Writing exercises are a great way to get yourself going with new writing ideas. Sometimes it is hard to think up something to write about, and this is where images can be really useful. If you don’t have time to go out into the world and absorb the landscape, or you don’t feel like listening to music or doing something else that feeds your imagination, images of all kinds can be evocative prompts to get you going.
I keep an ‘Image Box’. I buy odd postcards when I am visiting shops, art galleries, National Trust properties. (I even drop leaflets into my image box, knowing the colours used in them can get my juices flowing, and I scour magazines and newspapers for pictures that catch my eye.)
Postcards don’t have to be of anything particular, the places and objects depicted don’t have to be of things you have seen or visited. They just have to get you started.
When I am stuck, and need to write something fresh, something that comes clean out of the blue, I pull a random image out of my box. Then I set the timer, and write for fifteen minutes on what the image suggests to me.
Here are a few pictures out of my box:
(clockwise from top left) Sylvia Plath 1959, photographed by Rollie McKenna; The Forest of Bowland from ‘Our forbidden land’ by Fay Godwin 1989; ‘Silver Moonlight‘ by John Aitkinson Grimshaw (Harrogate Museums and Arts); ‘A Norfolk Village’ by Edward Seago (Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery); Sound II sculpture by Anthony Gormley, Permanent Installation in the Crypt at Winchester Cathedral, photograph by Roger Twigg.
These are all striking images, but what stories do they tell? What do they suggest to you?
1) Start collecting images for an Image Box of your own. You might like to do it the old fashioned way, as I do, with postcards and pictures cut from newspapers, magazines and Sunday supplements. Or you might like to use a digital version like Pinterest. Whichever suits you.
(These days I also keep a private folder of images that I download from Tumblr on my laptop, which also feeds my imagination – I don’t use them for anything other than my own private use, so I hope I’m not infringing any copyright by doing so.)
Keep an eye out for anything really striking – a black and white, chiaroscuro portrait perhaps, or an arresting street image. Whatever catches your eye.
2) When you have time for a writing exercise, get out your timer and your writing notebook. Fish out a random image that appeals to you, set the timer for fifteen minutes, and write!
It doesn’t have to be a complete story, remember. It can just be a sliver of description, a bit of character study, a list of traits or adjectives, or a bit of backstory. What is going on in the image? What is the place like? Are there people? What are they doing, and why? Is it a portrait like the one of Sylvia Plath above – forget who she is for a moment, and look at the image. Why might this girl be wistful, a bit sad or worried? Who could the person in your portrait be? Why do they look the way they do? Or who is the person doing the looking, taking the picture? What is their story?
Use your Image Box whenever you are stuck for something to write about. I have got whole stories out of a single image, like this one, which I wrote from a fanart masterpiece by Marielikestodraw, the doyenne of gorgeous fanart. You never know what might be sparked off.