Writing about a Picture

When I was teaching college English, a favorite writing assignment was writing about a picture. Students could use any picture they wanted – even one they wished for but didn’t have.

Most of the papers were astonishingly good. It’s something I wish I’d learned much earlier: A lot of what we label “poor writing” isn’t caused by weak skills. The real problem is a dull topic.

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One of my end-of-the-year projects has been scanning and organizing old photos. Here’s one of my favorites – a picture of my husband when he was four years old:

Cousins lined up on a dock for a snapshot

I didn’t know Charlie (my husband) until we met in our twenties. But I know the rapturous little boy in the picture very well. Everyone else is seeing an ordinary little fish on a line – not even worth keeping. But to four-year-old Charlie, it’s a magical moment.

He still loves fish – any type of aquatic life, in fact. It doesn’t have to be exotic or impressive. On a trip to the Everglades years ago, we had to stop at every puddle so that he could check it for crayfish.

If you have a free evening, consider spending it with some old photo albums. Can you find a picture that makes you say, “Yes – that’s mom” (or dad, or Uncle Stan, or your best friend)? Do you have a picture that reveals something essential and important about you?

Let’s take it a step further. Can you think of an anecdote that perfectly sums up someone you know – or can tell us who you are?

I remember a date with Charlie shortly after we started going together. We were walking home from a restaurant in New York. A man in shabby clothing staggered past us, obviously drunk. Charlie left me standing there, put his arm on the man’s shoulder, and gently guided him across the street until the man pointed to a doorway and went inside.

That’s Charlie, and that heart of his is one reason I married him.

Do you collect stories? Is your writing crammed with them? They add interest to everything you write. More important, they bring your writing to life.

It’s not January 1 yet, but here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Promise yourself that you will become a collector and a connoisseur of stories. You’ll be amazed at the difference they make in your writing – and your readers will be just as impressed.

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