Posted by: Sarah | May 20, 2010

A Thousand Words to Paint a Picture

An exercise often employed in creative writing workshops is the “write a story about an image” assignment. Usually this involves the professor fanning out a collage of photos—magazine cutouts, personal snapshots, etc.— for students to flip through until the muses sing to a particular image. The student then claims it, takes it home and writes his/her inspired story.

This past winter, NPR did something similar in their Three-Minute Fiction Round Three contest. They provided writers with a photograph: a newspaper left open on a café table. Over 3,000 stories were entered. The way I see it, that’s 3,000 different fictional lives lived in the same 350 mega-pixel dimension. They say a picture paints a thousand words, but this is proof that a thousand words could be the illumination of a picture.

In contests, there is only one winner, a handful of runners-up, and a baker’s dozen of finalist, but I think it would be wonderful to have all 3,000 three-minute fiction entries bound up together with the inspirational picture on the cover, so readers could turn back to it at every story and see the varying creative worlds, dreams and emotions found therein. What would we find in that rainbow of stories? Would it surprise us to read that a writer in Maine crafted an almost identical story to a writer in London?  Or would that only solidify us as global community of writers—to know we are kindred in heart though we’ve never met and never will.

My husband and I are photography enthusiasts. He finds inspiration in geometric patterns and nature. (A science guy.) I’m partial to images of people…because people have stories. Years ago, at a Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit in Atlanta, a photograph of women and children freedom riders sleeping in a church held me captive for over half an hour, my imagination conjuring the details behind each weary face. It still lingers in my mind. I think of those people as the characters I envisioned that day, though I know they were of my own making. Nonetheless, the emotive quality of the image is powerful.

I subscribe to the National Geographic Picture of the Day because, let’s face it, nobody does it better than them. So each morning, I’m greeted by a beautiful, color-saturated image of a boy in Bangladesh, a fieldworker in Rwanda, a tropical frog in the Amazon and so forth. Brilliant photographs that always give me good pause and remind me that the world outside my writing office is broad, wondrous and full of beauty.

Yesterday, I received this image and my brain spun into storytelling mode. So earthy, real and lovely, I immediately heard character voices. I decided to exercise my creative muscles and play my old professor’s game incorporating the NPR rules of three minutes or less. So here’s under a thousand words to paint a picture.

The photograph is titled Bride, Havana, Cuba. I’ve titled this short-short:

To the Groom, Havana, Cuba.

Don’t be fooled. I didn’t raise a docile lamb waiting around for the butcher’s blade. Hurt her and you’ll answer to me. I warn you, I’m old as sin. I’ve seen things in my time that would make you cover your ears, shake your head, and try to hide from the truth, run from history. But there’s no running. Not from me. I’ve been here so long, even the dust asks me where it blew from. And I tell it not where but whom. The Fernández boys working at the Hotel Nacional shot through the guts in 1946. One. Two. Three. The Garcias, twelve generations in Havana, packed up and gone by New Year’s 1960. Crumbs of living left in the floorboards. My only son and his wife burnt to cinders in their car. We buried the bones in 1984. Dust, dust, dust. It’s hard—being made of perennial stuff. You watch all the blooms wither and blow off, but you stay on through the winter freezes and summer droughts, season upon season, year after year. Your roots are hearty no matter what shows above ground. And she’s just like me. My granddaughter. All white and young like a lily opened to the sky. You mess her up, you break her heart, and I don’t worry for her. She’s strong. She’ll live. She’s made of me. I worry for you. You think I blink anymore at the mewling of sheep at slaughter? You think I flinch when the blood lets on my bare feet, when the muscles twitch, when the eyes flicker? No one lives on air and hope. It doesn’t sustain. Blood and flesh. I watched five husbands die. Loved them all. Some more than others, but I was faithful to each heartbeat. Their ashes drift on the ocean wind to Venezuela, Mexico, America and yes, some stayed right here. I walk on them every day. I breathe them in and out, all five at once. She’ll outlast you. She’ll have your children who’ll live a spell, and she’ll go on. Just like I did. You pack mud in the cracks of your heart and soon enough time bakes it tough as brick. But promise me one thing, if I’m not here when she needs me most, if my bones crumble to dust in the lambs wool, promise to take care of her. Love her. Because she’s strong. Because she’s all of mine that’s left.

Oh, that was too much fun! A quick creative writing sprint to get the blood flowing. I may have to do this again in another week’s blog post. I hope you enjoyed reading this. Now I’m off to work!

Yours truly, Sarah



  1. Still blows me away sometimes… how you can paint such a picture with words. One that’s more vivid and clear and moving than the picture that inspired you. Loved this one!

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