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Writing from visual prompts

Using photographs to spark creativity

Why I found it so hard and how to make it work.

It’ll be easy, I thought:

  • Complete writing rituals, as normal.

  • Look at the photographs.

  • Gonzo (my creative brain) will hop up and down (the way she does) yelling a kerzillion ideas.

  • Note them down before she wanders off.

  • Write her ideas into tiny fictions. Just. Like. That.

The photographs are Mr G’s and I love them all. It should be easy. Hey, me and Gonzo’s first attempt went to plan - we made a flash - hurrah!

But Gonzo plays on her own terms (borderline unreasonable) and in her own sweet time (often inappropriate). She doesn’t enjoy being told what to care about. Our second, third and fourth attempts to use photos as prompts went something like this:

Me: Look at this daydreamer, isn’t she resonant, inspiring?

Gonzo: Yeah, yeah. She’s a sweetheart. But what if the king banned cheese?

Me: What king?

Gonzo: The one who hates cheese.

Me: And he has nothing to do with this photo. Please look at it with me, until our eyes water, if necessary. We need to write a dozen stories in a month, for Mr G’s exhibition. Don’t pull faces. Where are you going?

Gonzo gets particularly huffy about deadlines. Sniffy Neg, on the other hand, has fun with them. She’s my inner critic.

Sniffy Neg: You’ll never do it in time. What were you thinking of? It’s on the poster that there will be stories. In big red letters. What an embarrassment. Have you considered emigrating?

Me: Nope. I’m going to write a few lines inspired by some of Mr G’s photos. I am inspired by his photos. They all tell me stories.

Sniffy Neg: But you won’t do them justice, will you? And think of all those strangers coming to see his work, reading your silly words. What do you think they’ll say?

Me: Erm, 'That's an interesting idea'?

Sniffy Neg: HAHAHAHA!

Me: But, my stories will just be examples - we want to encourage people to write their own. It'll be alright, won't it?

Sniffy Neg: I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t warn you. I'll tell you what all those strangers will say, they’ll say…

Of course, she told me the worst. I thanked Sniffy Neg, because one should be kind to one's inner critic. And then I told her to eff off.

How to make it work

I know what I was doing wrong - asking Gonzo to work, when she only ever wants to play.

I need to stop with the rules and the worries, let her climb onto her glitter-rainbow space hopper and bounce wherever she pleases, picking up whatever she finds shiny and exciting.

Staring at a photo is just the start I will:

Blink: let memories tickle.

Breathe: add scents and tastes, sounds, sensations.

Beat: empathise, feel emotional responses without questioning them.

Speak: say the word on the tip of my tongue, let it share its secret meaning.

Enter: become someone or something, inside the photo’s world.

Discover: find a detail, however tiny, that feels magical or fascinates.

Question: ask what I wish I knew about this person, this place, this moment.

Close my eyes: wander, extrapolate, suppose.

Stand on my head: subvert assumptions, invert the obvious.

I’ll let Gonzo pick up, sniff, wear, squish or do whatever she pleases with all the shiny bits and bobs she finds. And then I will:

Free write: scribble without judgement.

Start again: write this imperfect story in a single ungrammatical line.

And again: just flipping write.

Walk away: seriously, I will step away from the keyboard.


Hang on, editing is a whole other blog. And I see a glitter- rainbow space hopper approaching. Yee-haw!

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