Creative writing relies on images: three-dimensional mental pictures that inspire thoughts and feelings, movies in the reader’s mind. As writers, that’s what we are always trying to make happen in our reader’s brain—a sustained moving picture that’s real, visual, sensory, and alive, just like a dream is.
THE PRINCIPLES OF IMAGES
We all access these images—the alive, moving picture in our mind’s eye—when we read, play, write creatively, or dream. When we listen to our friend tell a story, we may be able to see, in our mind’s eye, the people and situation she’s talking about. When children play, they are hooked into a live image. They are not pretending they are riding a horse. They are riding a horse; they can feel its reins, sense its warmth, hear it whinny. The story as it plays out on our mental movie screen is physical; it’s entirely real. Using images—creating live mini-movies for your reader—is your most essential go-to strategy as a writer.
Your most powerful images will be those that activate the five senses. If asked, you could tell me what the desk chair you are sitting in right now feels like, what it smells like, what sound it makes when you drag it across a tile floor. You could actually feel what it’s like to touch the horse if you wanted to. Your images will have sound, dialogue, visuals, textures, tastes, and smells. And your reader will experience your work as though it’s alive.
The book is a thing in itself and it is not me. There is no ego in it. I am glad that you sense that while I am in it and of it, I am not the book. It is much more than I am. The pictures have come to me out of some hugeness and sometimes they have startled me. But I am glad of them.
— JOHN STEINBECK
Images Are Active
Creative writing, at its core, uses people in action to create a powerful moving picture made inside another person’s head when that person simply reads words on a page. Images are bundles of memory, emotion, action, physical details, and dialogue, put together smoothly for the reader to experience being transported fully into your world. In an image, everything happens at once, providing a rich, seamless experience. The reader is there. This is the essential difference—moving images—between what we call “creative” writing and other kinds of writing. Creative writing is writing that triggers a living, moving picture in your audience’s brain.
Listen to Jenifer Hixson read aloud her memoir, “Where There’s Smoke,” easily found online at The Moth. As you listen, notice what you see in your mind’s eye. Now go through the piece, which begins on page 162, and see what you can determine about how she creates the moving image. What does she do or not do to enable her audience to see, to “be there”?
When we read history or criticism or a book on how to rebuild our engine block, we respond with very different mental strategies. History and other kinds of writing require intellectual work on the part of the reader; the writing is abstract, analytical, and thought-based. In creative writing, we dwell in the sensory, moving, living image. Art makes meaning not with ideas and concepts, but with pictures.
My task is to make you hear, feel, and see. That and no more, and that is everything. — JOSEPH CONRAD
Reading Is Image Viewing
Read the following excerpts, or, if you can, have someone read them aloud to you while you close your eyes. As you read, concentrate on the picture in your head. What do you see? When there isn’t a picture in your head, what is happening? Can you break down the different ways in which parts of your mind are activated? Can you isolate the “thinking” mind versus the “seeing” mind versus the “experiencing” mind?
Go slowly. Reading this way takes a lot of focus and a little practice. You are trying to watch what happens in your mind as you read.
I’ve never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind. This blind man was late forties, a heavy-set, balding man with stooped shoulders, as if he carried a great weight there. He wore brown slacks, brown shoes, a light-brown shirt, a tie, a sports coat. Spiffy. He also had this full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind. Fact was, I wished he had a pair. At first glance, his eyes looked like anyone else’s eyes. But if you looked close, there was something different about them. Too much white in the iris, for one thing, and the pupils seemed to move around in the sockets without his knowing it or being able to stop it. Creepy.
— RAYMOND CARVER, “Cathedral”
Will was on the station platform, leaning against a baggage truck. He had a duffle bag between his shoes and a plastic cup of coffee in his mittened hand. He seemed to have put on weight, girlishly, through the hips, and his face looked thicker to me, from temple to temple. His gold-rimmed spectacles looked too small.
My mother stopped in an empty cab lane, and I got out and called to Will.
— MARY ROBISON, “Pretty Ice”
In the cul-de-sac shaded
by trees, Marissa and I
played all summer where magnolias
hung, hands withering over us
— ELY SHIPLEY, “Magnolia”
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
O God, he said. O God.
He wants to kill me, Mom.
— NATALIE DIAZ, “My Brother at 3 a.m.”
Which of the passages above created the most vivid moving picture in your mind? What or whom do you remember “seeing”? One of the best ways to read as a writer is to actively notice: What did you see as you read?
Read again. Read the four passages a second or third or fourth time. Watch, again, for any images to flash in your mind’s eye. Practice reading with an awareness of what it is you are “flashing on” as you read. This takes concentration: the exact same kind of concentration you will practice as you write.
You can observe a lot by just watching.
— YOGI BERRA
Practice reading to try to notice the difference between knowing and seeing. They are two different ways for the mind to apprehend information. Report writing explains: “My mother confronted me about the drinking” or “My kid’s coach was an amazing lecturer.” Most writing tells or reports information. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s very different from what we do. We create images, and creative writing shows instead of telling. A mother walks her daughter down to the pond. It’s a beautiful day. The daughter has a hangover; she is practically tiptoeing. The mother brings up the forbidden topic; this is the day she says out loud what no one has said out loud: “You have a drinking problem.” Boom. There’s an image, and it’s alive, moving. “You can’t teach speed,” the coach told our family. We were all huddled in the cold. My little brother was zipping down the field, truly that kid was a blur of blue. “You can’t teach speed.” Creative writing works—and powerfully so—in images.
Try tracking images. Write out what you see in your mind’s eye when you read the four excerpts on pages 134–35. Be as careful and specific as you can—jot down what you flash on as you read. Either in class or at home, compare responses with a partner. if there is a lot of variety in what’s seen in these images by other readers, discuss why.
· Two people (a man meeting a blind man, a girlfriend picking up her boyfriend, two childhood friends playing together, a mother confronting a son in trouble)
· People (entities) doing things, active things. If they are thinking, the thoughts are active, rich, specific, detailed, and action-oriented. (The girlfriend notices her boyfriend has changed a lot since she last saw him.)
· A specific moment in time that bounds, or frames, the image—a living room, a train station platform, a lawn, a doorstep
Every mind is different. Each person’s set of experiences is different, so the picture you see will vary from your teacher’s, your friend’s, the author’s. Reading is viewing, and every viewer is a little bit different; we all come from different families, different backgrounds, different cultures, different experiences. If you grew up in the southern United States, you may have a very specific image of those magnolia trees and their creepy hands. If you have picked people up at a train station or been in a long-distance relationship, you’ll view “Pretty Ice” slightly differently than will someone who hasn’t had those experiences. If you have never seen a blind man or thought much about blindness, you may not “see” clear-cut images when you read Raymond Carver’s passage. You may only have a general sense of what he is talking about. Our job as writers is to create a living, moving image and to trust that what comes to life in the reader’s mind is fairly close to what we had in mind.
Try to notice this—when you are skimming over a passage, and when your brain is working in image mode. You want to notice the writing techniques that make you see in images as you read.
The more you read, though, the more wide-ranging your transporting experiences will be. If you don’t see a lot right away, keep practicing. The more images you expose your brain to, the more perceptive you will become. A side benefit of this practice: You will see more nuances in real-life situations, too. Dating, job interviews, interactions with teachers and parents—you’ll be reading them all as a writer does, alert and attentive to the little gestures and actions and specifics that reveal the inner lives and fascinating aspects of your subjects.
The culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.