Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
That tiny piece of yellow yarn. I was introduced to it years ago in a student essay, one I’ve never forgotten, because, yes, it was a very good essay: a charming and powerful coming-of-age story about growing up, trying out for a cheer team and needing bathing suit straps to be tighter. And though I do remember a few other standout details of the piece–it took place in Minnesota, Ethan and Joel Cohen grew up in her town–what lives most vividly in my recollection is that piece of yarn holding those straps together.
And its yellowness.
Isn’t it counterintuitive to think we remember the tiny and ordinary parts of life’s stories instead of the big and the bold? Could be. We live in a culture that supersizes pretty much everything. Big is better. Size matters. I don’t remember the last time the soda I was given at the fast-food drive-thru window actually fit into my car’s drink holder. Maybe that’s because I drive a Subaru. I’m not complaining, I like it this way.
But isn’t it also critical (and sometimes fun) to counter an institutionalized idea, especially if what we offer instead holds promise to deepen and fortify our place in this wild world?
“C’mon, spare me,” you may be thinking at this point. “Can remembering the yellow yarn really make me, you or anyone else feel more connected to self and others while also helping me understand my writing process a little more?
Stay with me.
The popular expression Go Big or Go Home suggests something along these lines, Do big, wide and extravagant things or nothing at all. Or go home. (As if home, in its broadest interpretation, equals loss.) Because who remembers the quiet and the small? And who has the capacity to find beauty (the dark and light kind, by the way) in one word or a phrase or sentence?
Almost every lover of good literature, that’s who.
Forget Go Big or Go Home. Embrace this instead: Go Small and Go Home.
How can this help us as writers? The answer is more than twofold but, for today, it’s twofold.
Crafting short and even smaller-in-size scenes, instead of focusing on length of the final whatever (essay, short story, book) packs a giant punch and elevates productivity. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, a scene driven approach can liberate and create momentum. Randa Jarrar, who writes across genres and is also a filmmaker and performer, embraces scene-making and, in the process, honors the teacher who taught her: “For some, word counts and page numbers work best. But once a teacher told me to shift to scenes, books happened.”
Isn’t the notion of “books happening” delicious?
Speaking of happening books and deliciousness, Ross Gay not only offers scenes and lively, compassionate discourse in The Book of Delights but he does so using what he calls “essayettes.” The suffix drives my point home.
Perfect segue. Let’s go home.
I teach writing classes using Home as a unit topic or even as a whole semester theme. As we know this is not an earth-shattering idea, nor is it original. So why do we, why do I, do it?
Because it works.
Home means many things to many people which is part of why it’s one of the most provocative writing prompts there is.
For some home is the smell of curry in the kitchen. Or the little transistor radio that never moved from a grandpa’s end table. Or that particular shade of blue, that one that translates to confidence or grief or power. In other words, in many cases, it’s specific, quiet even. And small.
“Poetry lives by specifics,” Karl Kirchwey, offers in his review of Deaf Republic, Poems by Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukrainian American poet of, among others, “We Lived Happily During the War.” Many who never knew this poem before February 2022 know it now. It was shared and offered widely the week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This makes me also think of the mornings, during the past two years or so, I’ve turned to The Slowdown as a way to start the day because I had no idea how to begin, given the backdrop of uncertainty and turmoil, locally and globally.
In my writing life, most of the time, captivating prose lives by specifics, too. Consider this: as a writer of life stories, it is in the tiny, singular details where readers are often mesmerized but also pulled in because they remember their own life’s tiny singular details. Alison Stine, poet, author and teacher of creative writing notes: “But the way to do that is to show your small corner of it as specifically and unflinchingly as you can. People will see themselves there.”
There it is—connection to self and other. In remembering their own specificities, both writers and readers may lean into their home, in life and on the page.
Specific. Quiet. Small. Something like a tiny piece of yellow yarn.