The first serious writing course I took was an undergraduate seminar on image taught by Stuart Dybek. Stuart stressed to us the importance of the well-chosen detail, the picture that would sear itself onto the reader’s retina all at once, creating a meaning-packet that was intuitively felt but also stood up to thematic interrogation. He gave an example that’s never left me: a drop of blood in a puddle of lime juice.
I don’t know whether this image came off the top of his head or if it was taken from a published piece by another writer; I don’t remember the context—whose blood it was and how she came to bleed, why there was lime juice or how it spilled—but I remember experiencing it: the contrast of the red invading yellow-green, the way the sphere of blood would pool and break apart in the less-viscous lime juice, and conflating as the mind does, I winced at the sting of citrus on an imaginary cut on my forearm. From Stuart I learned that image is more than visual; it’s full-body. I knew what the combination of those two liquids would smell like. I could even taste it: citric acid cutting the soft salt of blood. I no longer remember how this image served its narrative, or if that was even the point of the lesson. I simply know that from that moment on, image, for me, has meant more than clearly showing the reader something. It’s about creating an impression she can feel, that remains, like a thumbprint in clay.
Ten years later, Stuart’s example is still the standard to which I hold all images. During revision I might say to myself, That’s good, but is it blood-and-lime-juice good?