To create a live image to work from as a writer, you answer a set of questions. Ground yourself in space and time in order to generate images.
Grounded in images, your work will be instantly alive. Oriented in place and time, you hit the ground running. Trust your reader and trust the power of images—they will provide the second half of the equation. Write from this deeply experiential point of view. Instead of doing a rough draft, practice anchoring yourself in time and space before you write. You will save hours of revision time.
Instead of writing, “Hannah hated hearing her brother Brian complain … ,” which is a conclusion about a memory—all thought, no action, no image—translate the thought into an image.
Read the poem “Still-Life” by Katie Ford (p. 158). Is there any thinking in this poem, or is it entirely in image? Try a “still-life” poem of your own, in which you go outside and stare at a scene and write down only what you see.
Before you write, every single time, be securely in the moment you are writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or a play. Know exactly where your character/self is in time and space. It doesn’t matter if your work is based on your life or totally made up. Become the person you are writing and jot down: Where are you? Where is the other person in this poem or memoir or story? What can you hear? What meal was just eaten? What clothes are you (as your character) wearing? Get in the habit of writing anchored in space and time. The drawing technique presented earlier is extremely useful. When you slip out of the image, practice translating your thoughts back into pictures: full-blown moving images.
I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture.
— HENRI MATISSE
Deciding where and when you are going to point your vision, and staying tightly in that one space and time, is the secret to powerful image-based creative writing.
Read Dylan Landis’s “In My Father’s Study upon His Death” (p. 161). This is a list essay. Which images do you “see” in your mind’s eye as you read? What is the time and place she chose to write? Does she veer from her chosen time and place in this piece?
QUESTIONS TO ASK: Orienting Yourself in Images before Writing
Before you write, always locate yourself with an image. Use these questions to locate yourself, your writing eye, deeply within the image before you start writing. Answer the orienting questions before beginning any piece of creative writing.
1. Where are we? What room, neighborhood, town, county, place?
2. What time is it? What minute, hour, day, month, year?
3. What is the weather outside like? What’s the atmosphere inside like (lighting, hot/cold, smoky, comfortable, etc.)?
4. Who is there, “onstage”? Who just left? Who is nearby?
5. Who is expected?
6. What just happened?
7. How old is each person “onstage”?
8. What are people wearing? What do they have in their hands?
9. What is in the room/location? What “stuff” is around?
10. What is the dominant smell?
11. What is (or are) the dominant sound (or sounds)?
12. As you gaze around the image, what else do you notice?
CREATING WITH IMAGES
Focus on People in Action
Now that you know how to launch an image, begin working with images by focusing on two essential components of the image: people (or beings of some kind) and action (meaningful movement by the people or beings).
Few creative works are purely abstract—no people, no action, nothing we can see. Even poems about beautiful sunsets or perfect, still fields often imply people and action.
Noncreative writing begins with ideas, principles, or theories. Creative writing begins with Joe, in a tree, watching his grandmother’s front yard, where a fight is breaking out.
Creative writing is rooted in individuals, struggling and interacting with the physical world, and others in that world. It’s easiest to create pictures your reader can see when you have two or more entities. People alone are often thinking. Thoughts aren’t usually interesting enough on their own to sustain creative writing. But two or more people—that attracts the eye. These ingredients—two people, something happening—give you the spark you need to ignite images.
Seeing is polysensory, combining the visual, tactile, and kinesthetic senses. — ROBERT M CKIM
Read Mary Robison’s short story “Pretty Ice” (p. 166) slowly, out loud. Read it a second time, carefully noticing where the story shows people in action. The entire story is in images, isn’t it? Belle balances her accounts, reckoning her bank balance and the amount of love she has to give. Notice how the image of a person in action also points to what’s going on inside the character’s psyche. When Belle makes her way across the frozen pond that is her yard (life?), water seeps in her shoes. Does someone have “cold feet”? Yes. By focusing on people in action, the author creates, with images, a complex, fascinating portrait of two women, frozen, stunted by grief. Notice how, after the opening scene, the characters spark because there’s conflict between the mother and daughter, and then when the triangle is introduced, there’s conflict between all three characters: Belle, her mother, and Will. The entire story is in real time, in action, in scene, in image. When Robison describes setting, it’s never as background—it’s because Belle’s mother, an awful driver, plows into the cab lane, or her cigarette smoke blends with the acrid, yellow smoke of the dying midwestern town.
Choose six of the thought examples on pages 139–40 to translate into images. Take each thought and translate it into an image, a moving picture, that will create something alive in the reader’s mind. Do the anchoring activity each time, using your sketch or floor plan, so you are firmly in the room, in the image, before you start to write. Read a few of these short passages out loud either in class or on your own. Ask your group to tell you what else they can see in your picture. Do they guess any of the items from your jotted list correctly? Do they see things you didn’t even mention in your writing but had in mind when you wrote? In your group, rank your most successfully vivid images from most to least effective.
Collect your creative writing pieces—all your drafts—from the course so far. Using a marker, go through your writing and underline and label as many conclusions, emotion descriptions, thought reports, and explanations as you can. Do you tend to rely on one of these four image killers more than others? Write a brief analysis of your particular image-killing habits, and list a few of your strongest images.
hink from within Images
How do writers use thoughts, then, in their work? Sparingly. And only when firmly, deeply anchored in the image. Make sure you have an image up and running, with action and moving pictures, before you offer the reader a thought, an insight, a conclusion, or a comment.
