A Picture a Day as Writing Prompt

December 17, 2015 § 12 Comments

Shuly Cawood

Shuly Cawood

A guest post from Shuly Cawood:

A few days ago, as I sat on a plane and snapped photos out the window, I decided pictures were going to be my ticket to writing freedom.

I didn’t used to take many pictures. For a long time I had this idea that if I wanted to remember something that much, my memory would keep it.

During college, just before I left to study abroad in England for the summer, a friend had to coax me into taking her camera to document my time. I only took two rolls of film, but I still have every picture I shot from that summer. One of them sits framed on my bedside table: it is of me, standing against a stone wall, smiling for the camera into an unknown future. To this day I have kept the navy blue sweater I’m wearing in the photo, though I no longer put it on to keep me warm. It is so large it hangs from me now. Back then, big was in.

Maybe big was better.

In the picture, a fiery red jacket is slung over my shoulder. From my teen years through my twenties, I liked the boldness of red—red lipstick, red flats, red rain jackets. For a while, I stopped wearing red, but in recent years I’ve chosen it again.

In the photo, my face is full and open, lit by a shifting sun. Back then, it did not occur to me that the things I expected out of life—to become a writer, to marry and stay married, to have children and remain in my hometown—might not happen. In that photo, the clouds billow like prayers above my head, but I didn’t worry about rain: I had that jacket, and if that was not enough, I could rush—as I did into relationships, and sometimes out—to someplace safe. Back then, it did not occur to me to be cautious. It did not occur to me either that I might—for too many years than I care to count now—choose to be afraid.

I keep the photo as a reminder. It tells me a story: one I know, but one I want to remember, about who I was, who I can still choose to be.

The pottery bowl

The pottery bowl

Now, I take pictures to remind myself of places I’ve been. I take pictures to see something in a new light. I take pictures to inspire. Frankly, there are many days when I need inspiration to get the words going. Which is why I decided on that plane ride that for the rest of the month, I was going to use a picture every day as a jumping off point to write. Pictures often coax the story into being: What happened just before it was taken? What happened after? Who or what is missing?

Mostly, I am taking new photos to help draw words out and onto the page. I used a photo of the view from that plane window to write about two honeymooners flying toward their new life, but viewing the future in opposite ways. I took a picture of a pottery bowl I’ve owned for nearly two decades, and out tumbled words about why I owned it, and why I gave it up then took it back.

It’s easy to write when you let the first thing that pops into your head ramble onto the page.

Those are the best kinds of ideas—because they are so unafraid.


Shuly Cawood is a writer and editor. She recently completed a memoir in essays and a poetry collection, and her work has been published in places such as The Louisville Review, Mud Season Review, Full Grown People, and Fiction Southeast. In early 2016 she will earn her MFA in creative writing from Queens University. She will be posting some of her picture project writings in the future on her blog, which can be found at www.shulycawood.com.

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