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Unblock Your Writing Through Visualization

by Jennifer on August 18, 2010

By Krista Magrowski

Visualization. I often read that to succeed we should visualize ourselves being successful.

Giving a presentation? Imagine yourself confident, in front of a spellbound group. Nervous about driving somewhere unknown? Imagine yourself on a peaceful ride and then arriving successfully at your destination. Earning a degree? Imagine yourself accepting your diploma.

I’m sure you get the picture.

I want to be a writer. So I imagine 1,000 people waiting outside a bookstore for me or that I’m signing a contract to make my book (NY Times bestseller! Nobel Prize winner!) into a movie. I also usually treat myself to a private jet while I’m at it.

But visualization is more than just imagining the end product. It can help you get unstuck if you’re currently mired down in a work in progress or it can help you jump-start a new story.

Forget the movie deals and the private jets for now. Let’s see how visualization can work for you with two versions of the same exercise.

First, in a few sentences, quickly write about your most cherished summer memory. Read it over. Not bad, right?

Now for part two. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and think back to that moment or day. Don’t do anything but place yourself at that moment in time. Start with the basics: What were you wearing? Who was with you? What did you do?

Go further.
Imagine the weather—Was it hot? How hot? So humid that your clothes stuck to you and the back of your thighs were glued to the vinyl car seats?

Conjure up your feelings at that time—Were you giddy about something? Nervous? Amazed? Anticipatory?

What smells do you remember most? The tropical scent of suntan oil? The salty tang of the ocean or stillness of a desert? The homey smell of a barbecue? The crispness of mountain air?

Go deeper.
What sounds are you hearing? Waves breaking? Crickets singing in the twilight? Birds trilling in the forest? Horns honking and music blaring?

Do you remember running your hands through burning sand? Jumping into an ice-cold lake? Petting the wooly coat of sheep at a petting zoo?

Now, using the same number of sentences as you did in the first writing exercise, rewrite the memory based on everything you just thought about.

Chances are your second paragraph is a lot more entertaining and descriptive,  more punch for the same number of sentences.

Why is that?

Reread your first paragraph. How many senses did you use? How personal was the memory? Would someone reading it be transported to that moment in time?

Answer those questions for the second paragraph and I think you’ll see why it works so much better the second time around.

My Personal Experience
Let me share with you my first experience with visualization in writing.

I was in an ongoing writing workshop and as we sat down, I had nothing to write about. Nothing. I felt as though the well was forever dry, and I might as well hang up my pen, call it quits and learn something useful like accounting or sock mending.

As usual, the workshop facilitator provided a prompt that we could choose to use to start our 30-minute writing period. On that day, she asked that we close our eyes and listen to her guidance before we began writing.

She asked us to see a character standing before us, and then to imagine that we were seeing everything from that character’s eyes. We were to visualize what the character was wearing, what he or she was seeing, if anyone else was there, what sounds the character heard, what smells were there, what feelings or thoughts the character was having.

Once we knew all that, we could open our eyes and start writing.

I began my piece, continuing to visualize everything as I wrote it, keeping in mind what I had seen and also using as many of the senses as possible (too often we concentrate on what our character is seeing and neglect some other, important sense that can convey more of a scene than sight can).

From that initial walk-through with the facilitator came the idea of a young woman in a dark hallway, going somewhere she shouldn’t be, searching for information about her supposedly long-dead mother at great peril.

Nothing was fully formed as I started. Each piece of the puzzle came to me as I wrote.

I described the utter darkness lit only by a small puddle of candlelight, the feel of cool marble under the character’s fingertips as she made her way down the darkened hallway, the scratchy sound her slippers made in the palace hall as she crept along, the musty smell of an unused room, her destination, filled with dust-laden treasures that belonged to her mother.

I even wrote about her urge to empty her bladder because she was so scared she would be caught.

At that time I didn’t know why that was bad—it would come later. All I wanted to describe was this girl, alone and scared, as if I were her. I wound up handwriting several journal-length pages. After I read that piece during the feedback session, several of the participants audibly let out their breath.

To date, I hold that particular piece of writing as one of my high points to strive for.

