Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Image List : A Great Way to Get Your Creativity Juiced

In mid-summer, my writing often takes a dive.  I feel the laziness of summertime and don't really want to work on anything, much less do the hard work it takes to be a dedicated book author.

I set myself a schedule, I set a timer, and still the stuff doesn't come out on the page.  Maybe
the garden is calling (boy, is it ever right now--anyone need some cucumbers?).  Or I've just gotten that cool memoir by Patti Smith (Just Kids--great book!) from the library and the book, my screened porch,  its comfy camp bed, and a glass of iced tea sounds pretty wonderful.

Basically, I'm too hot to write, too cold to write, too tired to write.  So little writing gets done.  This process doesn't make me feel better, surprisingly.  Because I really love to write, and I love my book.   

During doldrums like this, I usually let myself take a break, because I work hard most of the time.  But if that break goes on into guilt about not writing, or if the ache to get back to my book started growing, I have a couple of effective helpers to get my creativity juiced.

A favorite for the sensory-rich days of summer is the image list.

Using an Image List
In my writing notebook, I have a list of images.  These images are connected to my book.  They include objects, weather, vehicles like a certain car or truck, parts of a landscape like a river or a field of rocks, the way light comes into one of the rooms, a taste, a certain sound like bells, or anything that evokes sensation in me when I imagine it.  I add to this list of images whenever I can, so it's always fresh and interesting.

I encourage all my book-writing students to keep such a list, and draw from it for freewrites.  Here's how it works:

Last week, I was finally in front of the chapter I was editing for my next book.  But I was stumped.  So I turned to my image list.  I picked an image that somehow spoke to me, that might be part of the life of one of my characters.  I began freewriting about my own associations with that image.

The image was holly wreaths.  

I have some history with holly wreaths.  When I was a teenager, I was in charge of making huge holiday wreaths each winter from the holly my dad grew in our yard.  Not a fun project--holly has wicked thorns--but I loved the meditative time weaving the strands into a circle of heavy wire, trying to keep the berries intact, and I loved the months the holly wreaths hung on our windows and front door, bright against the snow.  It felt artistic, interesting, and certain different from my normal teenager life.  The making of this strange kind of art soothed me as a kid, and I still enjoy doing it.

One of my characters also has history with holly wreaths (surprise!) because she lives on a flower farm.  So I wasn't too shocked, as I wrote my memories of wreaths, that a clue came from my freewrite for my book.

It solved a dilemma I've been struggling with:  how could I get this character to meet up with a former love who's back in town and causing trouble?  She would avoid this person at all costs.  But, believe it or not, the freewrite on holly wreaths got me thinking about a place, a time, and a situation neither could get out of.

Another flaccid chapter gets unexpected life breathed into it.  Thanks to the image list.

Writing Exercise #1:  Using the Image List to Locate a Character's Primary Image
John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction, wrote, "We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images."

Ask yourself, what's the primary image that relates to one of your main characters? It may be an object (a favorite pen, jackknife, vase, wooden toy), part of the landscape (a river, cliff, apple orchard, path through the forest, side of a graffitied building), something worn by the person (sunglasses, black leather jacket, tattoo).

Spend 20 minutes writing everything you know about this image.

Writing Exercise #2:  Using the Image List to Develop Sensory Details in Your Book
Another favorite writing teacher, E.L. Doctorow, said, "Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."

Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and write about this image from one of the five senses: smell, taste, touch (texture and temperature), sound, sight. Underline your favorite sentence from what you wrote, one that "evokes sensation." Can you add it to a page in your book draft?  Could it rescue one of your chapters?

Book writers (and all writers!) need to be able to hear both the random, illogical side of their creative selves, as well as the structuring, logical part. Images come from this random side, and they are just waiting to be grabbed.  Clues about how to improve our writing come from images, in my experience.  If the dog days of summer are leaving you feeling a bit distant from your creative self, begin making a list of images.  Then pick a time, set a timer, and go to it.

Write everything you can about that image.  It may lead you to a completely new view of your book.

PS  Next week I'll be on vacation.  I'm taking my book along and plan to plant myself with a ton of images (by a lake in the mountains) to inspire me.  Hope you do the same!  The blog posts will resume the following week. 


  1. Great post, Mary. Thank you!
    Have a wonderful, image-filled vacation.

  2. Mary, as always your posts are so perfectly timed! Thank you! Enjoy the lake and the mountains, and the high dive into your book! :)

  3. Perfect advice. I have scads of images to write about. Thanks.

  4. Hi Mary, I stumbled here from twitter via Elizabeth Craig.

    I have long held a similar practice. I collect web images that speak to me. I sort them as appropriate and use some as wallpaper for my laptop.

    I keep a folder of them set as my default lock screen.

    This folder holds the images that are fitting to whatever project I am working on at present. So if I hit a blank spot of inactivity, the images come on display for inspiration automatically.

    I really like your suggestion to keep a written list of specific images. I will give this a try!

  5. Shawn,
    What a wonderful tool you describe! I'll have to try it. Thanks for visiting the blog and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.