How Pictures Heal: Writing From Your Photo Stream by Kelly DuMar

One of the many writing prompts I use in my How Pictures Heal workshops is to have participants write a three-sentence story sparked by a personal photo. A lot of wisdom, emotion and beauty can be expressed in three sentences:

  1. Fractured or whole, I am a bowl.
  1. My body contains who I am, how I have lived, my scars, my wrinkles and beauty marks.
  1. Fractured or whole, my spirit is a bowl containing the airy remarkable essence of my unique wholeness.

Here’s how one participant answered a three-sentence prompt from the question “What resistance did you overcome to get here to the workshop?”

  1. I am getting out of my comfort zone and exploring my love of words.
  2. I am overcoming the story I have said to myself––that writing is only for intelligent people and no one would be interested in what I have to say.
  3. I am feeling empowered and creative. I am exposing the ways I have been small for other people’s comfort.

Here’s something exciting I hear in all my photo-inspired creative writing workshops:

When I first saw my photo, I never imagined I would write what ended up on the page.

Writers I work with are experiencing the power of making imaginative leaps from their personal photos that allow them to express a meaningful story hidden beneath the surface of a photo.

One young man wrote from a photo of himself and his brother as a child posing in the arms of their mother for the camera. As soon as he began writing from the photo, he realized he’d never thought about who had taken the photo. Then, he realized it was the last family photo his father had taken before leaving the family. His poem germinated from with this awakening. He said:

I was able to use what I learned in class to not only write something I’m proud of, but to process and communicate emotional difficulties I hadn’t been able to find words for in years.

My workshops are inspired by the words of Jane Hirshfield in her essay, “Poetry, Permeability and Healing”:

Among the fracturings of the psyche, powerlessness and invis­ibility are not minimal things. But a person who can ask words to do things words have not done before is not powerless. To make phrases that increase what is possible to think and feel is both exhilaration and liberation. To expand reality is to counter despair, depression, and impotence.

Personal photos and expressive writing are a dynamic combination for TLA artists and writers. Your pictures hold the stories only you can write. Writing is an act of creation that puts your spirit, your mind, your mood, in transit as your pen takes you where you have been and where you have never been before.

Another writer in my How Pictures Heal workshop asked me a great question about the “magic” of how this creative writing and healing process works:

It seems to me that something quite magic happens in this work in terms of moving the mind into a positive space.  What do you think happens in the process of writing about photos and memory, Kelly, that affords this shift?

Well, let’s agree that it is mysterious. But I think it has to do with engaging our imagination, suspending our disbelief, being willing to see what’s real and remembered–– the facts of the photo and the specifics of memory––and then leap or drop into what we know that we don’t know we know. As the iconic depth psychologist, journal writer and Intensive Journal founder, Ira Progroff said:

When our attention is focused inwardly at the depth of our inner being, in the context of the wholeness of our life, resources for a profound knowledge of life become accessible to us.
Writing from our personal photos provides a quickening of spirit, an entrance into our imagination, a transit into what brings meaning, purpose, beauty, and healing into our lives. Writing from our photos is an act of transforming feelings of powerlessness into power, invisibility into visibility.

My photo-inspired writing workshops are:

  • Safe places
  • Non-judgmental experiences
  • Creative spaces for exploration self-expression
  • All levels of writing are welcome
  • All genres of writing are supported

How we will work together:

Our online webinar experience is writing-generative. We’ll meet, personally, live online in a weekly 90-minute Zoom videoconference. Additionally, each week will consist of a “Lesson” sent via e-mail for you to download that includes content designed to spark personal reflection on healing aspects of your personal photos as well as a transformative writing prompt.

Each week, you will receive insightful feedback on your writing from Kelly, and others in the group. We’ll also meet ON ZOOM in the following combinations to give those who need day versus night options. ALL ZOOM SESSIONS WILL BE RECORDED

TUES April 18, 12:30-2:00 p.m. ET

WED April 26, 7-8:30 p.m. ET

TUES May 3, 12:30-2:00 p.m. ET

TUES May 9, 12:30-2:00 p.m. ET

WED May 17, 7-8:30 p.m. ET

TUES May 23,  7-8:30 p.m. ET

I hope you’ll consider moving toward healing from your personal photos in your creative writing practice with me. You can register here.


Kelly DuMar, M.Ed. is a poet, playwright, and engaging workshop leader who generates enlivening writing experiences for new and experienced writers. Her photo-inspired creative writing method elicits profound personal awakenings, deepens connection with others, and fosters beautifully crafted writing in poetry and prose. Kelly’s fourth poetry collection, “jinx and heavenly calling,” was published in March 2023 by Lily Poetry Review Books. Kelly is also author of Before You Forget—The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children. Kelly’s award-winning plays have been produced around the US and Canada, and are published by dramatic publishers. Kelly is a certified psychodramatist, former psychotherapist, and Fellow in the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama. She teaches online for TLAN and the International Women’s Writing Guild, where she leads the Annual Summer Play Lab and more. Kelly also hosts the monthly Journal of Expressive Writing Open Mic with feature. Kelly inspires readers of #NewThisDay – her daily photo-inspired blog – with her mindful reflections on a writing life. You can learn more about Kelly, at

Introducing….The Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir

From Jennifer Browdy:

Everyone who begins a memoir does so in the hope that through telling their story, they will come to understand their lives more fully. And the process is valuable, whether or not the goal is a published book. 

Purposeful memoir as a contemplative practice is different than journaling, because it’s more intentional: as we follow the spiraling elemental journey of purposeful memoir, we explore our lives in a fairly methodical fashion, starting with the Earth years of childhood, moving on through the Water years of adolescence and young adulthood, exploring the passions and challenges we face at all stages of life (Fire) and engaging in deep reflection, from our current vantage point, of the patterns in our lives, and how our experiences lead us into finding meaning and purpose for our lives going forward (Air). 

