Previously we looked at how free writing lets you bypass mental blocks to start writing instantly.
Image-only free writing is a bit more restrictive—but as you’ll soon see, the right creative restrictions don’t shut doors on you—they actually focus your attention and reveal possibilities.
When done regularly, this variant on free writing can shake loose the kinds of images that steal your audience’s breath away. It allows you to actually impact them physically, move them emotionally, and leave a lasting impression.
As with standard free writing, all you need is a timer and five or ten minutes to write. But there’s a catch, and I’m sure you’ve already guessed it:
You may write only in images.
That means you can describe tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and touch sensations. Anything that can be experienced with the skin, ears, eyes, nose, or tongue is fair game.
But if it can’t be physically perceived with the senses, it’s off-limits.
As with ordinary free writing, don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t even worry about being coherent. Try to stay uninhibited and instinctive and light on your feet–and pack in as much sensory description as possible.
I have to credit my love of this exercise to Pat Pattison at Berklee College of Music. Pat invented a type of image-only free writing that he calls “object writing”.
Where to start
This is one of the greatest things about free writing: If you don’t know where to start, start anywhere. Look around yourself and pick a person, a place, or a thing at random.
Here’s a piece of my own free writing that started with the simple image of a grape:
Big plate of green grapes like translucent veiny olives. Explode between molars like squelched eyeballs, a pulpy mass that triggered my gag reflex every time I even saw a cluster in the fridge. Twenty years later I swirled their red blood in a glass, salivated at the tangled smells: chocolate transforming into black licorice morphing into cinnamon and the most distant tinge of my father’s old coffee can of turpentine that he kept by the easel. All those half-crushed tubes: cadmium, Prussian blue, viridian. Tannin coats my tongue like crushed velvet. The pregnant bartender keeps putting glass after glass on my amplifier—and like a dolt I keep drinking them until my fingertips go numb and I have to croon six slow songs in a row as the floorboards flex and warp underneath my feet
Notice that the passage above is almost like a motion blur. I chased whatever images came to mind, following them from scene to scene: from my view of grapes as a child to wine as an adult to turpentine to my father’s oil paintings… finally, back to a bar gig where the pregnant bartender kept pouring wine down my throat.
If you like, you’re free to restrict your own free writing session to a more specific topic, to a particular event in your life—anything you want to explore. But for your first few sessions, at least, I suggest following your memory and imagination on whatever zigzag path they lead you.
Go ahead and try your own imagist free writing from the image “grape”.
- Set a timer for ten minutes.
- Write nonstop, packing in as many sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations as possible. Avoid writing anything that isn’t a sensory experience.
- Stop when the timer goes off.
I think you’ll find that this simple “senses only” restriction draws fresh, exciting description out of you—especially if you make it part of your daily writing routine. Compelling imagery is one way to truly hook your audience.
Try it now!