A Picture Can Spark a Thousand Words

Oh_wow Nothing can get words and memories flowing for a life writer quite like a picture. Whether you’re journaling, writing a simple story or crafting a memoir, pictures can bring back memories as fresh as wet paint, and having the picture as a focal point may enable you to revisit the memory from many angles.

The general wisdom is that looking through your own  photo stash will spur memories. I gave an example of how that can work in Photographic Memory Jolts, in October 2007.

Before the days of digital cameras, most people only took photos on special occasions, so reminders of everyday life are rare. Fortunately, there is an alternative: browse through magazines and picture books, or do keyword searches on sites like Flickr.com to find thought-provoking photos.

When you find a picture that resonates with you, tear it out, or copy digital ones into a writing prompt folder. Write about it right away, or stick it in a collection to use when you feel stuck or want to do some freewriting. I pulled the picture above from a pile of illustrations I tore out of magazines a few years ago to use as writing prompts for myself and writing groups. I love the look of astonishment and maybe a few other things on that fresh young face. The pile has served well, and writing from it is a popular group activity.

Whether you find pictures from your own photos or enticing new sources, here are tips for using them to best advantage:

  • Let your mind wander as you look at the picture. Run your eyes over various aspects of it. For example, in the one above, notice the expression on the girl’s face, her wide eyes and gaping mouth, the time of day, the expanse of table. Look at her hair, perfectly combed into cute pony tails.
  • If this is a familiar picture, try to look at it as if you have never seen it before and set aside as many memories as you are able.
  • Assess your feelings about the picture. Do you feel happy? Sad? Anxious? Indifferent?  Excited?
  • Ask yourself what the picture reminds you of.  Make a few notes about any memories that come to mind.
  • If the picture is of someone else, try putting yourself into the other person’s situation. For example, pretend you are the girl in the picture above. What might you be seeing that has your eyes popping? Were you ever in a situation where you reacted like that? Do you think others know she’s there?

After dwelling on the picture and thinking briefly about your reactions and memories or imaginations, begin to freewrite about whatever comes to mind, keeping the picture in sight as you write. You may be surprised at what comes out.

If a picture evokes especially powerful emotions, try writing about it another time or two taking different perspectives each time. Your creativity will get a boost, you may have material for a great new story, and you may have some fascinating and helpful new insight for unclogging a memoir or your life.

Write now: find a pile of old magazines and start a collection of meaningful pictures to use as writing prompts. Keep them loose to reuse, or paste to the page you’re writing one. Alternatively, copy and paste a significant picture into a new document and write about it on your computer.


Janet Beckwith Macy said...

You are so right. I had never thought of this. The next time I go home to my parents, I will look at the photos differently.

Thanks for your writing.

JZR said...

When I began entertaining the idea of writing a memoir, I went through all of the family photos that I had and arranged most of them up on a bulletin board in my studio. There are photos of my mother when she was a child, pictures of father being awarded a medal during WWII, and pictures of my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. When I work in my studio writing or on a piece of art there they all are, surrounding me with memories. From time to time one of them will catch my eye and I'll have to stop what I'm doing and write the story it brings up for me. Photos and images of all kinds are very important for me in my writing process.

Sharon Lippincott said...

You probably thought of this -- be sure you have plenty of paper or your laptop. Family conversations about the pictures can unearth even more, so if you have a digital recorder (most iPods/mp3 players have a decent one built in) that's a good thing to have running. Have fun!

Sharon Lippincott said...

JZR, sounds like there's a lot of love and warmth in that room, and powerful support. Lovely! Thanks for sharing.

Shirley said...

Thanks for the idea of going to Flickr and searching for images from the past. I'm going to have to try that.

I have found photos to be an integral part of the childhood memoir I'm writing. I agree that really looking at a single photo can yield some wonderful insights.

Thanks for some good workshop ideas, also.

Sharon Lippincott said...


The whole web is full of pictures. Picasa.com is also a fertile source. If you might want to use pictures on a blog or other public space, search with the Flickr Blogger search plug-in to limit the results to images published under Creative Commons license.

I'm thinking the same thing about using pictures in a workshop. Personal ones, that is. I know the picture stash works.

Wolfsrosebud said...

Too funny... love the photo... stop by wolfsrosebud.wordpress.com tomorrow, Friday Photo Run, and link up a picture. I totally agree a picture is worth a thousand words.