The Surprising Image: A Writing Prompt

In advance of this week’s midterm election, I find myself recalling an Election Day from my childhood. I must have been somewhere between five and seven because we still lived on our farm in southeastern Illinois. These were the years in the aftermath of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands and turned him into an angry man. I have wonderful memories of my childhood, but I also have memories of my father’s temper and the rage he brought into our home. To add to the difficulties, this was around the time that my mother lost her teaching position and spent a year unemployed, thereby making the purse strings pretty tight around the Martin house. I was a nervous, sensitive child who grew up on guard for trouble.

On this particular Election Day, I remember sitting in the back seat of our car alongside a gravel road in front of the polling place, which in my mind was a country church, the sort of clapboard building painted white and surrounded by trees—oak and maple—whose leaves would have been falling. I recall the church sat next to a cornfield. The dry leaves of the stalks scraped together in the wind. My father was sitting in the front seat, and I can only assume we were waiting for my mother to cast her vote and to come out of the church. Before that could happen, though, an elderly man came to our car and bent down to talk to my father. I have no memory of what they talked about, just that the tenor of the conversation was friendly, and the man seemed like a kind man. At one point, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a Golden Delicious apple and offered it to me. I hesitated to take it, shy kid that I was. Then my father said to me in an unusually kind voice, “It’s all right. Go on. You can have it.”

I’ve never forgotten the bright yellow color of that apple and its unblemished skin and the weight of it on my palm—that and its size and its sweet taste. It was, so it seemed to me at the time, the perfect apple, and the man’s kindness and my father’s reaction to it, was in such contrast to the raw, overcast day, and the cold wind, and the discomfort I usually felt when I was in the company of my father. This was a moment out of the ordinary, one I never could have predicted, and I sat there with my apple in what I can only call a stunned thanksgiving.

Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Indeed, sometimes we find we’re writing something very different from what we thought we were writing. A narrative about an angry father and a cautious son can turn into a story of kindness and acceptance, and it can arrive with a memory of a Golden Delicious apple. We should be ready for the images that turn whatever we’re writing into something opposite from where the piece seemed to be heading.

So here’s my assignment for you. Whatever you’re working on in your writing rooms this week, try to find that surprising image that rises at the end, whether it’s the end of a scene or a story or an essay or a poem, and turns your piece into something you couldn’t see coming. Get that image on the page and see what happens. Report back by leaving a comment on this post. . .and don’t forget to vote. If I could I’d send you all a Golden Delicious apple just to entice or to reward you.


Leave a Comment