11 Exercises to Enhance Your Visual Thinking

Which comes first for you—images or words? For storytellers, both are important. We craft words on paper to communicate our visions to readers. We want them to see what we see, hear what we hear, experience what we experience. Concentrating on visual thinking is an exercise many of us can use to access our creativity and write better stories.

I think in pictures. I think in words too, but even then I usually see the words floating through my head (in a serif font…). Like C.S. Lewis and his photographic flash of a faun with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow, almost all my story ideas come to me as images. When I was young, I overlay everything in my daily world with pictures from my innerscape—wild horses ran alongside the highway on car trips, moonlit nights turned my backyard into a secret labyrinth, automatic doors at the grocery store proved my Jedi mind powers (okay, so everyone does that one…).

It was glorious.

However, I find that my adult brain is less visual than it used to be. I haven’t lost the ability to see druids in the woods or outlaws in a storm, but what used to be the constant daydreaming of childhood has been largely relegated to the dusty attic along with the other nostalgic playthings.

But as a writer of fiction, my life remains fervently in need of these dreams, these visions, these specters out the corner of my eye. And so, even as I dedicate myself to waging war against Internet brain and the inherent distractions that pull me away from my visual thinking, I also become more intent than ever on once again consciously accessing this amazing realm of creativity.

When I mentioned this a few weeks ago in my post on combating Internet brain, one of you asked that I further develop the idea of reclaiming visual thinking. This post largely chronicles my own practices for working with my visual thinking.

I recognize these thoughts may not be useful to some of you, since studies approximate that only around 60-65% of people think in pictures (although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this percentage rises among storytellers). If you are not someone who can, or normally does, think in pictures, I’d love to hear your take on all this. Does the idea of visual thinking resonate at all? Have you ever attempted any of the following exercises, and if so did you have to modify them? Particularly, I’d love to know how you interact with stories if you don’t see them.

For now, here are my thoughts on how those of us who use visual thinking can hone our mind pictures, so we may reap their creative benefits, both personally and creatively.

11 Exercises to Practice Visual Thinking in Your Writing Life

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.–Henry David Thoreau

No doubt, Thoreau’s idea was that we manifest our dreams for how we’d like our lives to look in our outer worlds. But as writers, I think most of us can see the other side of this blessing as well—when the beautiful and exciting visions of our unconscious minds join us in our mundane lives. Sometimes these visions grow so rich and vibrant we are able to stitch them together into the full and meaningful tapestry of a complete story. And what are stories if not dreams we share with one another?

To help us all become better dream-sharers, here are eleven exercises I use to consciously access my visual thinking and creativity.

1. Dreamzoning

I harp on this one all the time, mostly because it has been my creative sweet spot for the last ten years. For those who don’t know, “dreamzoning” is Robert Olen Butler’s term for a practice not too far afield from Carl Jung’s “active imagination.” It is an intentional period (anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours) of focused daydreaming, in which you zone out and zone in on your story.

Although you may actively create and guide a narrative during this time, you can also use it to more directly tap your unconscious by simply allowing images of your stories (or whatever) to surface and following “whatever moves.” Much like any meditation practice, you may find it helpful to create a distraction-free environment with background music and a focal point like a candle.

2. Taking Story Walks

Turn your daydreaming into a “walking meditation.” I used to do this naturally as a kid—take my stories with me. Nowadays, it requires more concerted effort for me to remember to let my own inner visuals rise up and join me in the world.

You can do this anywhere and anytime (on the treadmill or washing dishes), but I find it comes most naturally and is most enjoyable when I’m outside. For instance, right now I’m blessed to have a patch of woods right out my back door, in which I walk every morning. I’m trying to get better at “seeing” things. Just as with dreamzoning, I let the images arise on their own, then follow them mentally to see where they go. Sometimes they are familiar characters, sometimes they are more symbolic. Right now, I’ve been seeing a lot of mysterious Athurian-esque men and woman lurking way back in the trees. (And I can say that, right? Because we’re all mad here. 😉 )

3. Seeking Your Own Symbolism

The pictures that rise in our minds when we’re awake aren’t so different from those that come to us in our dreams. Story-driven images are often just as personally symbolic as are your dreams. For me, the greatest difference is usually that my waking images make more contextual sense (e.g., if I were night-dreaming about walking in the woods, I’d probably see politicians and pelicans rather than King Arthur and Morgan le Fay). Still, I believe the images my mind gives me at any particular time offer a telling glimpse into my own unconscious, whether I can translate it or not. Our unconscious brains do not speak in words, but in symbols. For those of us who think visually, the pictures we see probably reflect those symbols more than we realize.

4. Filling the Well

In discussing daydreams, Dr. Jonathan Smallwood commented that:

[Daydreams are] generated from representations that are based on information from memory.

