Writing and Small

At book parties to promote my book, “Small: The Little We Need for Happiness,” people often ask me about my writing process, something I love talking about. I was once a very blocked writer. Throughout college, I struggled with every term paper, writing the opening sentence again, and again and again. The beginning for me of overcoming my block was writing poetry. And if the process of writing poetry is about anything, it’s about small.

When I wrote poems, I wrote them word by word by word by word. Setting the first word down on the page, I had very little idea about what the entire poem would look like or be about. I started with one word, and hoped the next word would reveal itself to me. Each word or two gave birth to the next word or two or three, and that is how I progressed across and down the page, to create verses and stanzas, and finally what I thought was a complete poem.

Individual words are small. And since, when I wrote poetry I felt responsible for only one word at a time, I was able to relax into my writing, without becoming anxious and convoluted. For one word only, the stakes were very low.

I still write small. When I began writing the essays that now make up my new book, I certainly didn’t have a book in mind. I wanted to write an essay about my discovery of what happened when I shifted my perspective to small. And when I realized I had more to write, I decided to write a second essay. And then another and another and another.

Writers go wrong when they begin to think large. When they keep thinking about the entire story they want to write, or the whole novel. No wonder so many people get stuck. Thinking about the 250 pages ahead of you, or the entire beginning, middle and end of your story sets the stakes much too high.

How will I ever be able to write this whole novel? You immediately think. It seems endless! Or, I can’t figure out how this story will end, so I better stop writing until I know. Or, Do I have enough characters to tell this story? Maybe I need another. I better figure this out before I write another page! Or, I know I want to write an essay about X, but how should I proceed? Should I include research? Or limit it to personal experience? Should I go on tangents or should my essay be linear?

It’s not that these questions are unimportant. But they don’t matter when you first begin writing. If you continue to think small, concentrating on the word, the sentence, the paragraph you are currently writing, your essay, story, or chapter might well find its own way. Overthinking takes up creative space in your mind and uses up too much energy. If you think small and trust the writing process, you are much more likely to find your way to the next page, the next chapter, the next tangent.

Thinking small helped me overcome my writing block and eventually write entire books. You might try it too. Remind yourself to remain present to exactly where you are in your novel, your story or your essay, the way I remained present to the next word, the next and the next when I wrote poems. Rather than limiting me, thinking small gave me the key to an entirely new universe!

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