Friday, February 4, 2011

Freewrite Friday: The Picture

Before we dive into this week's exercise, I thought I'd share a few inspiring links.  One is to Vicki Archer's beautiful post on writing.  She talks about being an "accidental writer," about fear, and about the practice of writing.  It's a great read.  A second link is to Kate Hanson Foster's new blog.  Kate is a former student of mine and a wonderful writer.  She tried her hand at the Rules of the Game exercise with fantastic--and truly funny--results.  The last link is by Sarah, a new blogging friend of mine.  At her wonderful blog Snippets, Sarah shares her take on the Color exercise.  

If you have a blog and feel like sharing your own exercise there, please email me with the url so I can share the link here.  If you don't have a blog, but would like to email me your exercise, I can include it in my next Freewrite Fridays post.  The more the merrier!

I designed all three of the exercises we've done so far--The Map, The Color, and The Rules of the Game--to get us dealing in specific, concrete imagery.  Think back to high school when your English teacher scrawled in red ink in the margins of your stories: "Show, don't tell!"  She or he was right.  Good writing is rooted in vivid specifics, in sensory images, and in details that reveal more than any abstraction ever could.  That's why in the color exercise I ask you never to say the color.  "Green" can be many shades.  It is too vague.  It doesn't let the reader into the writing.  But if you can show a particular shade of green through sensory images (using all fives senses), your writing will come to life.  I'm not saying that you should never use the word green (or pink or blue); what I am saying is that if you think of writing as something akin to painting, you'll start to pay attention to sensory images, and your reader will become more engaged.

I'll give you an example of telling a scene and then one of showing the same scene: 

When I write,

"An old woman sat on the green bench under a tree, and nearby a mother was frustrated with her son for getting dirty,"

the reader knows there was a tree, but not what kind.  She knows the bench was some shade of green, but it won't come alive vividly in her mind.  And she knows there was a mother and child, but doesn't really see them.  A good way to test if you're doing a lot of telling rather than showing is to count how many times you're using some form of the verb "to be," as in "the mother was frustrated."  This tells the reader she's frustrated, but it is far more powerful to show the reader this, as we see when m.heart writes,

"Beneath the spreading branches of an ancient Elm an old woman dozed on a park bench painted the color of fir trees on a gray afternoon, and a young mother tugged her toddler off the lawn by his soft, pale wrist, glancing scoldingly at the soiled knees of his pants as she hoisted him upright."  (read full text here)

The whole scene comes to life.  M.heart creates specific shades of green, she uses vivid images and strong verbs, and in doing so, she sets the tone and mood for the piece.  We feel almost like we are right there.

Often, when I'm teaching beginning creative writers, they'll say, "But I want to leave it kind of vague so that the reader can fill in their own details.  That way anyone can relate to it."  My answer is that we read a story because we want to be transported; we want to connect to those unique characters, that particular setting, and unique situation.  Vague writing doesn't transport us.  Vague writing sits on the page while our eyes skim over it, never really connecting, never really caring.  Every concrete detail the writer conjures, like that "bench painted the color of fir trees on a gray afternoon," weaves a tapestry of texture and detail for the reader--a kind of playground for the imagination.

The concrete detail is a powerful tool, indeed.  It's also one that writers never stop thinking about.  We work on perfecting this element of writing for our entire lives.

The Picture
The directions for this exercise are simple:
  • First, the warm up.  Find a picture that feels like it tells you a story.  It may be a photograph, a painting, an ad in a magazine, a newspaper photo, whatever.  It doesn't matter where you find the picture; it only matters that the image is compelling to you, and that it seems to hold the kernel of a story within its borders.  I've included a couple of my own photos in this post, plus a painting that I love by  Pieter Bruegel called "Hunters in the Snow."  But don't feel like you need to use them.  They are just images that inspire me to want to tell a story.  There may or may not be people in the image that you choose.  There may be a sense of movement or it might be quite still.  (If you're having trouble finding an image, think of looking at Flickr for inspiration.  Or you could even visit an art museum.)
  • Look closely at the image.  Really think about the details, the light, the colors, what's happening in the picture.  If it's a photograph that you took, try to remember what you smelled when you took it, what sounds you heard, what the temperature was like.  If it's an image that you didn't take (or paint), imagine these things from what the picture shows you.
  • Next, in your writing notebook, begin to jot down notes about the details in the picture itself as well as any you can remember or imagine based on what you see.  A good way to do this is to actually make five lists, labeling each one at the top: See, Smell, Taste, Feel, or Hear.  Try to include details from all five senses.
  • Finally, set the list and the picture aside, and write for half an hour (or more) about the picture.  What story emerges as you write?  Don't feel like you have to control the story.  Just see what happens.  Are there people involved?  Animals?  Is someone hurt? Lonely?  Happy?  Afraid?  Use sensory details to convey the mood of your piece.  If it ends up being more description and less story, that's okay, too.  Think of it then as an exercise in setting a scene and establishing a mood.
  • Most importantly, have fun with this!  Let me know how it goes.

Oh, and if you find any great images that you'd like to share with others for inspiration, feel free to email me jpegs by Sunday.  Just be sure that they're either your own images, are no longer under copyright, or that you have permission to use them.  I'll post any inspiration images I receive on Monday!


  1. Hi Gigi,
    I just wanted to share that I am loving the Freewrite Fridays! So inspiring!

    I am sadly a few Fridays behind everyone but soon I expect to have something to share and when I do I'd love to post on my blog and include you're Freewrite Fridays pic and link to your blog?

    Meanwhile, thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I love your post, it gives me a lot of inspiration and useful advises. I wish I had time to sit down and try to do the excercises. But it is not so easy with a 7 weeks old baby to take care of. But maybe later :-) Happy weekend to you!

  3. I was so happy to get to you this morning! It's Friday and time for the gentle infusing of inspiration from my friend...
    I particularly love this F.F. 'cause it involves photos...can't wait, I'm going through the files of pictures in my head already...
    Thank you Sweet Gigi~

  4. You will be keeping me busy Gigi! This is a wonderful idea...Have a happy weekend....xv

  5. Thanks, my friends!

    Musings, you're never behind with these exercises. Just and pick and choose the ones you want to do and complete them at your own pace. The nice thing, too, is that if one works particularly well for you, you can use it again for a new piece of writing!

    Mia, I can only imagine that a new baby would make it next to impossible to get anything done, let alone writing! :)

    Robin, you are the sweetest. I can't count the number of times you have inspired me, so I am touched by your comment.

    Vicki, I hope you have a happy weekend, too! Thanks again for writing that wonderful piece on your blog.

    xo g

  6. P.S. That should be "just pick and choose." Seriously, I should proofread more! :)

  7. This exercise makes me want to go out and take photos and see what I can come up with! Thanks, Gigi! Happy weekend! xxoo :)

  8. I too am a couple of Fridays behind but love the inspiration I get from your post. I also loved The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Hope you are staying warm and safe during all this cold weather.Are you using Photoshop to edit your photos and wha tis the favorite lens you use on your camera?

  9. Hi Gigi,
    I think I'll have to print this post out and put it aside to do another time - when I'm not quite so busy. There were some questions about whether my recent show of photographs could be made into a book - because there is a strong sense of narrative within the images. I think your exercise will help get me started. Thank you for this!

  10. Thank you Gigi, I'm looking forward to this exercise .

  11. I've been wanting and wanting to do this. It took a snow day and an upper respiratory infection to get me to sit down and do this. I'm going to email mine to you. I'm so excited about it. I haven't done any creative writing since high school. NOT KIDDING!

    Thank you, thank you!


Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing from you.