The Ghost in the Machine #3: Writing with Light

Photograph (c) Paige Sinkler

The other night I was driving home from college, ruminating about my first draft of a short story. Everyone was behaving too reasonably. Someone should be glum. No, surly. It could use, maybe, a rip-roaring fight here, a slower pace there, perhaps a bigger dose of euphoria when the protagonist finally gets her way…

While pondering these tweaks, I realised I was imagining them without words, visualising the entire mutating story all at once. I was actually thinking in Photoshop, rather than MS Word. My mind was practically clicking to sharpen contrast, increase saturation, add some fill light to the overall story.

I’m a photographer as well as a writer, both clearly creative arts, but I’d never made the connection on such a visceral level. In writing, whatever the form (story, poem, essay), I am creating an overall world in which to set a particular observation or question, through an ensemble of characters, action, and theme.

Just like creating a picture. Surveying some broad expanse, I choose what to select, cropping with meaningful boundaries. I play with light, darkness, colour, texture and overall design to come up with something visually striking, amusing or thought-provoking. A friend of mine pointed out that the very word “photography” means “writing with light”, a lovely way of putting it.

I imagine the same might apply to composing music. Choose a theme, line it with complementary variations, dot it with counterpoint, and balance the overall landscape to fit your vision. Keep tweaking until—like the various notes in a perfect chord—the whole piece eventually coheres and radiates publicly the experience you imagined in your head, eye, ear. Painting, sculpting—these too, are products of composition in a very physical way.

Making this link has brought me a little closer to understanding the thrill of the creative process. How I can have so much fun sitting stock still at my desk, or at the colourful, dynamic fun fair without going on a single ride. Perhaps it’s not “literature”, “visual art”, or “music” per se that I love, but the exhilarating way they physically exercise my brain.

It has also given me a new tool in my writing box. Thinking about a story as a concrete entity is a useful angle from which to work it into shape. For at the end of the day, while intellectual in form, stories, poems and essays are essentially grounded in the physical, through description, metaphor, analogy, just as our minds are grounded in our bodies.

Now if only I could just “click” that into shape…

Click to read parts one and two of this feature.

Emily Cleaver

Emily Cleaver

Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at and see more of her writing at


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