First the Picture, Then the Words

The characters in my novel take a road trip from Kansas City to San Francisco. We (the characters and I) were all doing fine cruising through the wheat fields of Kansas heading toward Denver. I’ve driven that part of the country a few times so when my characters looked out the window, I could describe the landscape—the wheat fields in early spring, the far horizon, the silver silos that rose into delft blue skies. But once we left Denver and got through the Rocky Mountains past Steamboat Springs, I was in deep writer trouble.

I might as well have taken us to Czechoslovakia. (That country still existed in 1958, when my novel is set.) I had no idea what the world outside our station wagon looked like. So I opened my browser to Google maps and found my way onto Highway 40 in northern Colorado. In the “photos” view I clicked randomly on the pop up pictures that lined the yellow stripe of highway into Utah. Now I could describe the rise of the buttes out of dun colored earth, the weathered gray of old barns, the flight of a single hawk into a dome of sky that had no beginning or end.

But it was the particular photograph of a herd of wild horses running into the wind that gave me an image I could use to express the emotional landscape of my characters on their journey. I downloaded that photograph, printed a copy and stuck it on my bulletin board above my writing desk.

The photo of the wild horses wasn’t the first nor the only time I’ve used images to enhance or inspire my writing. A postcard I picked up at a café in Cannon Beach, Oregon featured the photograph of a guy in a band who became the model for one of my characters (the very handsome, very sexy love interest. Oh, those cheekbones!). A moody picture of a single microphone captured in a pool of light communicated a shade in the palette of emotions I needed for my protagonist—a young girl who yearns to be a singer. A collage I created with images culled from magazines was an “open sesame” into the woman who owned the fishing camp where part of the story takes place.

(This is a faux book jacket I created for inspiration)

Images such as these speak to some intuitive understanding we have about our story or our characters. They allow us to explore characters or setting or offer insight into conflict or relationships. Sometimes they just do that “picture’s worth a thousand words” thing like my Google map photos .

I’m looking forward to the “Creating with Pictures and Words” retreat Jill Hall and I are leading this Saturday at her ranch in San Diego’s backcountry. Who knows what I’ll discover flipping through magazines looking for images that call out from the page. Who knows what will be revealed through the follow-up writing exercises. I love the surprises, don’t you?

Do you use images to enhance your writing or to delve deeper into your story or characters?

“If I could just get away . . . “

Our Mountain Retreat

Definition of irony: I am taking time away from my time away to write about getting away. That is, I have holed myself up in a mountain cabin in Idyllwild with my friend Dian for a month-long writing retreat. No Internet or cell-phone service unless I go “down the hill” as the local say, to a café, and no television only my Rodney Yee yoga DVDs and my laptop, a few of my notebooks and a firm commitment to finish the third draft of my novel.

You might say I’m in heaven.

Though by far my longest “time away,” this isn’t the only writing retreat I’ve created for myself this year. At least once a month my friend Jill and I make a date for three or four hours at her house or mine to devote to our writing, in May she invited me to her ranch for a glorious and productive three-day retreat. I also consider my monthly Saturday Series gatherings with a dozen or so other writers a retreat; I even include “retreat” in the title of the series, and certainly the twice-yearly, day-long writing marathons at The Ink Spot are a time-out-of-time, rowdy and rambunctious as they can sometimes be.

Fellow Retreater

To my mind, a writing retreat is the time I take out of my ordinary day-in and day-out routine, when I set everything aside and give myself over to my writing. It’s where I go when I remove myself from the ordinary and move into the extraordinary. So, in this sense, the hour-long Thursday Writers sessions and Tuesday Brown Bag group I participate in could be called mini-retreats. Even my daily writing practice can be turned into a retreat when I create the right container for it—that is, setting aside time, creating space (for me, that means lighting a candle) and entering the time and space with intention.

Much as I believe that the idea of a writing retreat will always include “getting away” (I expect secluded mountain cabins or private, distant seashores will forever remain in my writer’s mind’s eye), I also believe it’s important to create other, less extensive writing retreats that can refill and restore us, open us to creative expression and allow us to dip into the solitude we need. Consider this:

• that a writing retreat is not necessarily a place, but a concept.

• that the word retreat is both a noun and a verb.

• that time can be measured not just in length, but in depth.

• that the idea of being alone isn’t about being distant from people but not allowing others to intrude on your solitude.

When was the last time you gave yourself the gift of “getting away”?

*some of the material was previously published in my kit, The Writer’s Retreat Kit, a Guide for Creative Expression & Personal Exploration.