Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Writing the Image-ination

A while ago, I mused in this space about connections between writing and music. Now I'd like to turn to images. For me, there is no separation between story and image, and I would go further and say that image precedes words in my writing. I know we all have our different starting points, our different 'windows in' to story, character, setting, action; in my case pictures are always the way in which an idea initially presents itself, and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first thing I ever wrote, but do have a strong recollection of drawings, paintings, clay modelling from about the age of three. And from much younger (and having been born in the tropics), tantalizing expanses of colour, vivid, deep greens and saturated blues, blobs of red that were possibly flowers or crabs.

The storyworld I'm writing in now, obsessively, took shape over a very long period of time and started in pictures at around the age of twelve. Pictures of people, of landscapes and buildings, their forms and colours, maps of a vast world, diagrams of the structure of wings and feathers, pictures of flowers, trees and strange or mythical creatures. The imagery of this world and its characters was quite firmly established in my head before pen ever hit paper to do anything more than thumbnail sketches. Next, moments in scenes started to emerge, like frozen tableaus. Then I would look at them and feel curious. Who were the people in them? What was happening? What brought them to this moment, and how might it play out? Words started to flow from the questions asked of the image, and suddenly I would have a scene, a chapter, a story. The process seemed quite magical at that young age - and still does.

This writing mode has changed very little over time (although I hope the writing craft has); a few months ago, for example, I decided to try writing a short story with a specific themed anthology in mind. The catalyst for the story was, true to form, an image - a picture lifted from a novella which was visually memorable to me. A winged man lying dead on a beach under a blue-grey sky, and woman who could be elvish finding him. The man, his skin white, hair and feathers black, amber-coloured blood soaking into the sand. The woman kneeling beside him, shivering, visibly conflicted in her feelings. Then the questions.....What if the man isn't dead? And what if he's an elf? And following on from that, Who is this woman? Why am I seeing in her fear, repulsion, distrust, desire...even an odd sense of kinship?

When the image has been interrogated, the fascination is then in watching a new story begin to unfold from that single point into its own past and future, crystallizing it into words that not only tumble the image into a whole new shape, but give it a life that moves through time and space. I love this process, every time.

Thinking now of that expression, 'the art of words', I realise how literally true it can be. :-)


  1. I always start with a visual image too. I guess it's in my genes. My brother and niece are both artists and there are others who dabble. I just lack the ability to translate my vision into a visual art work. So I paint with words instead.

  2. Yes, that's interesting, Helen. Your writing does create strong images. I enjoy 'painting with words' now as much as I ever enjoyed drawing, painting and weaving in my earlier incarnation as a visual artist, and it's a constant delight to have another way to create pictures - or 'story pictures'. The difference is, of course, that visual art (unless it's film or performance etc) is a 'frozen moment', and it can be beautiful to luxuriate in the frozen moment (or series of moments, in the case of narrative artwork). But writing has another luxury, where the 'picture' is in a constant state of change, growth, dissolution, expansion, contraction. I find it all very fascinating. :-)