In short, our unconscious minds cobble together available visual details to create meaningful images—in the same way we consciously cobble together known words to create meaningful communication. To me, this suggests the more remembered images our brain can draw upon, the more expansive our visual thinking becomes.

However, I’ve also come to believe that quality matters over quantity. In this overwhelmingly visual society, our brains are processing new images at an unprecedented rate. In order to output the most potent creative images, I want to try to feed my brain on the leafy greens and avoid the high carbs. This, I think, circles back to symbolic imagery. Simple, powerful images are endlessly meaningful and endlessly recyclable. I remember Jack Kerouac’s famous quote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

To me, this applies just as much to finding the right and simple images—whether the image is a vibrant rose from my flower garden, a phenomenal painting in an art collection, or an astounding red gown on Pinterest.

5. Using Music as a Starting Point

Music is not, of course, visual. But then again, for many of us, it is. Music is such a powerful source of emotion, and for many of us, that emotion translates into images—those personal symbols—and then, often, into stories. This is why I use music when dreamzoning, as well as when writing. Taking four minutes to sit quietly, eyes closed, listening to a single song can be all I need to kick-start my visual thinking for the day.

6. Using Images as Starting Points

My very first stories, as a pre-teen, were based on pictures. I remember the first picture was of a giant-shaped cloud seeming to walk down a beach full of children. I wrote a story about the giant kidnapping a little girl’s brother. After that, I started a newsletter called Horse Tails, for which I wrote stories that were based on and titled after the many collectible decorative plates I would see in catalogs.

Nowadays, we have Pinterest. I’ve also started seeking out art books and card decks, which I can keep handy as instant inspiration. Even if all I do is glance at them, I’ve locked the images into my mind where they can be regurgitated later. Maybe I’ll see them in the woods!

7. Focusing on Color and Light

There’s visual thinking and there’s visual thinking. Those of us who think in images are so accustomed to seeing and reacting to the world in this way that we often fail to notice much less acknowledge and process the images constantly flashing behind our eyes. Most of the time that’s fine, since we’re just using them as information to help us do the stuff that’s in front of us. But in those moments when we’re trying to enhance our ability to think visually and to notice we’re thinking visually, one of the best tricks I know is to concentrate on color and light.

The next time you’re dreamzoning or story-walking or just arrested by an amazing new mental picture, take the time to notice the colors. The misty image of a new character can take on dimension simply by your noticing that her eyes are blue. Same goes for lighting. Where does the light hit this image? Where do the shadows fall? Is it day or night? Sunny or stormy?

8. Bringing in Other Senses

In the comment that inspired this post, Andy Clark said:

I’d love to find a way to reconnect with my sensory mind (and I think it actually goes beyond visual) to bring richness to my stories.

That got me to thinking about how I might also exercise my other senses in these bouts of active imagination. I’m such a visual person that sometimes the only aspect I focus on is the seen. But as soon as I move past visualizing my woman in the woods to perhaps feeling the texture of her velvet gown or smelling the ozone as an imaginary storm rolls in or tasting ash in the wind—all sorts of new possibilities emerge.

9. Creating Music Videos in Your Head

My favorite way to combine dreamzoning and music-listening is by letting the music-inspired images unfurl in my imagination in an abbreviated narrative. Instead of focusing on a single scene and its arc, I let the images of the entire story roll through my head as if it were a music video or movie trailer. Not only do I get some of my best images this way, but it’s a fantastic tool for giving me an overall sense of what a story is about, both in terms of plot and theme.

10. Taking Snapshots

Sometimes I will capture “snapshots” of visual inspiration. They come to me in a blink—unconsciously mostly, but also when I remember to do it purposefully. These are some of my favorite images. A quick visual “blink” is one of the easiest ways to access visual imagination, and you never know what fun new image you might get. Try it. Whatever comes up for you is also probably something symbolically meaningful in some way.

11. Paying Attention to Your Dreams

Finally, don’t forget the deep well at the center of it all—your unconscious—and the bucket on its rope that lets you access it every night—your sleeping dreams. My sleeping dreams are usually too wild and chaotic to offer much in the way of cohesive story ideas. But they always offer vivid imagery.

Keeping a dream journal and revisiting it periodically can not only be personally revealing in identifying the repeating images that are most important to you, but it can also help you cultivate a more direct method of communicating with your unconscious creativity.

***

Several times while writing this, I realized that to anybody who doesn’t think this way, the idea of seeing people out in the woods may sound totally nuts. :p But for those who do dream their dreams out loud, so to speak, I think you know how awesome it is—and how important it is that we cultivate this gift rather than letting it slip away like the rest of childhood. To that end, here’s to implementing some or all of these exercises into our lives and keeping our imaginative muscles pumped up!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Is visual thinking your go-to storytelling method? If not, what does story inspiration look like to you? Either way, what’s your best tip for honing your imagination? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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