Images Are the Opposite of Thought
Let’s define thought as any nonvisual mental activity. Images are the opposite of thought.
Most beginning writers overwrite the thoughts in their first drafts and underwrite the images. Not surprising. Writing instruction in school, up until now, usually has been limited to a focus on essays—thinking pieces. Many of us haven’t had encouragement or support or training in trusting our eyes and writing what is seen, not what is thought or felt. Many new writers don’t trust their eyes to get the job done; they forget how potent reading is and how creative the human brain is—your reader is going to see it, and get it, and understand many layers of feeling and thought, without your interrupting the flow to explain. In fact, most students who have been trained to use their eyes are athletes and visual artists. But using your vision is extremely vital for your work as a creative writer as well; images are your most essential strategy.
You might try to exaggerate in the opposite direction. Try to overwrite the images. Try to be too visual, too sensory. Get your audience to say to you, “I can see this too clearly! This is too vivid!”
You are likely very, very good at writing thoughts; most anyone who survived high school has been trained to write this way—telling instead of showing, explaining and reporting instead of creating word pictures and movies with language. It might even feel uncomfortable to not write thoughts. Creative writers constantly have to work against that comfort zone. In all your other classes this year, you should be thinking. But not when you sit down to write creatively. In this class, in this kind of writing, you work with your eyes. Here, you are practicing transporting yourself to another place and seeing. Thoughts suck the drama and the richness out of your writing. They keep everything juicy and hot offstage. Thoughts are filters, middlemen. The writer’s job is to make it easy for the reader to see.
Nothing exists in the intellect that has not first gone through the senses. — PLUTARCH
There is an enormous difference between thinking “My mother is sitting” and seeing your mom, plunked down in the old red chair. Practice now. Do it as a thought. Mother in chair. Pure intellect, just the concept—do not let your mind see a picture. Then do it as an image. See your mother in a specific chair, in a room, with light coming in the window, right in her eyes … see the difference? We are trying to avoid the first mental action and focus our attention and energy on the second. The second practice, that’s the real thing.
The basic unit for creative writing is this image, this alive word picture. The ability you have as a writer to create these living word pictures in your reader’s head is where the magic and transformative power of our craft resides. As creative writers, we don’t want our readers to just sit back and hear our thoughts. We want them to see and feel. If your work comes from thoughts, it might be great writing, but it won’t be what we call creative writing. For example, in an essay (writing that may well be creative but isn’t what we are doing in this course), you might write, “The Pueblo method of divorce can be as simple as this: A woman leaves her husband’s moccasins on the doorstep. And it’s over.” In creative writing, using images, you want your reader to have the weight of those shoes, to be able to imagine the house, the marriage, the sky, the pain of the divorce for both parties—all that. And more. Images let you trigger whole worlds of consciousness in your reader.
It is not sufficient that what one paints should be made visible. It must be made tangible. — GEORGES BRAQUE
When you write, put yourself there physically. Don’t think, “Okay, my character is feeling really angry with her husband.” See something:
She brushed her skirt and sat on the bed with his shoes next to her. His toes seemed to be always in these shoes, in all his shoes—there were five dimples at the tops of each shoe, shiny, where the suede was worn away. She picked one of the moccasins up. They were always heavier than they appeared to be. She threw the shoe at the door.
Your images shouldn’t be about describing; they shouldn’t be about anything at all. They should be the thing. Experience the musty leather as you write; if you experience, your reader will, too. When you fully imagine that house, that marriage, the bedspread, the smells of the field, all you have to do as a writer is to paint some deft strokes, outline a few items, an emotion, the palm of a hand—and your reader will fill in the entire town. Eventually, as you gain practice using images, you can make your images so powerful that by describing a front porch, your reader will see the whole county and feel as though he or she has been there before.
So. Don’t write what you think. Write what you see. If you can’t see it, you can’t write it. If you rely on explanation, prefacing, concluding, analyzing, musing, reflecting, thinking—you deny your reader a large part of the pleasure and impact of creative writing, of what we do.
Instead, give yourself over to the experience of image. Go where it goes. Don’t think it out.
Determine if the following is an image or a thought:
I was really into boys. All I thought about was boys, boys, boys.
It’s a thought. Essentially this writer is thinking out loud on the page, an approach we might use for writing essays, journals, letters, notes to the self. It’s perfectly fine writing, but it’s not exactly creative writing. The writer/speaker is looking back at her life, making a conclusion. It’s a thought about a thought—and that kind of approach to creative writing is dangerous. Your reader is basically on pause here. No mental image occurs. The disk spins, but the reader, like the writer, is not engaged. The two sentences above are not alive. They’re fine, they’re not wrong, they’re just not doing anything. (You may wish to look at student writer Karissa Womack’s essay on p. 398 for a profound example of showing these two sentences about boys.)
If you focus on thought, you, as a writer, have wasted an opportunity to make something happen in your reader’s brain. You must use that opportunity; you cannot waste it. Creative writing isn’t about simply knowing. It’s about knowing through seeing and experiencing something alive. Thoughts kill that process. They pierce the experience, like light coming into a darkened movie theater.
Thoughts interfere with the reader’s ability to see the image for herself. Try to avoid thoughts in your writing, and instead work on noticing what people say and do. Thoughts include the following:
|CONCLUSIONS||“Ultimately, I really did love him.”
“Class wasn’t so bad.”
“I ended up in the emergency room.”
“The summer I turned eight my mom decided I was spending too much time in front of the television and ruining my eyes.”
|EMOTION DESCRIPTIONS||“Hannah hated hearing her brother Brian complain about Mrs. Danch when he was in seventh grade.”
“She was speechless.”
“I wished I hadn’t quit.”
|THOUGHT REPORTS||“I figured it was a good way to get out of karate.”
“I knew she was an idiot.”
|EXPLANATIONS||“To be clear, my mother was mad. Real mad.”
“Once I am out of a relationship, I am really ready to get back in one.”
Most thought sentences are actually images waiting to be born. Your writing will be instantly and dramatically improved as you translate thoughts into images.
Read the short story “Surrounded by Sleep” by Akhil Sharma (p. 171). With a highlighter (or by taking notes and making a list), mark every passage that is an image (where you see, or could see, a scene play out in your mind). Focus on where you see people in action. What percentage of the story is images?