Painting a Word Picture

Laurie Scheer has made the details of this year’s Writers’ Institute available on the UW-Madison website. Needless to say, as an instructor I’m beyond excited!

The first person who introduced me to the concept of “show, don’t tell” was Laurel Yourke. The person who hammered the idea home was Christine DeSmet. You can learn more about all three of these creative and engaging women on the “Instructor” page.

Those of you who know me well are aware that Len and I haven’t had a television for almost 32 years. We’re avid readers. As such, I’m always asking friends and clients about books. My friend Sandi introduced me to the work of Dorothea Benton Frank. Now there’s an author who can paint a word picture: 

“To her right, the creek was completely placid and the shrimp boats were reflected in the water in perfect mirror images. Great beauty did not always require great sums of money, she thought. Sometimes something as easy and undemanding as an old shrimp boat, moored to an ancient piling battered from salt and time, could stop your heart in the same way as might a great work of art.”

Ms. Frank’s description immediately called to mind one of our favorite locations in Nova Scotia. But even if I didn’t have that memory to fall back on, her words painted a vivid picture on the canvas in my mind.

Who is your favorite word painter?

Listen with your heart,

Laurie Buchanan

Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.”
— Laurie Buchanan and our Facebook page

© 2012 Laurie Buchanan – All Rights Reserved

42 thoughts on “Painting a Word Picture

  1. The first person who taught me about “word pictures”–even though she didn’t use those words–was Sandra from Diving Deeper in Gaia. She kept insisting that we write with all our senses. How did it smell? How did it feel? What did it look like? Write sensuously, with all our senses. Of course, I only like to write this way sometimes. And I used to not like books where the authors described only with senses. I wanted to shout, “But what do you THINK? What do you THINK? Can’t you THINK?” Now that I’m getting more mature, I do like word pictures more. By the way, so excited about the Writer’s Institute with you!

    • Kathy – And while I wasn’t part of Diving Deeper, I remember Sandra well. You crack me up! You paint vivid word pictures all the time — that’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to your blog post 🙂

  2. Laurie,

    Beautiful quote…
    I am not certain I have a favorite “word painter” at the moment. Anne Rice use to do it for me in her descriptive words of grandeur of New Orleans… I am sure there are many more!

  3. First, Congrats Laurie on your workshop in Madison!
    Word painters for me are Sue Monk Kidd in Secret Life of Bees, and before I even saw Jeff’s quote, I also thought of Anne Rice’s depiction of New Orleans. Those are my two stand outs.

  4. By far, the best word painter I have encountered is Jean Houston. I am told that her book, A Passion for the Possible, is full of such language. I was blessed last fall, to be able to hear her own voice, paint such delicious and evocative images through words (and often, by the varying of her own voice, that she is such a master of). I took her 7 week course, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. It is probably the best $400 I ever spent. The depth and abundance of content might take me years to unpack. I found her also very grounded in reality while open to possibility, warm and actually personally available. Constantly, she would tell people to contact her – when they got their book written, or if they needed this or that contact assistance. She is truly a magnificent expression of humanity. She has made it one of her own life’s purposes to share, her years of work in the Human Potential Movement that she undertook with her late husband Robert Masters, with as many people as possible. She calls it “cooking on more burners”. We had 900 participants, from all over the globe, in our course community. About 20+ of them, have come into the A New Gaia community on the Ning platform, to share with me the journey forward, and a continued delving deeper into that course’s material. I believe that what I have, and am still learning, will take the 2 books I want to get written, into more entertaining and compelling works.

    • Deb – You, my friend, should be writing PR for people. Your comment about Jean Houston is outstanding! I’m familiar with her work, but I’ve never heard it put so eloquently. Thank you for sharing here today 🙂

  5. Hi,
    Congrats again, I think it is wonderful, and what a fantastic introduction the Writers’ Institute done for you, and they even mentioned your blog, it was a very nice read. 😀

    I love your picture of the boats, and the words, very nice indeed. 🙂

  6. Laurie, Best wishes for all your achievement as an instructor at the Writers’ Institute. Having attended the institute for several years I know the instructors are all superbly talented and knowledgeable writers. One of my favorite books for “Show Don’t Tell” is The Natural History Of The Senses by Diane Ackerman. Another treasure on my book shelf that I purchased at the Writers’ Institute is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. So proud of you, I am “Kvelling”, which is the Yiddish word that means bursting with pride! Brava, my accomplished friend!! 🙂

  7. I would have to say Barbara Kingslover because she truly can convey emotions in her writing – and then then visual picture….her images are just so clear to me, because I have already connected to the feeling.

