I suspect that I’m not the only writer out there who has sometimes felt overwhelmed by a writing project. The biggest challenge at first is… where do I begin telling my story?
Let’s say that I want to share my experience of long-distance running. As I begin writing, I become flooded by the sensory details of my first-ever run. I write about how my resistance slowly transformed into enjoyment, the breathlessness and ache of pushing past my previous limits, and all the other details leading up to – years later – ultimately running a half-marathon.
I might write ten thousand words describing my favorite running locations, my first race, and my go-to running buddies before I realize two things: First, that I still haven’t written what I originally envisioned, and second, that my writing is lacking engaging 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 program. 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 19-year-old, out-of-shape Marie who felt annoyed that she was obligated to run one morning. Then the camera pans out to the larger vision, where I’ve become more committed to being physically active, enjoying time on alpine trails.
I’ve just completed an online course with Natalie Goldberg, and in a recent seminar she spoke about the importance of being specific. “Not car, but Impala,” she said. “Not tree, but ancient cedar.” This is the writer’s equivalent of a zoom lens. 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. Mary Oliver’s poetry is the epitome of this teaching.
As you provide specific details, you are also developing a relationship with your subject and with your readers. I believe that writing is all about relationship. The small frame invites your readers to enter the relationship you have created on the page.