When Your Story Vision Feels Too Big

When Your Story Vision Feels Too Big

I suspect that I’m not the only writer out there who has sometimes felt overwhelmed by the size of the story I envision. How do I begin? If I’m writing from personal experience – let’s take the experience of long-distance running as an example – I become flooded by the sensory details of my first-ever run; my resistance transforming into enjoyment, the breathlessness and ache of pushing past my previous limits, and all the other details leading up to running a half-marathon.
It’s easy to get caught up in how big your assignment is and fall into a state where you’re trying to cover a lot in a very short space. For instance, if I let myself, I could spend ten pages covering my entire running career, before emerging like I’ve been sucked out of a deep pool only to realize two things: I still didn’t do my whole journey justice, and my writing is severely lacking in interesting details.
Anne Lamott talks about “Short Assignments” in her book, Bird by Bird. Her suggestion is to write down what you can see through a 1-inch (2.5 cm) picture frame – to zoom into a small piece of your story and write one paragraph. Using my example, I may choose to start with remembering the first time I ran a mile at an Outward Bound Course. I was 19, very out of shape, and unused to strenuous physical activity.
“This is where it all began.” I use this as my prompt for a ten-minute timed writing period, and words emerge onto the page. As writers, we\’re always in the process of expanding our visions to see the BIG picture of our whole story, and then having to contract our focus to add rich detail. I imagine a camera lens, zooming in on the out-of-shape Marie transported back to the age of 19, annoyed that I am obligated to run this morning. Then the camera pans out to the larger vision, where I’ve become more committed to being physically active, enjoying my time on alpine trails.
Lately, I’m spending more time focusing on specific details in order to keep my story moving. I’ve been attending an 8-week Way of Writing course with Natalie Goldberg, and in a recent seminar she spoke about the importance of being specific. “Not car, but Impala.” “Not tree, but ancient cedar.” She mentioned William Carlos Williams, who spoke about how if you describe one detail well, you create the whole world. I have found this to be true; one small detail like the flower petals and the smell of a peony can become universal. As you provide specific details, you are also developing a relationship – and writing is all about relationship. The small frame invites your readers to enter into the relationship emerging on the page.

Creatively Yours,
Image of Marie leaning against a pillar holding a coffee cup


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