By visualizing the character first and seeing (and touching and smelling and hearing) the world as she did before I began writing, I was able to more fully create a picture that drew the listeners in—they were there with her. Building on my few well-rounded descriptions, their imaginations leaped in to fill the rest.

So the next time you’re done imagining doing the talk-show circuit, and you sit down to actually write and find yourself out of words, sit back and visualize a character. Let her (or him) come to you in your mind and tell you about her (or his) world.

Just try it for a few minutes and see how it can spark your imagination and thus, enrich your prose.

Have you ever visualized before you started writing? How did it go for you?

About the Author: Krista Magrowski started writing angst-ridden poetry and bad science fiction novels, which ripped off bad science fiction movies, as a teenager. Since then she has been published in “Dreams of Decadence” and has resumed writing for publication after a short break to start a family. She lives in New Jersey with her family, cats included, and can be found at http://kamagrowski.wordpress.com. She’s hoping to publish a few more stories and finish her current novel before the zombie apocalypse.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brittany August 18, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I visualize success all the time, especially when I’m lying in bed at night. Usually I picture getting a phone call from an agent offering representation, or getting my first request for a full. Sometimes I visualize scenes that I’m about to write, but I have to work on visualizing the sensory details.

Great post, and I love your visualization story!

2 jennifer blanchard August 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm

This is a really great guest post. Awesome topic 🙂 I always have visualization on my list of “to-dos,” but the main issue I run into is that I never really “see” anything when I visualize, which makes it more difficult for me to force myself to do it. It’s like meditation. People are like, meditate on a beach ball so that you eventually see it in your mind. That never happens to me. Maybe I just need more practice… Krista, you’ve inspired me to try visualizing again!!

3 Jean August 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I don’t do any kind of “formal” visualization with my writing but many times at night, when the house is quiet (except for hubby snoring next to me) I’ll visualize my story through my character’s eyes. Or, I’ll run through a scene and try different paths and see what happens. Then I usually end up grabbing the laptop and writing in the dark for an hour or so. Thankfully hubby is sound sleeper. 🙂

4 David C August 19, 2010 at 8:44 am

Hello, this is a great post, because is true that sometimes i do neglect some other important things because i am concentrating only in what my character sees, i will try this for sure, thank you for sharing.

5 Taffy August 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Thanks for the timely post! I haven’t been able to get near my piece because I’ve felt there is nothing left. The writing juice is gone. Your post and suggestions will help me get going again! I needed something new and fresh to get me back on my way. Thanks!

6 K.M. Weiland August 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Good post! Visualization is a hugely powerful tool in any author’s bag of tricks. I often tell writers to think of of their stories as a movie. Close your eyes and pretend you’re sitting in a movie theater. Your story bursts to life on the screen, in glorious technicolor and soaring soundtrack. What are you seeing on the screen? What does the camera focus on? What can you hear? I can speak from personal experience and say that it’s a marvelous way to add color and focus to your writing.

7 Aoife.Troxel August 21, 2010 at 5:06 pm

The opposite is true too. I have had dreams about things going badly (worrying the night before), and then had them go badly becuase I expected them too.

8 Monica Rodriguez August 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I usually see my stories in my head like movies when I first get my ideas. I want to try to do this more during later stages of my writing. This will be a great exercise.

@Jennifer: what might help is finding some images to represent your characters/settings. This might make it easier to visualize. I use iStockphoto or Fotolia to download free images. (I’m not doing anything w/ the images, so I don’t have to pay for them.)

Thanks for the great post!

9 Andrew Toynbee August 26, 2010 at 4:32 am

I’ve often finished the day by running my latest chapter as a movie in my head before I go to sleep. Because there are no distractions around me, I can see much more detail than I would have during the day.
However, movies are only bi-sensual. Sight and sound. Krista has reminded me that other senses need to be added to that visualisation. I’ll be walking into my next visualisation rather than merely viewing it…

10 Sarah October 23, 2012 at 12:27 am

Visualizing is actually one of my weaknesses, as I tend to be largely a verbal thinker. However the first story I wrote was heavily visualized.

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