Narrative ‘Tradecraft’ #2 – Image(ry)

This post originally appeared at

While it may be true that an image or picture can be worth a thousand words, in our less quantitative approach to narrative healing, an image is that which the words bring to mind – the picture that the words conjure for a reader or listener – which we’ll say more about below.

Woman DanceImagery – the presence and function of images in a narrative is at the heart of the “show, don’t tell” directive for writers and it beckons us to write “Heart pounding, palms sweating, I slowly turned the doorknob…” as opposed to “I was really, really scared.” Imagery in writing allows us to feel in our bodies what we might otherwise only be able to understand with our minds. It takes our abstract notions of fear, joy, love, anger, confusion, rage, empathy, bliss, anxiety, doubt, contentment, certainty – any and all of the emotions or states of mind with which we may be familiar, and translates them into concrete, sensory language.

While the abstraction gets us into the vicinity of what we’re trying to express, the image drops us into its essence – we can see, feel, taste, touch or smell what the idea itself suggests. Anger becomes a clenched fist; love appears as the young woman cradling her newborn. And just to be clear, in this particular context, we are not even considering the prospect of the image as metaphor – used to represent one thing as or through another (stay tuned for metaphor in future narrative tradecraft writings).

Let’s return now to what “the words conjure for the reader or listener,” which can be different from what the writer actually intends. Once shared, our images include a signifier – the word/image itself, let’s say “leaves”; the signified – what the observer/listener/reader understands the word/image to represent – what it brings up for him or her, let’s say “someone’s departing”; and the referent* – that actually intended by the writer, let’s say, to be obvious and simple here, “those parts of a tree that leave (ha!) in autumn,” often in a colorful cascade.

Once set loose in the world, the writer’s (or painter’s, or composer’s or sculptor’s) images take on a life of their own that includes the lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Careful readers may, at this point, be asking, so what in the name of all that’s healing is your point here?

HeartTreeOur healing narratives, though we may choose to share them, and our healing process may be significantly enhanced through such sharing, are typically very personal writings intended for our own and not for others’ eyes. Doesn’t this mean, then, that our chosen signifiers, signifieds and referents are safe and identical, since we obviously know what we mean when we write them, as long as we don’t share what we’ve written? Perhaps. But probably not.

Even our most intentional, focused and well-intentioned writings – the signifiers we choose, come to us amid and through our conscious, subconscious and unconscious meanderings. Just when our healing sense of self thinks it knows what it’s doing, the soul, or shadow, or Mystery itself is busy revising and editing so we choose exactly what we need for our deepest healing. Whether or not we ever share our healing narratives, our chosen images may carry meaning beyond our intention.

Here’s a ‘real-life’ example: And Now, Still. Take a moment and translate that for yourself. What might it mean? Over the course of some years, I noticed the presence of the word still especially, but not only, in poems I was writing for my parents and sister – all deceased. It took me those same years to recognize that even though I intended one meaning of the word when I wrote it, I didn’t realize how often it appeared or how often it had more than my intended meaning in the context in which it was used. Eventually, what had emerged subconsciously became increasingly more conscious to me, and the three words quoted above became first a poem and then the title of a book of poems.

"And Now, Still" BookcoverStill – as in “motionless,” as in “continuing,” and as in “continuing to be motionless” worked on me and my writing long before I began to work with it.

Our images are significant. What we choose to show ourselves and others as we write in order to heal can have power beyond what we think we’re intending. So yes, show, don’t tell, and as you do, keep your senses attuned to what you may be shown in the process.

*Signifier, signified and referent based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, as referenced in Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Shambhala, 1995).

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