Image Conscious

by Michael Mercurio

A good image will ensure that your work is enjoyable. A great image will ensure that your work is unforgettable. But what does it take to create a great image for your piece of writing? And what is “imagery,” anyway?

Perhaps most closely associated with poetry—at least in the world of writing!—my basic definition of imagery is “figurative language that evokes sense-memory or sense-impressions.”

An image is not always drawn just from visual inputs, though; sometimes the freshest and most surprising images in a piece take their inspiration from sound or smell or touch, bypassing the reader’s logical mind to connect directly with memory and imagination so that the reader feels the story or poem as much as they read it.

Or, to put it another way, you’ve all heard the old saw “Show, don’t tell!” given as writing advice since the first time you picked up a pencil. Writing fresh, inventive images into your work is a form of telling-through-showing, making use of the potency of images to sidestep pages of expository dialogue or long narratives to build up backstory for a character.

For example, Raymond Chandler, writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, was a master of infusing his work with the kind of imagery that did a lot of heavy lifting to establish mood, scene, and character, as in this notable quote from his fictional detective Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye: “I belonged there like a pearl onion on a banana split.” Even without the benefit of the rest of the passage we can infer why Marlowe stands out, how his presence unbalances the social situation in which he finds himself—and that he has no place among the soft or the sweet. From these 11 words we can understand the world Chandler has created.

As a poet, the success of my work depends on imagery, so I have a special fascination with it, and with the ways we can layer meaning in images, combining the sensory response with social associations to develop the complexity our writing needs—and our readers deserve.

For this workshop we’ll start with the basics, using notable excerpts from poems, stories, and essays to identify different types of imagery, and talk about the possibilities inherent in each. After that, I’ll share some prompts to kickstart you in drafting your own images and share some ways you can make imagery a consistent part of your writing practice.

Come to Michael’s Imagery Workshop, on October 8th, to learn more about using imagery to bring your writing to life in the reader’s mind and body! This workshop is in person at the studio, with a hybrid option for those who want to be online!

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