What is Ekphrasis & How Can it Help My Writing?

blue ink pen drawing of Toulouse-Lautrec by L.Lyn Greenstone

Ekphrasis* is Greek for art that speaks out. Poets and writers use this term to describe a writing prompt that starts with a piece of visual art—a painting, sculpture, or photograph for example. The object or image inspires and drives the ideas in the writing project. Or with reverse ekphrasis, a piece of writing inspires a work of art—Homer’s Shield of Achilles first begun as an epic poem that was later made into a drawing and a then a metal shield and a work of art.

Ekphrasis is often associated with poetry, but rarely discussed as a way to enter into prose writing. When I taught college writing I found that many students were at a loss for how to begin an essay or story, but if they took an image stored on their phones, they could describe what they saw. This became my most effective tool to help students jump into writing and keeping it flowing. Of course, the trick is to find an image with some relevance to the topic, but this is rarely difficult; images convey feelings that easily lead to ideas and truths. An image helps create words, but words also create images, each spiraling around the other like a gene chain building on itself.

While Greeks used ekphrasis in debate to get their points across, helping listeners imagine and reflect upon the action in a piece of art and the meaning behind it, I use art to inspire stories, often meditating on a piece, asking for the story, waiting for it to speak to me.

Ekphrasis is especially helpful with memoir where the writer is creating from the often unreliable vault of memory. Old family photographs not only pull forgotten story threads, they provide rich fodder for the imagination to fill in where memory fails. Paper Doll Mom is a prompt that shows how an old photo of my mother from the 1950s turned into a playful story time with my youngest daughter while also bringing clarity and healing to a conflicted relationship with my mother.

I’m currently using ekphrasis to write a dual-timeline novel where all the characters are either artists from history or characters I’ve brought to life from drawings and paintings of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and several others of their time. Gifts Bestowed/Ekphrasis of the Schuffeneckers is a short flash fiction piece that sprang from my larger work-in-progress.

Are you interested in making your writing stronger and more vivid, even easier to get started and keep going? Try ekphrasis. I’ve created a short, quick guide to get you started. (coming soon- sorry- subscribe disappeared when I converted my theme recently… working on it, along with the comments widget, also not working; I’m just writer with very little tech savvy or marketing aspirations:)

*My preferred pronunciation: ek-fray-suhs, but several accepted pronunciations exist.