And it’s Writing Wednesday again! The issue I want to discuss today is image. In other words: the painting of pictures in words. I had an interesting first encounter with this aspect of writing when I took a short course in Creative Writing in the last semester of my BA degree. Image was the subject of one of the lessons. In class, I made it clear that I wasn’t a big fan of image description in novels, from a reader’s perspective. I don’t need description, because it’s all there in my head.
Let’s take the first Twilight novel as an example (Yes, I actually enjoy Twilight!). I can draw you a map of Bella’s house right now. I can tell you the colour of the kitchen cupboards and the couch. I can tell you where the washing machine is and what the front lawn looks like. However, the picture in my head doesn’t quite correspond to Stephenie Meyer’s description of the house in the book. She doesn’t paint a detailed picture though, so I can live with it.
Sometimes, however, it annoys me. Considering Twilight again, I have to admit (with all due respect) that Stephenie Meyer has terrible taste in clothes. She loves tan sweaters, kaki trousers and white, sleeveless shirts (on Edward!). Sometimes I actually shudder when I read those descriptions. Fortunately my own head has a more sensible fashion style.
So, in class I told my teacher that physical description wasn’t all that necessary and in fact rather tedious for both the reader and the writer. She told me that not everybody sees pictures in their head that way, so I should use image for their sake. Besides, I needed to hand in an image assignment anyway, no matter my opinion. So I set to work, grudgingly, trying to make the best of an annoying exercise. I tried not to use ‘standard’ physical markers, but also add a sense of how things ‘felt’, in a way. When the next class arrived and the teacher handed out our corrected assignments, she told me she had never given an A on a piece of writing before, but she was giving me one now.
That was when I first started thinking about image as something to take seriously. I started by testing my teacher’s statement that not everyone sees images in their head the way I do. It turned out to be true! Apparently most people don’t see images in their head! So painting them in words is a writer’s obligation and privilege! Recognising that image is apparently one of my strong suits, I started practicing my use of it and eventually I found that I enjoyed it after all. For me, the challenge is not to use any of the standard metaphors and comparisons. I love playing with words and description is one of the best places to do so.
And that assignment that earned me an A? It ended up at the very beginning of The Grand Asylum! Sure, I changed some things, but in essence it is still the same passage. You can read it below. Do you agree with my teacher’s assessment? And do you think it makes a good opening for a novel? I am worried that I need more action at the beginning. (the action starts a few paragraphs later) Any input is greatly appreciated!