Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 27, 2008

Pictures and Words

My sixth grade teacher liked to quote, “One picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s one thing I actually remember all these years later, perhaps because Mr. Cotter found cause to mention this over and over, but I just had a vague sense of some Asian attribution – Confucius? I Googled the phrase and found out this oft-quoted proverb is the genius of a 1920’s adman, who thought people would take it more seriously if said to be ancient Chinese wisdom. Hmmm, best leave it in my mind with Mr. Cotter.

My life is so involved with words, but much of what I write begins with an image. Something I can feel and hold feels like a touchstone, something I can trust. And if I let an image move through pages, sometimes that thing opens up to reveal more than one meaning. A character in a novel I’m revising saves stuff, she won’t throw things out. And I just now saw her as a saver, someone who yearns to rescue – that kind of watching objects turn to metaphor is so fun.

I’m thinking about this because in responses to my previous post, my blog-sisters, fellow research fiends Becky and Susan have been swapping thoughts about the delight of those big Time-Life books that come in a sort of plastic padding like yearbooks, meant to get beaten up and last. The ones I have smell kind of ancient, a good thing. Many of those pictures really do have a thousand words or more in them. You can read all the searing analysis and fluffy description tyou want, but a good picture can tip you over into the flavor of a time and place.

Our culture can get dominated by word-people (and bless us, every one). Kids who move beyond books with pictures are sometimes encouraged to see that as a landmark in growth. Art often gets dropped as a subject by sixth grade or even before. It’s a shame, though of course pictures don’t go away. They’re on the web, video games, and cereal boxes. They draw us into the stories we pass in supermarket check out line.

Really I should be whipping out my camera about now, but I’m going to gaze and get back to the page. Becky’s goal is to get through a week of work and as a Saturday reward open her library books. Good luck there! Maybe just a peek over lunch….



  1. The whole idea for my historical YA started with a picture. Well, okay, it started with a historical reference, but since about the day after that I’ve had this image of my MC striding down a street–legs moving fast enough to kick out the long skirts that would try to restrain her. She’s moving, fast, pushing through something.
    As I get my ideas going, I have to keep coming back to that image, to that picture of who she is. And, as much of a word person as I am, I know that I always have a picture in my mind as I write.
    “Research-fiend”–how my history-loving father and sister would gawk to hear me called that! 🙂

  2. I have a non-fiction adult book that was begun due to a picture. I was looking for a picture to support something in a children’s book, found this other one, and it took me off in a completely different direction.

  3. I love the idea of a book starting (close enough) from an image, and even more, using that image to keep things moving.

  4. Yay for pictures — and spinning in different directions.

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