My publicist told me to write in pictures. Actually, she said to start using Instagram to build up my social media following in advance of my novel’s release next spring.

It makes no sense, I protested. I write in words: stories, essays, novels. Books are published in print, and Instagram is a visual medium. Captions are permissible, but how many Instagram viewers bother to read the captions? Besides, didn’t I have my hands full with Facebook, Goodreads, Bookbub, and my Amazon page – not to mention our ongoing chase for blurbs, reviews, readings, and other book events? These promotional obligations were distracting enough without adding photography to my to-do list.

Just try it, my publicist urged. Post a picture of your galley. Get your friends to post pictures holding your books. Or shoot images of your daily life to get your followers acquainted with you. Readers like to feel a certain sense of familiarity with their favorite authors, and Instagram can help create that connection.

In truth, I’d played with Instagram like a toy when it first launched. I liked the filters, the ease of editing even blurry photos into images that looked like I’d known what I was doing. What I hadn’t liked were the reports of data collection by Instagram. This was long before Cambridge Analytica, but they still spooked me. Also, I had no professional incentive to promote myself, since I had no publications then in the offing. I deleted the app and thought no more about it until my publicist’s entreaties. Then my son’s girlfriend, a baker, told me how many customers she’d attracted through her Instagram account. Still, cakes are photogenic. But text?

Grudgingly, I set up a new account, followed a few friends to get started, and posted a picture of my novel’s advance reader copy. It felt good to make the announcement. The photograph looked okay. But then what? I couldn’t keep posting about the book, or my friends would be sick of it – and me — long before it was published.

I found other writers to follow. A few were old friends from graduate school. Others were my students. Some took beautiful pictures. A few posted abstract photos that reminded me I’d once been a painter before I took up writing. The images that spoke to me were rich with texture, color, form, and structure. Many were unrecognizable yet evocative close-ups of pavement, bark, sky, or foliage. I took my cue from them and began looking for inspiration on my daily walks around my neighborhood, in the shadows of early morning, reflections in glass.

I rediscovered Instagram’s filters and editing tools, which allowed me to play with cropping and focus, color and shading. It felt as if I’d rediscovered a lost limb and was exercising a forgotten muscle. Suddenly, each day became a treasure hunt with discoveries in the corner of a bed frame, the geometric roots of a tree, the pistil of a bird of paradise, headlights at dusk. Even so-so snapshots could be edited into beauty.

To my delight, I realized that I can make certain photographs look just like paintings – a process of reverse alchemy that feels to me like pure play. I caught planes of light like Hopper, traced surfaces like O’Keefe. #notapainting became a game, a system of goals for the creative process.

As with writing, the real creation is in the revision and transformation of the original idea. Each picture evolves into a story of scale and distance, color and shape, surprise and wonder. I often advise my writing students to “turn the lens outward” and “use the outer world to suggest the inner world”; that’s exactly what I found myself doing through these images. But unlike writing (for me at the moment, anyway), this process of revision was new, exciting, and deliciously addictive.

What’s more, Instagram makes it communal. I’m a purpose-driven person. It’s not enough for me to enjoy what I do; I need to produce some effect on the world around me. I need to feel the splash of my efforts. And sharing these images produces that splash. Not in a big way. I don’t have thousands of followers, but those other writers who Instagram have noticed. We now have an unspoken admiration society. I look forward to their next pictures, and they respond to mine. Every post feels like a group challenge and a source of inspiration. Not competitive, but joyfully cooperative.

Will any of this help to sell my novel? I have no idea. When the time comes, I may post photos that are more illustrative of my story’s tone, locale, or characters. I might add graphic quotes from the book over related images. But publication is still months away, and I’m too busy writing in pictures to worry about the pictures working for my writing.

This, at last, is art for art’s sake: pure creative indulgence.

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Aimee Liu’s work includes the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face, and the memoirs Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders and Solitaire. She is co-editor of Alchemy of the Word: Writers Talk About Writing, and Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives: Guidance and Reflections on Recovery from Eating Disorders. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her short fiction has received Pushcart Prize Special Mention. She also has co-authored more than seven books on health and psychological topics. Liu holds an MFA in creative writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a past president of PEN USA and a current member of the faculty of Goddard College’s MFA program in creative writing at Port Townsend, WA. Her website is: aimeeliu.net.

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