The screen-saver on my computer picks pictures at random from the thousands stored in its memory.
Occasionally, it brings up a picture of an old log cabin, swathed in moss, roof falling in, forests reclaiming abandoned fields.
I took that picture many years ago, exploring a back road near my wife’s home town of Creston, in B.C.’s Kootenays. But it could be anywhere.
I don’t know anything about that cabin—who built it, who lived in it, who eventually left it. But the picture always speaks to me about the struggle to achieve, to persevere, to accomplish something. Someone came to this place, cleared the fields, farmed, raised a family.
Another viewer might see a different story. Perhaps about futility. Despite all that effort, the farm reverts to wilderness. Or perhaps about deprivation—growing up in a cramped hovel, without electricity or running water, without education, without accessible medical care when accidents happened.
And in that remote setting, accidents surely would happen.
Photographer David Duchemin says that the test of a good photograph is not whether it’s in focus, or what f-stops it used, or even whether the horizon is level. The test of a photo is the story it tells.
No, not the story you tell about that photo—“And this is Myrtle and me standing in front of Niagara Falls”—but the story that the photo evokes in you.
Photos have an advantage; they don’t use words. Like music, they free your imagination to soar where it will. Put a caption on a photo, and it can be only that one thing; without a caption, it can be whatever the viewer sees in it.
I wish we could treat word pictures the same way.
As a writer, of course, I want to paint the most precise picture I can with my words, just as photographers want to keep their subject in sharp focus and composers want every note to count. But I’ve learned not to give too much detail. Just enough to give some shape to a personality or an argument. When readers fill in the rest, they make it their story, not just mine.
Tragically, Charles Dickens didn’t follow my rules. (Oh, heresy!) He so overloaded some tales that, as Oscar Wilde may have said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
We get into difficulties when we treat words as absolutes. As if they are what they are, they say what they say—nothing more, nothing less. Especially in the Bible. So Elijah got sucked up by a tornado; a serpent spoke; Jesus walked on water.
But what if we were to treat word pictures the way David Duchemin suggests we should treat photographs? That is, paying attention to the written story so that we can hear the story it invites us to tell ourselves. Does Little Nell encourage us to reflect on our own inevitable mortality? Do Jesus’ miracles invite us to recognize our own?
The value of any representation—visual, musical, verbal—is what it evokes from the audience.