The maxim “show, don’t tell” is an integral part of every writer’s education. Memorable stories are not told through ponderous descriptions, but rather through vivid images that come alive in the reader’s mind. Well-chosen images can convey emotion, character development, mood, and many other facets of a well-rounded story. However, the art of selecting and understanding images is sometimes neglected among writers of prose.
An image diary is a tool used by some imagist poets to help them learn to use images more effectively. The concept is simple and easy. Every day, write down six images that stand out to you. They don’t have to be be images that strike us as particularly lofty or poetic; my own image diary contains its share of purple celluloid sponges and glass jars lined up on shelves. The important thing about these images is that we notice them and find the words to record them.
At first, keeping the diary can feel like a stiff and silly process. Describing even a simple image is harder than it looks. We start to write it down, and two words in we realize that we don’t know what part of the image really caught our eye in the first place. However, practice makes perfect, and the process of capturing images will get easier as you fill your notebook with descriptions of primer-black cars parked out of line and wind-broken branches and tweed snapback hats on passers-by.
Although some of the images in your diary will find their way into your fiction or poetry, the real value of this tool is the vocabulary of images it gives you. As you collect images, you will learn new things about the way you describe and think about your world. It may occur to you to drop some old habits and pick up some new ones. It may occur to you that you emphasize form, color, or lines when you visualize an object. It may occur to you that the sight of torn cobwebs stirs a vague, sad memory deep in your stomach.
Whatever particular lessons you learn from keeping an image diary, you can rest assured that they will impact the way you use imagery in your writing. I’ve found this to be a very worthwhile task that has made my writing more vivid, powerful, and memorable.