On Weaving Imagery and Scene into Creative Nonfiction

I am not a poet. Not a good one, anyway. I find it difficult to describe things creatively, accurately, and effectively without sounding artificial, stilted, and/or over-the-top (notice how I chose the word “things” instead of something more poetic, particular, or evoking!). And so, to get around this, I simply leave descriptions out. Yes, for the most part, I don’t even try.

Why would I need to include imagery or scene when writing essays, anyway?

I cannot sincerely pose that question without my literary mind shouting back: “Of course imagery and scene are essential to essay writing! What makes you feel exempt?” And yet, I’ve tried to get away with it by quietly sidestepping these techniques, pretending they do not apply to my genre, and hoping no one will notice. (But they do!)

This has been a chronic problem for me.

It’s easy to see how imagery is essential to poetry, and scene is to fiction. But how do they apply to creative nonfiction? This might be obvious to you, reader, but I’ve been acting (read: writing) like I don’t know the answer.

“There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing,” writes Janet Burroway in  Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. “The trick is that if you write in words that evoke the senses — if your language is full of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched — you create a world your reader can enter.” Notice that she writes that this is “at the heart of imaginative writing,” a term she uses instead of “creative writing”; she does not specify a genre.

Evoking the senses in the way Borroway described is called imagery, and it need not be a visual “image” in order to count. Rather, imagery can be the way a single thread feels in one’s fingers, or the way it tastes before it’s threaded through the eye of the needle, or the way the foot of the sewing machine sounds when it’s clamped down, or the way new fabric smells before it’s washed. That is, imagery can be applied to one or all five senses.

Similarly, scenes are representations of specific moments in time, usually with some sort of action, like a seamstress preparing to sew. Scenes come alive when they include vivid imagery: they allow the reader to enter that world.

It’s like selecting colourful threads to include in a tapestry one is weaving on an old-fashioned loom. Every selection is deliberate, unhurried, and creative, with the overall project in mind. Perhaps this selection of imagery is fuchsia, perhaps that element of the scene is green. The individual strands are selected and interwoven with the rest of the  threads to create the tapestry.

When I write, I rely heavily on the flow of ideas to move my piece along. I’ve limited myself to the darker hues of blacks, blues, and purples, and havn’t included the fuchsias and reds, the greens and yellows, of imagery and scene that would catch the eye. While ideas are important, they might best be included as a backdrop to imagery and scene. Vibrant colours need something to stand out against, and the darker hues need something to make the art memorable.

This works best when they are woven together expertly.

Perhaps that’s also part of my hesitation to try: there’s such intricacy involved in a well-chosen image, in an effective scene.

I understand theoretically the need to not overly describe with adjectives and adverbs; a wise creative writing professor (who happened to be the poet laureatte of the state at the time), shared that instead of adjectives, go for well-chosen nouns (and verbs, too, I think he said). Repeat: adjectives are to be used sparingly.

And then, there’s the balance that still needs to be struck in not overly-describing.

“I’ve noticed in many of my favourite novels that the minor characters are more minutely described, much more physical detail is given about them, than about the hero,” writes Madeleine L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet. “A protagonist should be an icon for the reader. A photograph can be a simile, an image; it can seldom be a metaphor, an icon.” That is, a protagonist need not be described in minute detail as though seen in a photograph. Rather, we need only a few, carefully chosen aspects of her in order to see who she is, if not physically, then at least representationally. A detail or two that gives us access into her character.

In practice, this is difficult. But I’m able to appreciate the effectiveness of it in the writing of others.

For instance, take this opening from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,–or from one of our elder poets,–in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper.”

George Eliot does more work in describing Dorothea’s clothing and manner by being selective and suggesting associations, than could ever be done by describing Dorothea’s person or even clothing in minute detail.

We know what kind of person she is by the description that she “had the kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress” as though she were a religious who has taken the vow of poverty. And continuing: “Her hand and wrist were so finely formed” (the only part of her which is actually described in this passage) “that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters.” And in case we missed the religious overtones, we are thirdly given the likening of her manner of dress to a quotation from the Bible. With these few associations, we see in our minds an updated version of a Blessed Virgin of an Italian painter. An icon. We don’t need all the specifics.

