| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Let’s Talk About Imagery
It’s hard to talk about love without clichés, but what about images you associate with love? Poet José Olivarez shares lessons on imagery learned from country music.
Recently, I’ve gotten into country music a little more. I’m delighted by country music because of the imagery in the songs. My favorite song at the moment is a love song by Luke Combs called Forever After All . In the song, Combs uses images like cold beer and a good truck and a flashlight to explain how most things are temporary . . . except this particular love. Listen to the song if you don’t know it. It’s sweet.
The song’s use of imagery is instructive in a couple of different ways. Here are some lessons I pull from the song.
In order to write about the undefinable and abstract feelings, we reach for definable and concrete images.
When we are overcome with emotion, we want to reach for the grandest and most abstract language to demonstrate how grand our love or how deep our sorrow. Logically, it makes sense. However, this only serves to make more abstract what is already abstract. Instead, we can ground the abstract in the concrete and thus give love or other feelings a physicality. For example, “love is a borrowed shirt” transforms love into a borrowed shirt. It’s hard to talk about love directly without running into clichés, but writing about a borrowed shirt is more possible.
The best images, in my very biased opinion, are local.
This is my favorite part of country music—they’re always singing about beer and their cars. It doesn’t matter if they’re singing about love or politics or heartbreak or fear. All of those emotions are transmitted through ordinary imagery.
I’m writing this writing prompt to you from my kitchen table. On my left side, there is all of the recycling I need to take out. It’s springtime and allergies have my face feeling puffy. Outside, the street cleaners make their noisy pass down the block. All of this may be nothing, but it is my job to attempt to transform this daily static into something you’ll want to read. I don’t need to turn away from my life in order to do this. I need to turn toward it and get better at looking.
Put another way: Who says that Paris is the most romantic city? Why can’t it be Calumet City, Illinois, or St. Louis, Missouri, or El Paso, Texas? What does love look like where you are?
The imagery we use gives our writing an address. If you write about McDonald’s, then we’re probably neighbors. If your characters order their tacos con todo, we’re probably cousins. If your characters ask for their steak rare, you’re probably my boss.
One more reason to use local images: Surprise!
It is beautiful and surprising and, frankly, inspiring to my sappy heart to see a cold beer be charged with romantic energy. If your imagery is not specific enough than you lose the opportunity to surprise the reader by transforming an object into something else. We expect our characters to romance each other with wine and chocolates and diamonds. That’s cool, but one of the most romantic things a lover ever did for me was move my car before street cleaning gave me a ticket.
Of course, like all rules, my rules for using local images can be ignored and contradicted. Look, you’re the writer — and ultimately, you decide what you want for your writing. But if you feel moved, than I offer this very simple prompt: Write a love poem or story that is grounded in the neighborhood where you grew up. What would a romantic date look like? What did courting look like? What was the soundtrack to romance? See if you can transform your neighborhood into the swoon capital of literature.