Pictures and Words

ImageI have recently been baffled by the question of why some very skilled teachers of young children do not see their students’ drawing as writing.

And I have noticed, during teacher presentations in the summer institute I’m co-leading, that a presenter’s use of visuals, particularly art, prompts me to write.

In fact, this little ill-tended blog about nothing in particular doesn’t get posts unless I find a photo or image that resonates with a thought I might write about.

Which means that, while I am poking about, wondering what to begin writing, and what to talk about in my afternoon writing group, I might get some images to use as prompts.  Or at least pay enough attention to my thoughts to see what imagery might be occurring in my mind.

What to write about.  Such a dangerous question, because the real topic might float to the surface of my consciousness and be far too scary, not unlike the appearance of a large reptile in a still pool.  Or, I might head off on a journey of thought and just frolic around in hills of nonsense and never say anything true.  In which case I’d be better off with my online word games.

I dislike the idea that to write one has to have something to say.  I tend to Don Murray’s theory that we write to learn, to find out what we think.  The use of an image, curating a collection of pictures and letting one draw my attention, indicates I already know what I want to write about, but I don’t know that I know.

When kindergarteners and first graders sat in small groups with me and drew whatever they wanted, then talked to their neighboring fellow student about the drawing, and then wrote, it was fascinating.  For one thing, I realized how differently some of these youngsters minds work from each other, but watching their approaches to drawing problems and their conceptions. But the more interesting piece was how much more fluently they wrote — invested writing with voice. Had I simply given them lined paper and insisted they craft some complete sentences which began with a capital letter and ended with a period, I might not have thought them smart or interesting.

There is an engagement, even in adults, when we combine images and words.  I was watching other afternoon writing groups put the finishing touches on their posters last week, noticing the peaceful kind of attentiveness that drawing and adding color to a large space of white paper can elicit.  And, even among those not given to visual arts skill, there’s a sense of agency and — something more elusive in the room, like a fragrance I can’t quite identify — there’s that satisfaction in the grown-ups I saw in the children who drew, then talked about their creations. It seems to me that working from the picture to the exposition amplifies the composing process for many of us.

Perhaps that means I should not look for photo files, or search my mind for imagery.  Maybe to find out what I Really Want to Write About for this summer’s portfolio and anthology, maybe I need to draw or paint?

I still think that drawing is creating text as much as putting words on a page or typing on a blog, especially for developing young minds.  It is more likely that words will be directly approximately understood by my reader and images perhaps not be as accurate to produce direct communication.

I am wondering then whether to face the blank page with my hands poised over the keyboard or a colored pencil in hand over a drawing pad?  Or walk down the street with my camera?  The thing it makes me realize is that what is generic in all three possibilities is that I am observing, paying attention.

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