Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing with Images or Writing with Words? Learn the Difference in Effect on Your Reader

One spring I took a month-long writing retreat. I went to a beautiful lake at the edge of the mountains and stayed by myself in a comfortable cabin. I was excited about all this time I had to write. I brought a pile of “stuck” writing to work on—I had a novel in a final draft, ready for revision.

On warm days I set my writing desk on the cabin’s wrap-around porch. From there, I had a great view of the lake, the blue sky. Birds skimmed the small garden, looking for bugs. Cedars swayed in the wind off the mountains.

I plugged in my laptop using a super-long extension cord. I waited. Nothing. Too quiet, I thought. I packed laptop and files into my car, took off for the nearest town. In a cafe, I had a good lunch. I got out my laptop. Nothing. At a library, I set up my laptop again. Still nothing moved forward with my writing.

After a week of this, I phoned a writing buddy. “I am in writer’s paradise,” I told her, “and I can’t write.”

“Probably too full of words,” she said.

Wasn’t a writer supposed to be full of words? I wondered.

That night, I dreamed of a candy jar crammed with candy, but its mouth was so narrow, it was impossible to get any candy out. When I woke up, I knew the only way to help myself was to write anything that came into my head until the crammed-in words began to come out. My “important” writing—my novel crying for attention—went back in my writing bag. I sat on that porch and did one writing exercise a day, awful stuff with no purpose but to empty the brain of words. I wrote pages about the smell of cedar trees in sun, about frenetic birds hovering over a garden, about the mountains’ beauty.

I bore with these clich├ęs for an entire month. I was about to go out of my mind, but I trusted the prescription given to me in my dream.

It took the whole month to clear the creative channel. By the time I packed up to go home, I was empty of words and full of images. In fact, by the end of the month fresh images began to drift into the freewrite I did each day. Unique images, at last, and with them came original ideas. It was my voice coming through.

A writer friend once said, “Practicing the language of images—and trusting that image is where emotion lies—is what has brought my writing to a deeper, more effective level.” It wasn’t until I got home to my writing desk that I saw how true this was. Suddenly, a new character in my novel was following me around in my inner worlds. The cleared space let her come out. I realized she was the missing ingredient in my novel. I played with images that told me about her. By fall, the novel was revised.

Finding a Key Image
Sometimes a key image is all it takes to slide into your true voice. One image I discovered during that month of bad writing wouldn’t quit my brain or heart. I’d witnessed a certain dance of reflected light on the ceiling; I even tried to draw it in my writer’s notebook. Since my novel was about a family of painters obsessed with light, this single, unique image reconnected me with their fascination with art. And it reconnected me to my voice.

For another writer, it might be a line of geese traveling overhead as she stood in a winter-raw garden, remembering that geese were also traveling the day her mother died. For a third, the image of the sweet curve of a lover’s lips, before a first kiss at the Iowa State Fair, the air scented with cotton candy and roasted corn.

Joan started working with me, thinking she had a finished manuscript. She had a very interesting story about time travel, with strong characters, but Joan found she needed to “get far deeper into the emotional, sensory underpinnings of the story.” Working most particularly on “the language of image,” she said, “telling the story through the sensory detail that gave it emotional depth,” helped Joan tie the scenes and action to the basic theme of her book. “It gave the book greater range and power. It made it sing.”

Images come through the right brain. The right brain is not logical or rational; it just perceives without judgment. But most adults have been conditioned to use the more logical, reasoning left brain. To prefer words over simple images.

Words are of course necessary to the book writer. But as I experienced, we depend on their logic and reason too much. We need to re-learn how to access images.

Showing and telling come from different sides of the brain. Words are a product of the left side of the brain, while images come from the right side of the brain. If words “tell,” images are the “show” of writing.
Why? Because images communicate viscerally to a reader, with immediacy. They drop the reader right into the “room” of your story. As the writer captures an emotion and finds a key image for it, the reader perceives the emotion via the image directly. No telling or interpretation required.

But it requires you, the writer, to also be present in that “room” of your story. It requires you to enter your writing as you would a vivid dream.

If this sounds odd, think of how someone might go about trying to recall a dream after waking up in the morning to an alarm clock in her ear. Immediately the day’s agenda enters the mind, wiping out the images of the dream fairly quickly. People trained in dream recall say it’s easiest to counteract this immediate left-brain activation if you can hold on to a key image about the dream and keep it in your mind while you find paper and pen to jot it down. Do this before the logical part of the brain engages and you may well recall more of the dream.

That’s why dream experts advise that we don’t try to remember the entire dream, just write down the one image. Stained-glass window. Cactus in sunlight. Waterfall and clouds.

Later, the image will trigger the rest of the dream, like a hologram holds the greater picture in a small space.

This Week's Exercise
1. Pay attention to your dreams this week. See if you can capture one small image right on waking. Write it down, if you can--even if it makes zero sense.

2. After a few days, choose one of these dream images as a writing prompt. Copy it to the top of a clean page and set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write whatever comes.

3. See if this image-based writing has taught you anything about the difference between writing with images and writing with words.


  1. Thanks Mary, this sounds like a fun writing exercise as well as helping to recall dreams.

  2. Thanks Mary, I will try this week's exercise, for sure. Every night, I dream so many dreams. And I remembered all of them... I'm full of images, you can't imagine it! What you said in your article will serve me in my writing. Thanks a lot, Mary. :)

  3. I love this post Mary...thank you!