Follow the image

Early on in the process of writing the book, I had an excellent writing teacher, Donna Hanelin, who suggested, “Follow the image.” She must had seen the puzzled look on my face because she repeated it: “Follow the image.” Donna was a fiction writer, and I had never written fiction before, so I thought, Why not?

Following the image worked like this. During our weekly writing sessions around a table in her studio, Donna offered writing prompts. One day our class began with “He prepared her.” What would happen if I just went with it, following the image?

I mulled the words. “He prepared her.” In a moment I could almost see “him” in my mind’s eye, could sense an unease that he must be feeling. In a moment more I found that another sentence wanted to be added on to the first: “He didn’t know how he was going to say it.” I wrote that sentence down. So what was the thing he didn’t know how to say? And who was he going to tell it to? Most of all, who was he? I had to keep writing to find out.

This, apparently, was how fiction writers did it—placing themselves within a scene and watching it develop in their mind’s eye, writing down everything they observed. Was that it? My mental jaw dropped. I thought writers planned and developed characters, schemed over plots, and worked out endings before they began.

Of course, many do. J. K. Rowling is famous for saying that she plotted all the Harry Potter books carefully so that she knew from the start where they were headed. I suspect any book-length work at some point—many points—needs the guidance of the planning, plotting, thinking mind.

But the work might begin—and might find its key turning points—in the process of following the image. It’s a writing process of feeling, sensing, imagining, not of thinking. It’s writing in a receptive mode.

Here’s how it worked in Donna’s studio. She would offer a prompt every twenty minutes or so for about an hour. The afternoon might start with, “It was early spring. We had been traveling for more than twenty-four hours.” Eyes would become thoughtful, heads bend to laptops or notebooks, and keys begin clicking. Twenty minutes later came her soft voice again: “Let him say what he thinks.” We were welcome to start afresh in a new scene or ignore the prompt and continue with where we were.

At the end of an hour we would read aloud to one another part or all of what we had written. And the thing I remember most from those moments of reading aloud was that each person had gained access to insights that before had been unavailable. Somewhere in our scratchings, each time, was a ring of truth.

After trying a fiction story or two, I discovered that other stories had a firmer claim on my attention. I didn’t feel like writing about hazy characters in my imagination. I wanted to write instead about my own experiences—with Sapphire, my partner-dog of nearly a decade who was coming to the end of her life, with the creek I’d lived next to in Oakland, with a birch tree from my childhood.

So I did. For the most part I ignored Donna’s gentle prompts and wrote the stories that were pressing for my attention, pressing to be written. For three years I shared lovely Tuesday afternoons in Donna’s studio in quietness beside other writers, musing over attitudes toward nature, digging up old journal entries, and polishing tales that wanted to be told.

And writing each of those tales involved following the image. I might be at a temporary standstill, not knowing what to write about next, and Donna might suggest, “Follow the image.” My metaphors would get all mixed up in a paragraph, and she would say, “Follow the image.”

When I followed her advice, the writing became simpler, clearer. Metaphors slowed down, straightened themselves out. A single image—whether it was a feeling, a place, a scene, or perhaps only a fragment of scene, such as a particular color or slant of light—might become the key that would magically unify a whole piece.

Writing that followed the image also held a vitality that the academic writing I was familiar with never did. By seeing an image clearly in my mind, I gained access to feelings and sensations connected to that image. Following the image kept the writing coherent; following the image gave it life.

At the end of three years of following the image, I had a nearly complete memoir. Or so I thought.

In fact, I was only approaching the halfway mark of the book.

But that’s a tale for another day.

What does your writing process look like? Do you follow the image in your mind’s eye? Feel free to add a comment and share your writing experience.