“What does a story look like?” It’s an intriguing question, rather cryptic and zen-like, not unlike the sound of one hand clapping. If ideas were candies, this one would be a jawbreaker. Whatever your answer, it’s probably poetic, deep, and highly subjective: What does your story look like?
I stumbled across this question on Joe Ponepinto’s blog a few weeks ago when he posted a TED Talk with Chip Kidd, the book designer. One glance at Chip in his monocle-glasses and that white-margined jacket as cool as the one he designed for Murakami’s latest novel tells he’s an expert at what he does, which is finding the perfect visual representation to convey the meaning of and capture interest in a book. He says stories “need a face.” He says he “gives form to context.” The books he designs are spectacular. They beg to be touched, peeked into, and pondered.
As a writer, what Chip Kidd appeals to me on many levels, both sensual and cerebral. I make inquiries like his every day: What does this emotion look like? How can that idea be conveyed in a gesture? What small details set a mood? My process of selection extends from my writing to my appearance, my house, and my garden. I’m preoccupied with color, texture, and flavors. I repaint walls. I fondle mangoes; I can’t help myself. For me, maybe for writers in general, experience is sensual. That’s why we use imagery. That’s why we pick up each word and feel its surface, test its heft, and roll it around on the tongue before we choose. It’s just what writers do.
So if we writers spend so much time on our words, why do we need someone like Chip Kidd to sell our books? Do stories really need a face? You might as well ask if people need faces. Did you know it only takes a tenth of a second for our brains to form an opinion about a personality by looking at a face? We summarize the whole person in one breath. The same goes for books, never mind that smugness about not judging books by covers, we all do it. We live in a material world where surface matters and time equals money. People won’t make a commitment without being given a sign. The cover is that sign, a distillation of the story that can be gulped in one shot. It’s a taste test, a free sample.
I understood all this theoretically, but still it took me a while to apply it to my own writing and ask myself, do my stories need a face? I may not ever have a book published and sold with the help of a designer like Chip Kidd, but nevertheless, my work is being seen. When I began posting my novel What Would Water Do almost two years ago, I did so without pictures or color, thinking minimalism and monotone would make me appear more serious. As a writer, I feared that the picture’s wont to “speak a thousand words” would distract from my own. My reticence is even more puzzling considering the facts that I grew up in a house filled with art (my mother is a painter) and, as an English major, I wrote two theses, both about art rather than literature: one on the painter Willem de Kooning’s women and the other on photographer Cindy Sherman. In my house, art hangs on every wall and I have a huge collection of graphic novels. Why did it take me so long to realize that my writing needed a visual hook?
So I began tentatively posting pictures. At first, I was rather inept. I didn’t know where to find good ones, I was confused about copyrights, I didn’t always get the artist’s permission and I didn’t even know I could ask. Sometimes, my difficulty finding a visual made it apparent that I didn’t really understand what my own writing was about. Other times, the image makes me realize something about my own writing that I wouldn’t have understood without the visual.
Here are some of the best images I found to illustrate my novel, What Would Water Do.
My rules for using an image:
- Always get the artist’s permission.
- Always name and link to the artist.
- The visual must be provocative. If it’s also beautiful that’s good but not necessary.
- The image must add to the meaning of the writing. (It’s more than just an illustration, it’s an accentuation.)
- Be careful about the picture-to-word ratio. For fun pieces, use more pictures. For serious writing, use only one.
If this topic appeals, you might also like:
- Written All Over Your Face, in which I wonder if my writing really needs my face, or will someone else’s do?
- My gravatar, the face I use to represent me. This is an old poster that hangs near my writing chair. Yes, that is a hat made of crows.
- My recent story titled Ablutions. The photos (by Gonzalo Espinoza, Tom Stone, and Yunchung Lee) that accompany this piece are so riveting they steal the show.
- I’m Not Your Baby; I Ate Your Baby, in which I use collage to illustrate the outrageous things my daughter says.
- Water Dream, an ekphrastic poem inspired by the photo by B.S. Wise. (The image came first!)
- Playing With Cindy Sherman, my favorite photographer.
- Optic-Nervy, the blog about visual curiosities that my mother and I recently started.