    Neat links today…I enjoyed wandering around and meeting the teachers

  8. Laurie this is a superb post, delicious!

    My first choice is Colette and in particular a passage from BREAK OF DAY (1928)

    “He bent his bare body, polished by sun and salt. His skin caught the light, so that he was green round the loins and blue on the shoulders, according as he moved, like the dyers of Fez. When I said “Stop!” he cut short the thread of golden oil and straightened himself, and I laid my hand caressingly for a moment on his chest, as one does with a horse. He looked at my hand, which proclaims my age — in fact it looks several years older — but I did not withdraw it. It is a good little hand, burnt dark brown, and the skin is getting rather loose round the joins and on the back.”

    My second choice is Elizabeth Rosner and a short piece from BLUE NUDE (2006)

    “He imagines this: cupping her breasts and testing their weight in his hands to be sure they fit when his mind has already predicted it and his palms already tell him Yes. To press himself against her, to fold themselves together seam to seam, the way certain insects mate into on flying being.

    He imagines them ascending.

    the body exists in space, he says to the class. There is something solid she is resting on; that shape is part of what makes her stand the way she is standing; her feet are on te ground, or she is sitting on a chair, or leaning against a wall, or reclining on pillows. The body is part of the world. Do you see?”

    I have purposefully chose non-landscape or seascape passages. I wanted to share how word pictures can link our internal worlds to our external observations – that this combination is how we “see” and experience what is around us. Both of these writers do this extremely well as does the passage you have shared with us Laurie. As an artist both as a painter and a photographer I attempt to “write” this language in my visual work. Sometimes I add just a dash of words to assist me – word pictures combined with pictures expressing words. All forms expression – impressions left for the viewer to complete.

  9. Ursula K Leguin is the first name that comes to my mind; she awakes on me the memory of place I’ve never been; indeed that it has never existed, Earthsea, and yet she makes me feel like if I had been born there.

    • Miguel – Welcome to Speaking from the Heart. You’ve provided me with another writer that I’m not familiar with, but have added to my ever-growing reading list. I love the word picture that you painted here, thank you.

  10. Hi Laurie,
    Some of my fav’s have been mentioned but I guess my ultimate fav is James Michner. Nobody else could do 16 pages on a prairie dog!

  11. Pingback: Begin a painting with no punctuation « Creativepotager's Blog

  12. So many good word painters—the first that pops into my mind is Wallace Stegner…….he had me with the word “west.”. 🙂

  13. Laurie, that is a tough question to be sure. When I read for pleasure my mind becomes a 3-D I-Max theater and there I am, right in the middle! At present though, my two favorites would have to be Diana Gabaldon ( The Outlanders series ) and Dorothy Benton Frank who writes about the Low Country of South Carolina. Both of these authors have the ability to transport me into the Country of their words, whether it be the Highlands of Scotland or to Sullivan’s Island to eat golden-fried shrimp caught just that morning. In the case of either one, I have to make very sure that nothing is on the stove or in the oven, nothing like the smoke alarm to jerk you back home in a flash!
    Now I can’t wait to hear of your adventures at the Writer’s Institute, well, it’s quite a while yet, I know you have got your fertile imagination working on some word-painting of your own.

    • Sandi – And YOU’RE the one who got me HOOKED on both of the authors you mention here (and several others). If on the other side I get questioned about any “idle hands” business, I’m pointing straight at you and saying, “It’s all her fault!”

  14. That is a really difficult question Laurie.

    I cannot come up with one favourite – I have so many – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are right up there, as are Isaac Asimov, Phillip Jose Farmer, Robert A Heinlein, Ursula le Guin, Richard Dawkins, Harry Harrison, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and many others.

    All of them able through their words to create new worlds in my mind, or new ways of seeing the existing world.

  15. Miss Laurie congrats on all of your upcoming endeavors! Unfortunately I don’t spend very much time reading. I like the pictures painging by a thrilling mystery I like Sue Grafton’s – Kinsey Millhone

    Or I do like my gardening magazines with beautiful pictures to start my head brainstorming on what I’m going to do during the next gardening season.

  16. Fantastic post Laurie!

    Well, needless to say both Steinbeck and Hemingway (two of our favorites) paint word pictures that are priceless. The opening of the former’s “The Pearl” is a case in point.

    I decided to cite the opening three stanzas of my favorite story poem, “The Highwayman” by the British poet Alfred Noyes, as a definitive example of a word picture, though the entire poem works beautifully in that regard:

    THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.


    He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
    A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
    They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
    And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
    His pistol butts a-twinkle,
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.


    Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
    And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
    He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
    Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

    And I am not at all surprised that you and Len balked at television with your admirable reading heritage!

  17. Congrats Laurie, how wonderful. I am looking forward to attending a writers’ workshop this summer.
    One of my favorite word painters is Michael Ende, author of The Neverending Story, which I read 5 times in three months.

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