One of the writers in my workshop this semester was struggling with what to write. On a deeper level, she was wrestling with a larger and much more frightening question: should I be writing at all? One night during class, after she had run through a variety of topics and rejected them all for one reason or another, I gave the whole class a writing assignment: Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and write about your experience.
In throwing out this assignment to all the writers in the class, I was hoping to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to lower the writing stakes for the struggling student. If what she had to write was merely an assignment, not a topic of her choosing, a topic that, because she writes nonfiction, she felt had to be deep and important, the outcome wouldn’t matter all that much. Not only that, but the assignment wasn’t one I had given much thought to; it was an idea that had simply occurred to me one night during class. How big a deal could that be?
In addition, I was hoping to demonstrate to my class that the same assignment would inevitably generate an unpredictable number of very different and personal responses. In other words, I wanted them to experience just how rich even the simplest of topics could be, to see how many variations on “walking across the Golden Gate Bridge” one writing workshop could create.
In the end, it isn’t the subject we choose to write about that counts. It’s what we bring to the topic. And often, because the stakes seem lower and we feel safer, we’re able to bring more of ourselves—more of our intellect, our emotional life, our spirit—to a subject that doesn’t loom too grand in our eyes. Decide you’re going to write about “death,” for example, and you might immediately feel overwhelmed and intimated– gosh, this is such a large and profound topic; so many brilliant women and men have written about it; there’s so much to say.
However, if you settle on an infinitely smaller topic, like choosing your grandmother’s casket, you’ll approach the writing with much more confidence—and you’ll feel so much less vulnerable–and as a consequence, you’ll be less concerned with doing a good job as you write. And being less concerned with doing a good job allows you to be more fully present as you write, to travel uncharted paths and take more risks.
If your first time visiting Yosemite, you set your sites on Half Dome, you may well decide to stay in your cabin for several days. You’ve set the bar so high that venturing out is a tremendous risk. Decide however to spend the first few days exploring what is most accessible around Yosemite, you be relaxed and attentive enough to discover and make observations about the local flora and fauna, the rock formations, the river currents, the clouds.
Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and writing about the walk is avoiding setting your sites on Half Dome and then waking up the morning of the climb so full of anxiety, you decide to leave the Park and return home. It’s learning to think small, and to discover just how large a topic what at first glance appears inconsequential can become.