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

Story Lesson 21: Listening to Pictures

The imagination is central to making stories, for when a reader reads one of our stories, it takes place in her or his imagination. Whether the story is true or invented, realistic or fantastic, it is never taking place, for the reader, in the world around her; it is always taking place in an world inside her head, an imagined world. (In this respect a story, whether told or read, is different from a play, which is taking place in front of the audience’s eyes.)

If we want our stories to speak to the imaginations of readers, then, we need to know something about the faculty of imagination.

You may want to take some time to review the imagination practices (lessons 16-20).

The imagination is the mental faculty that thinks in pictures. It is a storehouse of images taken from direct observation of the world around us, from books and magazines and movies and anything else we encounter that we pay attention to. From this storehouse we select images to use in our stories, and we combine bits and pieces of images in order to make new ones. Finally, we use the medium of language to transfer the pictures in our minds to the imaginations of our readers.

In order to make that illusion of “reality” happen inside our readers, we need three kinds of skills: we need to be able to make use of our faculty of observation to collect sensory details into our brains; we need to be able to make use of our faculty of imagination to make mental pictures of things that aren’t actually around us; and we need to be able to use language to transfer those mental pictures, or images, into the minds of our readers.

I have found that writing instruction often concentrates exclusively on the last of these three skills. Certainly the ability to “show” with language is essential, and in the next lesson we’ll take a look at it. But I believe that unless a writer can actually make mental pictures in her own mind, using the faculty of imagination—a faculty which requires no words at all—then skill with language won’t be enough for her to make pictures on the page which will speak to the imagination of her readers. Language is a tool which enables us to transfer images from our minds to those of our readers. But first we have to have images to transfer. And, for that, we need a well-trained faculty of the imagination.

Thinking in Pictures
When I read books on writing, I am often struck by the way imagery is considered. If it’s mentioned at all, the author usually treats it as if it were a trivial matter, as if imagery were no more than a verbal frill which decorates our sentences or lines of poetry. I wholeheartedly disagree with this view; I believe, instead, that images are the heart of a poem or a story. More than that, images provide us with a holistic way of thinking that gives us an alternative to the bloodless abstract thinking promoted by intellectuals and the academy.

We have so far considered a story as a succession of happenings. We can also think of it as a progression of images. And this progression of images is in fact a way of thinking, a way of remembering.

Consider how, in oral cultures, the same stories were told over and over again. Everyone knew “the plot,” so why did they listen? One reason might have been that they enjoyed the experience of having their expectations fulfilled. And another is, I think, that the primary purpose of many of these stories—especially cultural myths— was to embed in the minds of listeners images that were important to the culture. These images might be important because they kept alive in memory some information about an event that happened long ago, or because they taught some kind of lesson. As Elizabeth and Paul Barber observe in their book When They Severed Earth from Sky: how the human mind shapes myth, “When all accumulated wisdom must be stored in the brain and transmitted orally…people reserve the formal oral tradition for transmitting the information they consider most important.…”

In order to make sure that this information was passed on, storytellers in oral cultures filled their tales with vivid images, for when an image is vivid, it is much easier to remember. Poet Ted Hughes has discussed the power of images to assist memory. He wrote, “One of the brain’s spontaneous techniques for fixing anything in the conscious memory, in other words for making it easy to recall, is to connect it with a visual image. And the more absurd, exaggerated, grotesque that image is, the more unforgettable is the thing to which we connect it.”

And so if we want our own stories to be memorable—I think that’s another way of saying that we want them to be powerful—then we need to pay attention, not just to how to write a story, but to how to picture it.

Jane Yolen has noted that someone writing a picture book for young children has to be aware, while writing the text, that she is writing something that can be illustrated. As you write, she says, you must keep “pictures in your head.” She goes on:

“And this means that action is the most important thing, not the thoughts in your characters’ heads. Psychological details are not easily illustrated; lots of conversation is not easily illustrated; long stretches of poesy for poesy’s sake are not easily illustrated. But action is.”

Listening to Pictures
You’re probably familiar with brain research that has yielded the idea that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions, the left hemisphere being devoted to language, logic, and arithmetical skills, while the right is concerned with visual skills. As a result of this research, many people now seem to believe in an either/or view of the kind of brain any given person has: she or he is either a visual person or a verbal person. And the corollary to this assumption seems to be that, if you’re good with words, or interested in words, then your brain can’t also be good with pictures.

I disagree.

Writers may not be able to draw or paint (though some can), but they can still make use of the mental faculty that makes pictures—the imagination. And then they can transfer those pictures to the minds of readers by using language in a certain kind of way (which we will get to in the next lesson).

The following practices will give you an opportunity to exercise your faculty of imagination without, as yet, having to concern yourself with transferring images to readers. Please remember, as you do these practices, that you are in charge here; if your imagination starts to give you images you find upsetting, just let them disappear and begin the practice again.

Choose a story from oral tradition (or folk and fairy tales) that is familiar to you. Now, let yourself be relaxed—lie down, if you like, or close your eyes. And now see if you can let the story unfold in your imagination, as a series of pictures. Try to concentrate on images that involve action or happenings. Don’t worry about how detailed the images are; if they’re fuzzy, that’s fine. And while you should concentrate on “listening” to the pictures, if words come to your mind while you’re doing that—for instance, if you hear people in the story speak—that’s fine, too.

When the story is finished, take a few minutes to let the series of images resonate in your mind. Then reflect on paper: What happened as you did this? What did you notice? Did you learn anything new about this story? Does it speak to you differently now?

Also notice whether there are any images that stand out for you, that seem to really resonate in your mind. Jot down what these are.

Use one of the images that stood out for you in the last practice, or, if you prefer, choose one of the motifs that you gathered in early lessons. Bring this picture to your mind. Now let that picture be a “seed” from which grows other images. The series of images that results doesn’t have to be organized or even make sense. Just see what happens. If you like, jot down the series of images.

What did you notice in doing this?

If you like this practice, try it again with a different image.

Some people believe that certain images have so much resonance, so much power, because they are fundamental to the human psyche. Such images, known as archetypes, have been explored by psychologists such as Carl Jung and by mythographer Joseph Campbell. If you are interested in learning more about archetypal images, you may want to look into their work.

But we don’t have to take on this particular learning unless we want to. As writers, it’s enough for us to notice which particular images have resonance for us, and to say, “Hmm…I can USE that one!”

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