that people had been calling her all morning - not even people who'd found the dog, just people concerned and asking if they could help - and finally a man called and said he'd found the dog.  Everyone was crying and laughing and hugging...I mean, total strangers were hugging...I got pulled was awesome.

(Side note: one of those random huggers gave me her Holiday Inn points so I could have a free place to stay that night...she just wrote down the number and gave me all the info right on the spot....if you're out there reading this...thank you!)

From St. Louis it was on to Springfield, Ill., where we had a fun workshop with the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. 

And now here I am in Dayton, Ohio with one final story.  

The man in the center there is Bruce.  I first met Bruce two years ago, when I came through Dayton on one of the earlier, proto SBYF tours.  He's amazing.  The man could power your entire house just by stepping inside it; he just radiates warmth and positive energy.  You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Bruce has Alzheimer's. He was diagnosed at age 61. 

I was standing at the front door, welcoming folks to our workshop, when I saw him coming through the parking lot.  I remembered immediately.  Bruce!  He had a walker now, which was different, but otherwise he looked exactly the same.  Bruce!

Then I began to worry.  Would he remember me? 

He hobbled up and clasped my hand...I mean just swallowed my hand in his huge paw, and smiled.  "Hi," he said.  "So nice to meet you.  I'm excited to hear about your grandfather."

I won't lie, I was a little sad, but I understood; it comes with the territory.

So a few minutes later we began the program, which usually starts with me reading the SBYF storybook.  I began reading and in the middle of the first paragraph - the whole "Have you ever really looked at the spaces between your fingers?" intro - when Bruce shouted out: "Wait a minute!  Weren't you here a few years ago?"

"Yes!" I said.

"I remember," he said.  "I'm already in the vault, I think.  Can I be in it again?"

"Of course!"

He smiled, and everyone laughed.  "Okay, sorry for interrupting."

And the workshop went on.  When it came time to "zoom in" on a memory for the postcard, Bruce wasn't sure what he wanted to write, but finally came up with this:


So I thought I'd end with that - that beautiful scene, which Bruce asked us to illustrate for him and preserve in our archive.  

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from Alisha's haunting memory ("Souls..."), but it just goes to show the incredible variance and potential of human experience.

UPDATE: 7/20/13 At one of our school workshops this year, we had a 4th grade Memory Artist create original artwork for the front of Bruce's postcard, then sent it to him and his family.