When pictures speak

Islanders Write workshop will tell us how writing from personal photos brings insight, connection, and zest into our lives.


By Kelly DuMar

Photographs fill boxes in our attics, and cover our walls and furniture in frames. We store them on our computers and cellphones, and share them instantly on social media. We’re taking and sharing more pictures than ever before. Why? Because our photos show what we care about and hope to preserve, what moves and delights us. Our photos capture the people, places, and memories that bring beauty and meaning into our lives. As a creative writing workshop facilitator, I’ve found that writing from personal photos brings insight, intimacy, and zest into your life –– whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not.

I share a fundamental belief with the poet William Stafford, who said, “We are all writers, we are all creative.” But when we learn to write in school, our creative impulses are often discouraged by the focus on mechanics, pleasing a critic, getting it right, or writing what we’re told to write. 

My photo-inspired writing process nurtures spontaneity and imaginative self-expression –– where satisfying creative writing begins. One woman I worked with overcame the belief that she couldn’t write. She soon discovered: I am getting out of my comfort zone and exploring my love of words. I am overcoming the story I have said to myself that no one would be interested in what I have to say.

 One young man wrote from a photo of himself and his brother as a child posing in the arms of their mother. As soon as he began writing, he wondered who had taken the photo. Ah. He realized it was the last photo his father had taken before leaving the family. His poem arose from this awakening. He said, “I was able to not only write something I’m proud of, but to process and communicate emotional difficulties I hadn’t been able to find words for in years.”

Photo-inspired writing in a workshop produces more than poetry and prose. It revives our spirit. Long-dormant parts of our lives, places we’ve traveled to, people we’ve loved and lost come alive on the page. As the psychologist James Hillman brilliantly said, “The gift of an image is that it provides a place to watch your soul.” Workshop participants who have been feeling bored, lonely, or sad rediscover a zest for living. Deep conversations are sparked by showing, writing, and sharing who — and what — we love. And, because listeners are truly interested, we feel a renewed enthusiasm, energy, and sense of connection.

No prior writing experience is necessary for this workshop, because our personal photos give us the feelings, words, and the urge to begin writing on the blank page. A CEO and founder of a nonprofit assured me she had never done any creative writing. But after the workshop series she took, she said, “When I joined the workshop, I was intrigued, as I had recently found very old photos of my work in Cambodia. I don’t think any other process would have brought out the deep insights, memories, and tears of reflection that [the] process allowed me to uncover.”

My own photo-inspired creative writing was sparked by a photograph. I was a 22-year-old college student when the aunt I’d looked up to and adored since childhood needed me by her side. Caring for Marion as she died changed my life, and when I saw a photograph of my Aunt Marion looking like an adventurous young woman in my mother’s scrapbook, I asked her if I could keep it. This photo of Marion, captured in an archetypal pose of the archer, like the goddess Diana, stretching her bow, aiming her arrow, captivated me. I wanted to unpack all the truth and beauty it held. 

What I appreciate most about photo-inspired writing is that it engages us with the profound beauty of our ordinary lives. We discover what I call “the secret reveal” –– a revelation –– something we have been unable to express that leads us to a new way of knowing ourselves or others, and changes our response to the community and the world.

For this Islanders Write workshop, bring an arresting personal photo to write from.

Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright, and workshop facilitator from the Boston area who has been leading creative writing workshops for decades. For a month every summer, Kelly has the good fortune to be on Martha’s Vineyard in Chilmark. Kelly will be giving a photo-inspired workshop at this summer’s Islanders Write. Visit islanderswrite.com.