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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 18: Thinking in Pictures

As you do the imagination practices, you’ll notice that you don’t need words—not yet!

Of course, when you want to communicate the images in your mind to other people, you’ll need words. But I think that often, when they write, many people get stuck or blocked because they are straining for words instead of letting their imaginations make pictures. When you concentrate on making images in your mind—on making sure they are clear and detailed—often the words you need to get them into the mind of a reader will come to you quite easily. When I read contemporary fiction, for instance, I often have the impression that the writer has not really “seen” what she is writing about with the eye of the imagination and is instead relying on startling or unusual words. But it’s only when your imagination has been trained to make pictures that you can get those pictures into someone else’s mind.

I have said earlier that many of us are held back from doing the writing we want to do because we are used to producing writing (in school or at work) that relies entirely on ideas and information. So it’s very common for someone with this kind of background to come up with a great idea for a story or a novel—and then not know what to do next. That’s because you can’t tell a story (or write a poem) with ideas alone. Naturally, you want your story or poem to have ideas in it—but you can’t present them nakedly, as you would in an academic paper. Ideas in a piece of creative writing must be embodied —and the only way to do that is to find images (a character, a setting, a piece of action, and so on) that show those ideas.

In other words, when we do creative writing, we need to learn how to think in pictures .

So, even if these imagination practices seem a bit silly to you, I encourage you to stay with them—even to invent some of your own. (By the way, if at any time an imagination practice leads you someplace you don’t want to go, just wave away those images, take a few deep breaths, and start over. With these practices, as with all the practices, you are in charge.)

Bring to your mind something simple: an object, a pet, a tree. Using as many of your senses as you can, create a mental picture of that object. If you like, jot down the details. Now, holding the picture in your mind, see if you can add more details—perhaps a background, or a person entering the scene. What does the person do? What happens? Again, you may want to make some notes.

Do the previous practice again, but this time start with something that can move. Once you’ve got it in your mind, let it move or do something. Let things happen! Bring in other objects or people if you wish. Take notes, if you like.

Imagine a person, real or invented. See how much detail you can add to the picture. Now see if that person wants to say or do things. What happens?

Imagine two people in a situation or a place. Get as many details into your picture as you can, then let the people start talking (here you are using auditory, rather than visual, imagination). What do they say? You may want to write down their conversation.

Take one of the previous practices (or make one up). This time, see if you can keep your imagination awake and, as much as possible, focused on the image(s) you’ve made while you stop and write things down. See what happens when you try to move back and forth between your imagination and the page. It’s best, for now, if you just take notes of what’s going on in your imagination, rather than trying to “write” a passage.

You may want to take some time to reflect, on paper, about what happened when you did these practices and how you want to repeat them. Don’t forget, that if you really want to develop and strengthen your imagination, you need to repeat these practices over and over!

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