Moments Not Things

November 5, 2019 § 17 Comments

photo by Sara Tasker @me_and_orla

I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.

While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”

The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.

This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.

As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:

We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.

It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.


We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.

We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:

My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.

As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.

Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats: coming up, Dubai (Feb26-Mar4) and Costa Rica (May11-18) with Dinty W. Moore.

§ 17 Responses to Moments Not Things

  • I was about to comment: “Great post” but then realized that: “Stood transfixed on the cold kitchen tiles reading blog post while tea turned cold and toast threatened to burn…” was ever so much better! 😁

  • Love this. I am daunted by IG because of the visual nature of it (and my terrible camera in my phone, along with my general lack of skill at shooting pictures). However, I love this advice and will try!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      The thing that has helped me the absolute most with visual composition is to leave more negative space. Like, unless I’m specifically shooting a group of things together (like leaves in a pile, or a shelf full of books) leave more background space.

  • kperrymn says:

    “…find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story.” Brilliant! Thanks for this.

  • Alison—I’m among the former, one who has met you in person, but this concept of moment/momentum through the marriage of words and images is the wheel in my wheelhouse right now. Thanks for this. I’ll be watching!

  • You never fail to amaze me. (And I am doing NaNo just now. There is an imaginary cat and the stretch of the cat in your photo above is EXACTLY what that cat did on the page in the middle of the night when I woke up and wrote.)

  • Ha! Just yesterday we exchanged Twitter comments on photos as essay prompts. I am at ~200 words on the rotary phones photo 🙂 Kudos on ‘looking at the world differently’. They say a seasoned photographer could take about ten good photos from where there are, not moving a step.

  • Margaret says:

    I really look forward to your articles as they are always interesting and thought provoking.
    I’m also a big fan of Sara Tasker and enjoy listening to her podcast very much. One thing I would say (and hopefully this doesn’t sound mean) is that I sometimes find her photos too perfect. They are so beautiful and well composed that they sometimes look like a photo shoot rather than a glimpse into someone’s real life. On the other hand, I always like your photos as they seem to be very much in the moment, so I hope you don’t lose that quality.
    Since reading the advice on Sara’s blog, I’ve started to write little stories to accompany my Instagram posts and I’m finding it fun even though it’s not translating into any more engagement with like-minded folks, which is what I’d like to happen. Any tips on that?

  • Karen Egee says:

    Very helpful and clear, thanks, even your show don’t tell in writing expamples and explanation.

  • Wow, what a beautiful concept; “Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.” I really love it. This story resonates so much with me.

  • […] MOMENTS not THINGS; make the reader feel something—show instead of […]

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