The Power of Small

Nothing will bring a writer to an instant halt any faster than attempting to envision ALL of the work to be done on a novel or a memoir. Thinking about writing a 300 page novel or memoir is nothing short of daunting.  The task seems almost impossible, but the task appears manageable when envisioning the novel or memoir one scene at a time, envisioning the novel or memoir in small pieces. One scene, one scene, one scene and the work at hand will soon be done.

Thinking of writing only ONE scene—not the whole novel—is also liberating because it breaks the mind’s insistence on chronology—our minds are trained to start at the beginning and work our way through to the end.  But thinking in terms of writing, not the entire story, but only a single scene, is liberating.  On any given day, the writer can write anywhere within the story, beginning, middle, end.

For example, in the wee hours of half-sleep, half-wake, the writer might see one particular scene very clearly. (We all know how creative we are in this state of dreamy half-sleep.) The writer might envision a scene that will come close to the end of the novel. By thinking in scenes, the writer can focus on writing that particular scene that morning when she fully wakes because that particular scene is clear and fully formed in the writer’s head and heart. There is a brilliance in wee-hour mental images that can be lost if writing the scene is delayed. On any given day, if the writer writes the scene or scenes that are clearest, that are envisioned in detailed, then the writing will be vivid and will not be forced. Few things in life are any more nerve-wracking than attempting to create a scene while staring at a blank page. Alas! That is hard work indeed!

But, if the writer has already envisioned a scene BEFORE she sits down to write, the writing will be much easier. By thinking of a novel or memoir in scenes —not the work as a whole—the burden of chronology is lifted from the shoulders and the writer is free to write anywhere within the story. The scenes can be assembled later, but the story is unfolding within the individual scenes.

Using memoir as an example, Fierce by Barbara Robinette Moss is an excellent model. Moss’ first memoir, Change Me into Zeus’ Daughter, told her life-story of being raised in rural Alabama in abject poverty under the roof of an alcoholic and abusive father. Her second memoir, Fierce, is the story of her climb out of poverty and establishing herself as an independent adult. The entire memoir is told in short vignettes. When I introduce Fierce in my writing classes, my students feel empowered. They can do this! YES, they can write one small piece, and another small piece, and another small piece that turns into something BIG. Each vignette is compelling, yet it is just one tiny piece of the entire puzzle—the scrambled bits and pieces that lead Moss into a successful and meaningful life free of abuse and allow the reader to experience this journey with her. Ultimately, Moss divides the small pieces into periods of time and distinct locations, but on any day, she could write within any of these times or places.

Another memoir that is an excellent example of small pieces making the whole is Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, the story of a British girl raised in Africa by struggling parents who had a dream of adventure and success, but little more than a dream. Fuller opens in Rhodesia in 1976, after only three pages she switches to Zambia in 1987, then to Zambia in 1999, and back to Rhodesia in 1968. In this New York Times best-seller, Fuller demonstrates that the writer can organize around principles other than chronology.

An example of just one novel that is told from small pieces and breaks chronology is The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson (a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award). In Heaven of Mercury, Watson tells the story of two would-be lovers who are now in their eighties—they have known each other since childhood. As the story unfolds, Watson moves around in time to the two as octogenarians, to the would-be lovers in their teens, to their childhood, to the two as young adults. We get the full scope of their lives (and the lives of others), but in short pieces and not in chronological order.

Thinking in terms of small pieces provides at least two benefits for the writer: 1) It divides the job of writing a novel or memoir into manageable pieces and dilutes the fear of the job ahead. 2) It allows the writer to break the mindset of chronology. No, the story doesn’t have to written as it actually unfolds. It can be written in any order the writer choses. Then, the story can be assembled as a whole from the small pieces, arranging the pieces as they fit best for the unfolding narrative (chronologically or not).

There is real power in thinking small!