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  • M.A. Hickinbotham

Visual inspiration for writing

People are affected and inspired by countless stimuli—the damp smell of rain on a hot brick sidewalk; the sound of waves crashing on the shore; the taste of buttery, fresh-baked bread; the feel of warm towels straight from the dryer…the list goes on and on. However, sight may be the most powerful sense when it comes to inspiring creative writing. It is a tremendous tool for novelists, poets, songwriters, playwrights, and journalists.

To look at how visual stimuli can inspire creative writing, consider the following: Have you ever stood slack-jawed while admiring a multicolored sunset or an amber harvest moon hanging low on the horizon? Has a star-swept sky on a clear night left you gaping upward until your neck hurt? Have you ever done a double-take at turn in the road where you suddenly noticed a patch of flowers, vibrant and in full bloom? Have mountain panoramas, broad forestscapes or desert vistas ever left you speechless? If you were to put pen to paper immediately after seeing those things, how might you describe them? Would the images—still fresh in your mind—make for an inexorable flow of creative praise and adoration in your work?

Imagery in nature alone has a way of creating a profound sense of reverence, wonder, and mystery, even exhilaration and comfort. It explains why many poems are written about such themes. However, think of the myriad other sights that might spark something in you, compelling you to write. Consider the thoughts and feelings provoked by watching a live NASA rocket launch; witnessing a crime or accident; viewing the Parthenon or Great Pyramid of Giza; visiting the site of a historic battle; or having a lengthy sit-down chat with your favorite celebrity. Those events have vivid visual aspects to them—images rooted in meaning and sentiment. You should draw from those images and put their associated value into lasting works of art.

Even if your lifestyle doesn’t allow for extreme activities or exotic locations, the things you see on a regular basis can still be a catalyst for imagination and creativity. Can you capture in words the sadness or frustration you feel when you see that homeless person begging for money at the intersection? Could you depict the fear and thrill you experience when going through a haunted house at the carnival? Would you be able to impregnate words with the carefree feeling you get from sitting on a soft beach with blue-green waters and tall palms swaying in the ocean breeze? The challenge is getting others to experience what you have seen, simply by painting those images into their minds with your words. If you accomplish the task well, it should conjure the same (or similar) images and emotions in your readers.

An even greater challenge is making others see unique things—fantasy elements born purely from the stuff of dreams—that only you can see in your head. In his book On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, C.S. Lewis indicates that his ideas for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began with a single picture—a fanciful image he’d had in his mind since he was about 16 years old. He took that image and ended up creating a seven-book series that is a staple in fantasy literature. Even then, other ideas within those classics may have been inspired by simple things he saw around him. Think of Lewis standing in a dusty attic or antique store while admiring an ornate wardrobe fashioned from dark walnut, wondering what would happen if it possessed some enchanted quality. Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien looking at a dense stand of tall trees in his native England and envisioning the forest dwellings of Lothlórien’s elves. Picture Gene Roddenberry looking into a starry sky, daydreaming of a diverse crew and starship that could explore the universe. Imagine John Lasseter and Robert McKee looking at a shelf or floor full of toys, brainstorming what might happen if those playthings came to life when people weren’t around.

Whether you get inspired from the sights of real life, dusty photo albums, or even online galleries, ideas can come from countless visual stimuli. Nothing should ever be considered as lacking potential for a work of art. The next time you look at something—ordinary or amazing—let your mind wander and ponder how that image could inspire a setting, a character, or even an entire plot line.




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