Lately I’ve been obsessed with “the study” of imagery; this past spring I worked close with several students struggling to write about their feelings in poetry and creative nonfiction without using abstracts, so I began a quest for alternative methods to help students “translate” their ideas and feelings from ordinary telling into vivid imagery offering readers an open door into the poem or narrative.
As an undergraduate I completed a minor in anthropology, and I like to instill the idea that image-making is firmly rooted in our brains and forms of self-expression (think hairstyles, clothing). There may be sympathetic (imitative) magic behind the creation of cave drawings such as the one below, but couldn’t it be the artist simply wanted to record a memory and did so through creative imagery? We can “read” the excitement of the hunt 30,000 years later because the images still speak.
Images began to expand and offer complex meaning; written language followed shortly. However, at the root remain the images.
Fast-forward to the 21st-century writer: Harnessing ideas with spoken language to the “cart” of written form is a cognitive process we continue, same as our cave-dwelling ancestors.
I’ve found image-associative exercises, accompanied by the Socratic Method (asking and answering questions of the student), gets the imagination to forge new connections producing stronger writing.
So instead of focusing on lists of what not to do (cliché, hyperbole, abstract words), for my own writing and the student’s, focus is placed on what happens when the reader’s eye observes lettered symbols (words) that startle and paint a picture, while implying an idea, such as:
“Charred seraphs, all clotted locks and eyes burning like two just-snubbed cigarettes”
“Her face was ragged as crows” or “bewilder me, be my church-steeple erect in the mist of swirling snow”
Then, we look at lines that don’t provide fresh-picked juicy language the reader can bite off and chew:
“She had cotton-candy rosebud lips”
“My mother was so mean I cried tears into my pillow” or “my soul ached and fear was in my heart, her beauty astounded me.”
We talk about connotation and how some words (or phrases) shoot images straight into the cerebrum, provoking a strong reaction, while others offer only blanks.
Asking questions is like striking a match to kindling under seasoned wood. Where do images come from? How do we make connections between images and ideas? When writing is good we read words that invite us into a world by offering images which cue thoughts and ideas of the reader to come forth unbidden. Is this some kind of magic? Perhaps.
Working on collage poems based on photographs helped students focus on imagery versus abstracts as well as how to choose precise, minimal, words while still imparting a larger idea. It’s kind of like the cave painting with words:
“General Store” Judith Roney
There is a kind of magic that occurs, when images, via the writing, travel between people and move through time. Using real images along with writing helps to make connections and discover more about how images work in metaphor and the general line.
In the photo below we see a man precariously balancing on two thin twigs. I ask students if they feel disturbed by the image. Then we break it apart to discover why, and think about how this “disturbation” could be translated into a constructed line to convey anxiety or fear, for example. A metaphor forms: “I feel like I have wings of flammable branches stripped of leaf / my feet are stilts of bent pine / nothingness is a monster in the mist at my spine”
Photographer unknown, Web.
We look at pictures and read passages from philosophical texts such as Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry (written in 1757) where he talks about the elements of “vastness”, “obscurity”, and “magnificence” when studying a piece of fiction like The Willows for use of setting and learn how to use landscape imagery to rip apart the constructed order of what is “known.”
Bithlow Road, 2012. Photographer: Judith Roney
We are cued by images; sight is of dominant importance to all primates. But clearly it isn’t a limiting factor: Think Milton, Joyce, and Homer who all had degrees of blindness. The issue at hand, however, is more about our symbolic language and complex meaning we create when stringing words together. Writing from images helps the brain to focus on “nutritious” concrete language rather than “empty calorie” abstracts.
I’m still working to dig deeper into how we recognize connections and meaning from putting words together that represent an image. I want to get at the connective “pop-switch” that makes one metaphor dazzle while another is a dud, to “show” with imagery but keep from cramming so many adverbs and adjectives into lines reading them is like chewing shoe leather.
I’m aware I’m offering more questions than answers. But imagery, like a deck of tarot cards (another great tool for inspiration), can be interpreted differently depending on the reader. As writers and instructors I think it’s in the questions we imply through our lines that bring the writing to life, that lets poems and prose alike live on in the reader’s mind and the hand linger on the page to read a fabulous line just one more time. The image, then, I suppose, is the cue for imagination to invent what it means to be alive and to be human.
Judith Roney has created and taught writing workshops for adults challenged by mental illness in conjunction with the University of Central Florida’s Literary Arts Partnership. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications. Field Guide for a Human was a 2015 finalist in the Gambling the Aisle chapbook contest. Her poetry collection, According to the Gospel of Haunted Women, received the 2015 Pioneer Prize. A memoir piece, “My Nickname was Frankenstein,” is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She confesses to an obsession with the archaic and misunderstood, dead relatives, and collects vintage religious artifacts and creepy dolls. Currently she teaches poetry at the University of Central Florida, and is an assistant poetry editor for The Florida Review. More information can be found at http://www.judithroney.com .