I first came across Diane Arbus about twenty-five years ago, at a poetry workshop.
The tutor had brought along a pile of photographs cut out of magazines, for a writing exercise. She spread them out on the table and had us each pick one at random, that we then used as a visual prompt for that session’s writing.
There are many ways we can use photographs in our writing. And there are many ways to get hold of photos to use – old family snaps, pictures from magazines, Pinterest, or Google, whatever is in your camera. Use landscapes and buildings to help you write about place, portraits to write about people, news shots to help you write about events, photos of paintings to write about art and colour . . .
Here’s a few ideas how to use portrait photographs to generate writing exercises or poems/stories.
Imagine the person in the photo has a secret.
- What is it?
- Why are they keeping it?
- How long have they carried it around?
- Is it a guilty secret? Dangerous, good, embarrassing, frightening, silly… ?
- Do they want to tell someone, but can’t trust anyone else with it?
- Is it a secret that could topple governments, break apart families, or change the world?
- Do they keep the secret voluntarily or under duress?
- Is it about themselves or someone/something else?
- How did they discover it?
Think of some other questions you could ask. Write an answer to each question, spending no more than a minute on each – don’t overthink it. Write what first comes to mind. Later, you can take your notes and shape them into something more detailed.
Now spend another few minutes thinking/writing about the secret about a secret.
If the secret is that the person in the photo once killed another person, what is the secret about the secret?
- What does someone else know about their secret?
- Who knows a secret about their secret?
- Why/how do they know it?
- How is this going to impact on the first secret, and the secret-holder?
- Does the secret about the secret create a conflict or dilemma? What is it?
Give the person in the photograph an item – either something from the photo, or if it is only a portrait, something the person is wearing.
- Why is the item significant to the person?
- What is the person going to do with the item? Why?
- Does somebody else have a vested interest in the item? Why?
- Describe the item – both physically, and in terms of what it can do or be or represent.
- How did the person get the item?
- What would be the result if the person lost the item?
- Does the person have to keep the item hidden? Why?
- Does the person know the true value of the item?
Write a list of questions to ‘ask’ the person in the photograph, and then write the answers. Go deeper than name, age, occupation etc. Think of things like:
- What is the worst thing the person has ever done?
- Have they ever committed a crime? What? Why?
- What is a quirky hobby they do?
- What are they most frightened of?
- What do they desire most?
- Who has been a strong influence on them, good or bad? How? Why?
- What is an unpopular opinion they hold?
- What misconception do they hold about themselves/ their world?
- What do they regret?
- What is their earliest memory?
- What is an issue they would stand up and march for?
- What is something they think should never have happened?
- What is the last thing they purchased? Why?
- How would they describe themselves in their Twitter bio?
The best dialogue tends to advance a plot, advance character development, create conflict. Write a conversation between the person in the photo, and someone else, either in the photo or someone you think up. Try these ideas for dialogue:
- one person wants some information the other person doesn’t want to share – and neither want to be explicit
- an argument
- a confession to an unsympathetic listener
- a revelation about the person they don’t know themselves
These exercises are a good launching point for a new piece of writing, or as an exercise to help you go deeper in an existing writing project, or even just as a way to flex your writing muscles.
The exercise I had to do at that long ago workshop was to write an interior monologue from the point of view of one of the people in the photograph. My picture was a 1966 black and white photo by Diane Arbus, Two Ladies at the Automat.
In my stash of writing notebooks, I still have the scrawled notes from that evening’s work, which eventually turned into this poem.
The peacock needs glasses
Thirty years, and the first words in her mouth are lies.
Sugar-coated, so I can swallow them easy,
like those pills for my blood pressure.
But her pasted mouth never savoured an alphabet
of sweet stuff. Honey. Milk chocolate. Plums.
What tickles her tongue is oniony and raw.
She says You ain’t changed a bit but who’s she kidding,
in that Woodbines drawl? I was there too,
back when we were flapping, foxtrotting, flirting.
Peacocks should be on parade in the zoo,
but she is sipping tea at my table, in some get-up
lambs shouldn’t wear, preening at herself in a spoon.
These days my mirror is a caged parrot, curtained
with a black cloth of fake night, so it won’t spawn
wisecracks and cackles, making me blush.
I don’t need to see myself to know how I look.
Not much of a looker, our Vic, Dad always said,
but handsome is as handsome does.
Whatever that means.
But I was never a girl who hugged walls
waiting for dances they never got. Seventeen pairs
of dance slippers I went through one summer.
I was Markova,
I was Fontayne,
spinning, whirling, flying,
in silk and sequins the colour of flowers,
the colour of spring.
All the spinning I do now is yarns
that make my grandchildren yawn and leave.
They jive to the beat in their own feet,
live like tomorrow is a day that only dawns for the old.
They don’t want to wear the pearls and diamante
I hoarded for my granddaughter.
You think I want to wear scarves
where fine gems used to shine?
I was a swan once.
All I can say is, it’s time
the peacock wore glasses.
Published in a fine line, autumn 2020