Focussing on Small to Keep Writing

When we are engaged in a writing project, it’s only natural that we think about the whole, from the very first to the very last words. We were taught to do this as early as junior high school, when we learned to write the five-paragraph essay. Our teachers insisted that, even before we put pen—or pencil—to paper, we know exactly where we would begin and end, as well as the three major points that would somehow land in between.

I wish someone had told me, back then, not to listen to this advice. It might have saved me years of struggle. Luckily for any one reading this post, I’m telling you now: disregard whatever you learned in school about writing. Far from formulaic and rule-bound–as our teachers would have us believe–writing is a mysterious process. The best writers discover most of what it is they have/want to say as they are writing. Sure, you need to have a place to start—though this doesn’t have to be the beginning. But all you need is a place to start. One idea, in the case of an essay. One line, or image, or description for a story, a novel or a poem.

If we knew ahead of time everything we were going to write before we began, writing would become drudgery—a futile treasure hunt to attach words to the clues we have preordained, without ever taking a look at the lay of the land and what we might discover about the best destinations.

More than anything, writing is a process of discovery, not only of the words we want to use, but of what we think and want to say. Yes, you may decide to write an essay on forgiveness, or a story about a mother who leaves her child with a stranger and never returns, or a memoir about growing up with a schizophrenic brother.

All you need to begin writing is this little. Then, once you sit down to write, the writing will lead you to discover what the memoir, the story, the essay is really about, in all of its complexity.

All writing asks is that you be present to the page, the paragraph, even the word you are creating, as you are creating it. Anybody who has practiced being present in their ordinary life knows how much the practice yields. Instead of being aware of the surface of a moment or a person or even an object, by being fully present, we discover this moment, the person, the object in all of its variety. We notice things we might never have noticed before.

We might see for the first time the way our brother rubs his thumb and forefinger together as he talks. Or the almost imperceptible crack in the vase handed down by our aunt. Or the way the living room chair we ordinarily sit in without thinking seems to be embracing us. And these discoveries may well lead to others: a sensuality in our brother we had never noticed before, our deep attachment to the vase our aunt used to fill with flowers from her tiny garden, or how lonely we feel sitting in this chair at this very moment.

To make these discovers, all we have to do is to think small, to refocus our sight away from all that surrounds us, all that we might be worried about, all that remains for us to write. This is a lesson I am learning more deeply every day: If I want to write today and tomorrow and tomorrow, I need pay attention to nothing larger than each word as it appears in front of me, on the page.


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