I have good friends — a married couple — who are both well established and widely published poets. Their work is very different in tone and subject matter, as is the way they approach the creative process. Bruce (Beasley) is always coming up with interesting ways to generate poem ideas, whereas Suzanne (Paola) seems to work more from deep introspection of small triggers.

A couple years ago Bruce wrote a whole series of poems that were based on a daily exercise. He’d open the dictionary at random, close his eyes, and put his finger on a word. He took that as his starting point.

Poetry is the marrow of storytelling, where every word, every bit of white space, every punctuation mark has meaning. This is why academics are so very adamant about critical editions of poetry. That means that the editor hasn’t taken it upon him or herself to change even the smallest thing about the poem. Not a comma, or a spelling. Nothing. (Wikipedia defines a critical edition as “The ultimate objective of the textual critic’s work […] the production of a “critical edition” containing a text most closely approximating the original.)

Fiction is, of course, less exacting. Though every writer of fiction (me included) would benefit from such a painstaking process that involves the weighing of single words in comparison to each other, it’s not something novelists normally do for obvious reasons. However. fiction writers can approach their work in a variety of ways, and even adapt the kind of exercise Bruce uses to generate new ideas.

I haven’t ever tried to write on the basis on a word chosen at random, but I do write spontaneously from photos, all the time. I am what is generally called a visual-spatial learner, which explains why I have to have some kind of visual prompt to develop a character. I spend a lot of time looking at images when I’m in the early stages of writing a new person, drifting around flickr and the weblogs of photojournalists. Sometimes I’ll be looking for a hook into character x when I’ll come across character y, and recognize him or her immediately. Sometimes I have to draw the character before I can really settle into writing. I draw badly, but I am sincere and I work hard at it. The short of it is, I think in pictures.

Thus, Bruce’s exercise (picking a word at random) doesn’t work for me very well, but choosing an image at random does. In the age of Flickr, there is no shortage of images or prompts. On my own weblog, I post an image once in a while and provide a prompt, just to see what kind of character other people imagine based on that particular photo. The range of interpretations my readers come up with (see, for example, The Saxon) is often surprising and always interesting.

Often a photo will provide a whole character and a story, too. This particular photo by Rita Banerji, an Indian writer and photographer, is an excellent example. If the image itself is not enough to set story sparks zinging around the room, her commentary will:

About 50% of India’s women are illiterate. What that means is that for everyday tasks like filling forms, operating bank accounts, and even communicating with loved ones through letters they need to take help from someone. The traditional letter-writer hence continues to be a fixture on the Indian landscape. Almost all letter-writers are men, and they generally sit with their type-writers and letter pads in front of post-offices and type forms or write the personal correspondence for people who are illiterate. Here a woman is explaining what she wants written in her letter which the letter-writer writes out by hand.

This photo is a part of the 50 Million Missing International Campaign. This is a campaign to increase international awareness about the social factors that have led to the elimination of 50 million women from India’s population. These factors include selective female feticide, infanticide, dowry murders and gross marginalization because of illiteracy, poverty and neglect. Please join the protest by joining our flickr group at www.flickr.com/groups/50_million_missing/

The woman here, her face lost in shadow, is someone I would like to learn about. As I cannot talk to her directly, I must leave that idea go, or I can write about the woman she might be. That is, in my mind, the very essence of storytelling.

Image by ~imma-penguin182.