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.
— JUNOT DÍAZ
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?
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.