The practice of purposeful memoir is multifaceted and multi-temporal, spiraling through past and present in an effort to create, through the process of writing, a solid foundation for the future. It’s also multidimensional: we can’t really understand our individual lives if we don’t take into account our time and place, the broader social and physical landscapes that shaped us. 

Through years of leading individuals and groups on this elemental journey of purposeful memoir, I’ve come to realize that this process has alchemical power. Through writing our life stories, we have the potential to transmute the inevitable sorrows and pain of existence into something more positive—the philosopher’s stone of understanding, which truly is worth its weight in gold.

The alchemical gold we seek in purposeful memoir is understanding—of self, society and world.

In writing my own memoir (a process that took about eight years and went through many changes in direction), I came to realize the value of the various trials and tribulations that life had put me through as an adult. As I wrote in What I Forgot, “I came from a family, and a culture, that always tried to avoid shocks of any kind—that held comfort as the highest value.” 

But my most important teachers, like Gloria Anzaldúa, “always insisted that we need precipitating shocks to push us to move in new directions and grow.” Like Rumi, who famously observed that “the wound is the place where the light enters you,” Anzaldua valorizes pain as a source of wisdom and healing. 

I didn’t really understand this until I went through the process of purposeful memoir and discovered that I was able to transmute my struggles—for example, the end of my marriage and my frustration with my career—into a deeper understanding of myself and my culture. 

On a planetary level, it was only by wrestling with the scary reality of climate disruption that I was shocked into remembering my deep childhood connection with and love for the natural world, which I had been socialized into forgetting. Purposeful memoir enabled me to rekindle my fiery passion for the natural world, and thereby find a renewed commitment to environmental stewardship, the sense of purpose that had been so strong in me as a child. 

The alchemical gold we seek in purposeful memoir is understanding—of self, society and world. The elemental journey—exploring childhood (Earth), youth (Water) and the passions and trials of all life stages (Fire), through a spiraling process of deep reflection (Air)—leads us to an understanding of what we value and want more of in life, and what negative baggage we want to jettison as we move forward. 

In my Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir workshops, I offer opportunities to explore different stages of your life from the vantage point of positive qualities like Joy, Love, Strength, Courage, all of which are presented in my latest award-winning book, Purposeful Memoir as a Quest for a Thriving Future.

My writing catalysts are meant as provocations and stimulations rather than instructions; thus you can’t get it wrong.

Each workshop session starts with Lists, a tried and true way to call up and organize a lot of memories from different stages of your life. These lists can be returned to again and again as sources of memories that can be developed into the stories of your life. 

Next, the Scene catalysts invite you to develop an item on your list into a full-fledged story, using as much detail as possible. Should you decide to begin weaving your stories into a longer, more fully developed account, these short scenes can serve as narrative entry points. At this stage, the assumption is that you are writing as an explorer, looking to generate new material and find out what gold may be stored in the nuggets of your memories. 

To this end, I use the focused free-write approach, inviting you to write freely, in short timed bursts of anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, not worrying about form or grammar. Write to find out what you know, and to get images, sensations and emotions down on the page. You’ll have plenty of time later to expand, revise and refine the scenes that come up for you through this free-form initial process. 

After the Scene catalysts come the invitations to Alchemy, where we explore the potent boundary between what is and what could be.  It’s a powerful practice to give yourself permission to imagine paths not taken; to wave your magic wand and create different outcomes at key turning point moments in your life story.

Although it is important, ultimately, to speak your truth in memoir, there are times when venturing into fiction will help you understand your truth more deeply. When we invite some alchemical magic along on the journey of purposeful memoir, sparks start to fly and we find the courage to reach down and bring to light the more profound revelations of our life story.   

Finally, each session ends with a catalyst for Reflectioninviting you to do some informal writing reflecting on the mini-journey of exploration you have just taken. In my training as a writing teacher through the Bard Writing & Thinking Instituteprocess writing is a key strategy: we are encouraged to reflect in writing on the written inquiry we’ve just undertaken. I give specific catalysts for these reflections, which are meant to be open-ended starting points that you can take wherever your thoughts lead you. 

All of these catalysts are meant as provocations and stimulations rather than instructions, and thus you can’t get it wrong. The only requirement is that you undertake your alchemical journey of purposeful memoir with an open heart and the sincere intention to probe your life experience deeply and honestly, using writing as your vehicle and these catalysts as your guide. 

In a profound sense, we are the world.

Although the journey of purposeful memoir starts from personal experience, all of us exist as individuals embedded in the larger social and planetary spheres that surround us. We are the world, in a profound sense that most of us are only just beginning to realize. The process of purposefully revisiting our lives through writing memoir is thus a form of world-making: as I re-member my life, I re-member the world.

At each step of the journey we have a choice in how we approach this work: will I write to bemoan my hardships and mistakes, or will I write to share what I have learned from my life, for the benefit of others coming along behind or alongside me on the trail? In either case, we are not shying away from the tough passages in our lives, but the emphasis is on transmuting our negative experiences into the philosopher’s stone of understanding, with which we can brighten our own lives, going forward, and perhaps provide some wisdom that will lighten others’ lives as well. 

The alchemical journey of purposeful memoir starts with the personal, and radiates out into the political and planetary spheres. Saluting the positive and transmuting the negative, we can and will transform our collective relation to the world we make together. It’s my conviction that as more of us undertake this journey, we will improve the well-being of the entire Earth community. 

Come write with me, and see for yourself! Register here.