Creative. Accurate. Effective.

Later in Imaginative Writing, Burroway explains, “it is sense impressions that make writing vivid, and there is a physiological reason for this. Information taken in through the five senses is processed in the limbic system of the brain, which generates sensuous responses in the body: heart rate, blood/oxygen flow, muscle reaction, and so forth. Emotional response consists of these physiological reactions, so in order to have an effect on your reader’s emotions, you must literally get into the limbic system, which you can only do through the senses.”

I was thinking about all of this, and what makes good imagery and scene, when recently re-reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” the other day.

Although much of Woolf’s essay is concerned with the inequality that women of genius faced with not having the same advantages of education and writing as her male counterparts, Woolf develops these ideas to a large extent by showing detailed scenes, even as she takes us on what she admits is an imaginative tour of two colleges: one for men, another for women.

As I read, I found the following passage, which appears on her walk home:

“In my little street . . . domesticity prevailed. The house painter was descending his ladder; the nurse-maid was wheeling the perambulator carefully in and out back to nursery tea; the coal-heaver was folding his empty sacks on top of each other; the woman who keeps the green-grocer’s shop was adding up the days’ takings with her hands in red mittens.”

The work Woolf does in the quotation above allows the reader, with just a few details, to “see” this scene of “domesticity.”

Notice that the description is predominantly concerned with nouns (the people she is describing) and verbs (the actions they are each doing): the “painter was descending his ladder; the nurse-maid was wheeling the perambulator” etc. so that when get to the grocer, and we are supplied with the details that she’s counting the money “with her hands in red mittens,” the red pops — not only as a shock of colour, but also as the defining detail recalled afterwards. It’s a wonderful example of using adjectives sparingly, with expert effect. The red of imagery woven into the tapestry of darker hues of overall ideas.

While both my examples from literature are primarily visual imagery, the same kind of work could be done with any of the senses in order to produce imagery and / or scenes that allow the reader into that world. And, if you’re writing creative nonfiction, that means inviting the reader into your own world.

Last week, I finally confronted my deficiency of imagery and scenes in my writing by deciding to practicing writing descriptions. I selected a notebook, given to me last Christmas, and christened it “Heather’s Book of Descriptions.” Of course, in the very first “description,” I slipped into flashback (in which the “scene” consisted entirely of dialogue), and then was immediately carried further away with thought (instead of image), so that while I wrote for nearly three pages, by the end, I still had not accomplished what I’d set out to do.

But, it was a step in the right direction.

Imagery and scene do not come naturally for me: I do not usually have descriptions just come to me in my writing, or my everyday life. I have to consciously think about including them, and even then, it’s hard work, like it was to include  the small amount of sewing and weaving imagery in this essay. Even so, I realize the “imagery” I’ve included is more thought-based than sensory.

I hesitate to begin including imagery and scene now because so much time has passed in which I’ve not used it. My skill is under-developed. Any attempts would be elementary.

But in my notebook (a sort of “Room of One’s Own“), I’ve selected a few threads, and am practicing by weaving them together. The imagery is not beautiful. The scenes are not polished. I’m out of practice (was I ever actually IN it?). But this notebook, at least, will allow me the space in which to try.


Before publishing the above essay, an image (closely related to an idea) came to me, quite unexpectedly, this morning. And so I wrote it down in my notebook, with a scene, polished it up a bit, and am including the piece below. There are too many adjectives no doubt! – but it’s another step.

I came up with the image after the thought of writing an “Ode to Lost Clothes.” The following is a micro-essay called “To a Favourite Shirt”:

“Silky smooth, navy blue, with tiny, puffed sleeves. Left in London, last seen in my youth hostel room so close to Saint Paul’s I could hear Matins ring though an open window, and be sitting in front of Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” (Christ in a red robe) with the priests in their cassocks and two or three tourists in their street clothes before prayers began at 7:30 a.m. sharp. Undoubtedly, worn one of those mornings with a fitted skirt. Last worn when viewing Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott” who was sitting on her tapestry, mourning her own loss. How fitting.”


Question: What do you do to intentionally improve areas of difficulty in your writing? (I’d especially love to hear anything specific for imagery and scene!)