During the first week of my Your Legacy of Words personal history writing class, I tell the students the following: “Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine you are in your favorite childhood place. Look around, and begin to notice the details of that place. What do you see? What can you touch? Smell? Hear?”
Because most of the writers in the Legacy of Words class are relatively NEW to writing in a creative and structured way, this is the sort of introductory exercise I do with them, to help them begin to go back into their past and pepper their prose with the sorts of details that will help the reader get a feel for time, place, and atmosphere. These are all important parts of telling a life story, because by more-fully describing the setting, the writer can draw the reader into this foreign world of the past.
Actually closing our eyes and imagining ourselves in that childhood setting is more powerful than simply asking someone to write about their childhood home or describe their teenage bedroom. Visualizing in this way is one of several exercises and methods I use to help begin the process of jarring bits and pieces from the memory.
Technology Can Help
Today, in that same class, one of the students said she did something similar, but very different, recently. In an attempt to remember some things about a place she had lived many years ago, she did a Google Map search, and then used the “street view” option to walk (virtually, of course) the old street where the house stood. She said she was able to better see some of the details of her story, because these visual clues had reignited her memory.
And that reminded me of something very important from my own experience: A few years ago, the building in which I attended elementary school was torn down. Before it was torn down, someone took a video camera into the building and walked up and down every hallway, into the gym, the library…all the places I went during my seven years in that school. I was unable to go back to the building before it was destroyed, but I was able to watch that video.
Watching the video reminded me of so many details of my time in that school that I had forgotten. Almost every step the videographer took, I was reminded of some memory or other. It was almost as good as going back there. Not only was I more able to describe the setting, but I remembered entire stories about that time of my life I had not thought of, and would not have thought of without that sensory reminder.
Visualizing or re-seeing something is a great way to trigger thoughts and memories we didn’t even know we still retained.
Not Just for Non-Fiction
Of course, I firmly believe this sort of visualization is important for fiction writing, as well.
Even the fictional places in my stories are based upon some real-life place, or a combination of places. Fictional characters are an amalgam of parts and pieces of real-life characters I’ve known. Things that happen to my fictional characters are made up of things that happened to me, or people I knew, I situations I’ve read about.
Visualizing those people and places and situations often helps me make the story more real. It helps me provide a more fully-realized setting or better dialogue or more organic actions and reactions. Sometimes I even stop, mid-sentence, and close my eyes and imagine character Adam talking to character Lauren and I try to really SEE them, often influenced by some snippet of an interaction I’ve seen in two “real life” people. I stop and let them play the scene out in my mind, to see what it really is she will say to him when he tells her THAT heartbreaking bit of news.
Another Kind of Visualization
Beyond closing your eyes or seeing old videos or photographs which help you envision the setting data for your creative writing work in progress, there is another type of visualization that is very important for long-term creative productivity.
This is the kind of visualization that is focused on imagining milestones or accomplishments in your writing life, before you’ve reached the goal.
This is a kind of projecting of what I want to have happen in my creative life. This is not just a wish or dream. It is a detailed visualization.
I engage in this sort of visualization every single day. It is part of my morning routine, now, and has been for a few months. I envision what I will do that day to get closer to my goals.
This sort of visualization works on three levels.
- The long-term visualization: I visualize the titles and covers of books, as they would look on the Amazon webpage or on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Not just generic books. I see the covers for The Blues and the Oranges, Sub Life, The Books My Father Left Me.
- The short-term visualization: I imagine the milestones or goalpost moments that are still ahead: finishing a draft, or the act of editing and revising, sending the manuscripts to trusted beta-readers or agents or editors.
- The immediate visualization: I think through and visualize what I am going to do today that will get me at least one step closer to that next milestone, which will get me closer to the publication of the book. Maybe I will write 500 words or 3,000. I’ll finish a chapter. I’ll type up hand-written pages or make edits. But whatever it is I need to do, I will take a few moments in the morning, as part of my journaling for the day, and I will see myself doing the work, succeeding at the work, and walking away from the desk with a sense of having accomplished the next necessary thing.
So, let me suggest you take a moment and close your eyes. Get lost in the interior world, but do so with a purpose. Whether your purpose is to explore your real life childhood, or more-fully inhabit your fictional world, or to help propel yourself into the writing life you’ve always wanted, utilizing our capacity to envision what is not immediately real and tangible is a powerful tool in your creative writing belt.
Happy writing, everyone.