Merely to see is not enough. It is necessary to have a fresh, vivid, physical contact with the object you draw through as many of the senses as possible—and especially through the sense of touch.
— KIMON NICOLAIDES
Read the following passages. Which ones are more grounded, providing a flash or a moving picture in your mind? Which rely on reporting or present generalized thought and not images?
I love my freedom. My relationships, especially the one with Dana, were always really strained, especially after the deadly three-month period. There is no reason for people to try to control each other so totally.
I am mad at you
But you make me laugh
I’m still mad at you
But now I’m laughing
We are the same.
Our hair, our eyes, our interests.
BOB: This party sucks.
JEN: I know. It is so ridiculous.
BOB: Why did we even come?
JEN: You wanted to talk to you know who.
BOB: I just can’t stop thinking about him, you know?
JEN: I do know.
I’d peer into the front window, breath fogging the sale signs,
catching snippets of my father’s profile appearing and disappearing behind the tall cardboard stacks. Once I slipped back into the store,
wandering the aisles, master of my own cart, loading it to bursting
— SEBASTIAN MATTHEWS, “Buying Wine”
Which of these passages engages you most fully, really makes something happen for you in your mind’s eye? What causes the image to pop into your head?
Place the passages above, numbered one through four, in order from the most thought-oriented (you process the writing through the analytical part of your brain) to the most imagistic (you see a picture of something in your mind’s eye).
Remember that different readers experience images differently. You may not “see” the same images as your classmates. It depends, in part, on the quality of the writing, but also on your life experiences, your tastes as a reader, and how experienced a reader you are. It’s useful for you to practice sensitizing yourself to the experiential qualities of creative writing. As you do so, always keep this in mind: Thoughts distance us from images. In creative writing, in art, be careful with thoughts. Be generous with images. The thoughts will take care of themselves; readers are more interested in their own thoughts and conclusions, not yours. Trust your reader; trust your material. If you are faithful to the image, the truth—and better ideas than you could ever “think” of—will come out.
A WORD ON IDEAS
Ideas are giant super-thoughts. A lot of nonwriters think that what writers do is Have Great Ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers See Great Images. In fact, ideas can potentially be bad for writers. When Dylan Landis wanted to write about her father’s death, she didn’t want to emote. She didn’t want to fall into clichés about grief. She very much wanted to mark the occasion of his passing and reveal how powerfully affected she was by sitting in his study. As she went through his office that night, she was stunned by what she found there. She’d known her father, and she had not, at all. Both were true. Instead of trying to tell the reader that, and risking the writing falling flat, she set out to create a movie view of his office, by focusing on only the things she found. No thoughts. No feelings. Just the list of actual things. She trusted, absolutely, that her reader would “get it” by simply seeing the images. She didn’t need to explain. She didn’t need to share her feelings. The reader would know.
People have to go out of their minds before they can come to their senses.
— TIMOTHY LEARY
Many writers have ideas for writing. When the idea is a picture in the brain, when the idea isn’t in words yet, it is viable. But many “ideas” for writing are dead on arrival—the thought demons have already fed, and all you really have is a carcass. For example, you have an idea for a poem about your grandmother. Often, starting from the thought—Grandma was beautiful, even in old age—is more difficult, more distancing. Better to start with a description of you and her, in a room, on a particular day, what her toes looked like, what she said. Get in the habit of working from images. The ideas will take care of themselves, and your writing will be fresher, richer, more original. And smarter.
Don’t think. Write. Don’t make this work cerebral. Keep it sensory (and sensual). Don’t save up ideas. Instead of thinking in ideas for stories and poems and plays, collect images, details, specifics, and overheard bits of real-world dialogue. Jot those things down in your journal, and avoid ideas, such as “homeless man” or “war story.” Get in the habit of writing in images instead of putting down all your thoughts, hoping to translate them into images later. Try to have the experience while writing—even when you are at the very, very earliest notetaking stage—that you want your reader to have while reading.
Instead of asking “idea” questions to generate writing topics and creative projects, ask “sense” questions: What did it feel like to the touch? What was the taste in your mouth? What were the visual images from that day? Get grounded in your body, and in the scene, and write from the five senses rather than thinking, remembering, or drawing from other writers’ images, such as those you encounter on television or in film. Your key to success as a creative writer rests inside your sense memory.
As a creative writer, one of the most powerful prompts for you to launch yourself into the image is to rely on your sense of smell. Smell triggers memory and the emotions attached to those memories; the neuroscience on this effect is well documented.
Doubtless, you’ve also been transported by smells—scent memories lodge deep in our brains. Practice keeping track of your body’s reactions to things. A woman’s perfume launches you back to kindergarten and your love for Mrs. Vander K. When you notice the way a friend organizes the stuff under her kitchen sink, your mom’s drinking problem comes flooding back to you—those bottles of alcohol hidden among the bottles of cleaning supplies. The way the sky looks right before it snows, and whoosh, there’s childhood, the night your sister left, pregnant, the last night you ever saw her. It was that sky. Use these triggers for creative writing, rather than ideas.