In an exclusive adapted extract taken from The Writer's Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers (Bloomsbury, 2018), Amy E. Weldon looks at how pictures in your mind often ask to be illustrated by words...
Think about a memory you’ve held onto for a long time, some mental picture – either still or moving – that seems saturated with meaning for you, that releases some emotion whenever you touch it and that carries vivid sensory details within itself. In my writing classes and my own writing life, I call this an image. Of course, an image can literally be a picture, interesting but perhaps not hugely emotional, something observed (like the barefoot girl on the street or the boy with the rat snake, mentioned earlier). But just as the name indicates, an image is a picture that releases emotions into your mind and, often, seems to ask to be illustrated in words. “The fiction writer finds in time,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “that he cannot proceed at all if he cuts himself off from the sights and sounds” – namely, images – “that have developed a life of their own in his senses.”(1) I think of images as working in the brain like my summer garden herbs work in water – if you gather a handful of mint and a handful of lavender hyssop, crush the leaves in your hands, and steep them in a pitcher of water, their peppermint-and-licorice-flavored oils seep outward, creating a green-gold tea that’s delicious on a hot day. Images do the same thing in your mind – they release some essence of emotion and memory that never seems to fade, like Wordsworth’s “spots of time.” And if you can evoke them on the page, they will evoke emotion in your reader’s mind, too.
Poet and memoirist Nick Flynn has described “an enduring image from my childhood, one that returns to me often, unbidden” – a watermelon vine “that somehow took root in the backseat of my grandmother’s car,” growing in the “mixture of sand and dirt” from beach feet and muddy shoes. The plant remained, growing and growing, watched over by Flynn as a kind of secret until, eventually, his grandmother discovered it too and they could “laugh together at the weirdness” and marvel of this object. Yet in that accidental car-borne garden, memory also takes root. “Without those images,” Flynn writes, “how else can I hold her now?”
"Her voice? (like sandpaper and smoke.) Her hands? (gnarled from tending her roses.) Her roses? (in the summer they nearly swallowed her porch.) All of these, too, are images, and all images are containers for meaning. Images hold the meaning of our lives. Without images we have no memory; they give the past shape, keep the memory. It makes sense, then, that the image is one of the poet’s most reliable tools, the foundation of many poems." (2)
Because images are suffused with so much sensory information and emotion, they can spark whole essays, stories, poems, even novels. I encourage students to talk about images that can be starting points for a story or poem rather than ideas for a story or poem. “Ideas” can lead to an outline-heavy, paint-by-numbers focused approach to writing that forecloses discoveries and bores you and your reader; an “idea” feels dead on arrival to me in a way an image never does. Yet images allow for the possibility of continued discoveries, because they invite you to ask questions you can then answer through the organic development of a story itself.
Images can arise from something remembered, or from some source that’s harder to name. My first completed novel manuscript, Eldorado, Iowa – now forthcoming from Bowen Press Books in 2019 – started in just this way. On an unseasonably warm afternoon, the last day of October 2008, I was outside with my creative-nonfiction-writing students, on the lawn under the big cottonwood tree. They sat on the grass in small groups, reading each other’s drafts, and I strolled among them, answering questions and eavesdropping. I looked down at my own feet, brushing through the yellowing grass. Suddenly – I don’t know how else to describe it – I blinked and saw them transformed. In my mind’s eye, I looked down at the toes of high-topped, lace-up leather boots, peeking from under a long brown skirt that bent the grass sideways as it trailed the ground and tented gently outward with every step. I had entered the body of some other woman, more than a hundred years ago, walking through the grass on a warm afternoon. And – I knew from somewhere inside that body – this woman was pregnant. What was her name? Sarah. Her name was Sarah. What year was this? Sometime in the 1870s, when the Civil War and the idea of the frontier still felt raw to living people. Where was she? Iowa. Where had she come from? Alabama. Just like me. And, like me, she gets a lot of her ideas about the world from books.
That image became the opening lines of Chapter One:
"Alone, Sarah wanders out the front door and into the September afternoon. Her skirts brush down the porch steps and over the grass, crushing one fallen leaf, then two. A sudden breeze trembles the maple sapling in the yard, and she sets both hands on her belly. A quiver answers her, under the skin stretching tighter every day. She has to soak in as much light as possible, before the winter comes and the sun is gone here in Iowa. When her baby thinks of home, it will think of this little town on what is still, technically, the frontier. Not the plantation, back in Alabama. She’s made sure of that.
Despite herself, her mother’s voice natters in her head, approving her: a lady, walking on her lawn. Her lawn. That’s what it would be called back home. Here it’s really just the clear square of ground in front of the house, where the old doctor broke up the prairie sod before he died. There are no flower borders, no herringbone brick walks, no walls. Under her feet, the soil is deep and black, netted with tangled roots tamped down by buffalo, or by whatever large creatures walked this corner of Iowa with their milch-cow snufflings, once upon a time, as the glaciers melted and the grass grew tall. She imagines them lumbering into this tiny town, like Mr. Dickens’s Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill. London must be so crowded, teeming with dirt and noise and life, in its matter-of-fact foreignness. A great city. Not like this small town at the edge of the world. This place with its optimistic signpost: Eldorado."
Once you have your image pinned to the page – where it sits there, radiating with emotion and possibility – you can start spinning it into a draft by asking questions. First, if she’s pregnant, who is the baby’s father? Her husband, Galen, who, I immediately knew, is a doctor. (I geek out on medical history big-time.) But why would a young doctor and his wife leave Alabama for a small town on the frontier? How had they gotten there? Who else is with them? I wrote deeper into the story, inventing answers to these questions. But why Eldorado? I didn’t have to invent an answer to that. Eldorado is the name of a tiny town in a river valley near where I live. Driving past to take students to readings at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I had seen the sign and the phrase had lodged in my head: Eldorado, Iowa. Now at last I could use it – and, in January 2019, I will meet it in published novel form at last.
Amy E. Weldon is Professor of English at Luther College, USA. She is the author of The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save the World (2018) and has published numerous essays in edited collections and stories and reviews in journals including Orion, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Common, Midwest Gothic, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her new book, The Writer’s Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers, is now available from Bloomsbury.
(1) O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 198; (2) Nick Flynn and Shirley McPhillips, A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching from Poems We Love (Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2000), 15.