Going Small

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When I teach creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, most of my students want to go big, meaning that they are wanting to bring their readers on an emotional journey, pulling out the big stuff: their parents’ devastating divorce, the death of their favorite grandparent, their best friend from elementary school who they no longer speak to, or their first long distance romance that couldn’t bear the miles. These are all worthy topics to pursue, but a pitfall of trying to go big is not being able to cover the landscape of the event, to translate it the same way it happened.

            Many of my students look at their lives and think that nothing interesting has happened to them, that they haven’t done much, and so they scan their memories for the moments with the highest peaks, the most drama, and think they’ve found their story there. Author “Story Seminar” creator Robert McKee teaches that a trivial story well told is more powerful than a significant story poorly told. It doesn’t matter, I tell students, if you haven’t trained in the junior Olympics, haven’t fallen into movie-like love yet, or have only lived in Naples, Florida for all of your life—in fact, that’s better. Take your story to the park instead. Look around your hometown, in the antique store that’s always open that you never go in. What’s in there? What stories live there?

            To Go Small is to look closely at the practice of running, an old object in an antique store, a seemingly insignificant moment, like the walk you take after dinner around your apartment complex, and to ask those objects, moments, practices or memories questions. Borrowing from Lynda Barry’s book, What It Is, I ask my students to make a list of ten couches they’ve sat on in their lifetimes, then ask them to choose one. With that couch in mind, I ask them guiding questions borrowed from Barry’s book to help orient them in the moment they’ve chosen. Where are you? What are you doing? Who else is there? What time of day is it? How old are you? What does the couch look like? Whose house is it? What’s in front of you? What’s to your left? What’s to your right? What’s behind you? What’s below your feet?

            By answering these questions, students engage in pre-writing and are forced to Go Small, looking at the minute details of the memory, picking out carpet patterns, wall decorations, couch fabric, time of day, season, etc. And by picking out these significant, concrete details, their piece becomes much more alive as it’s coming from a real, specific place, and a vivid moment in time. I ask students to then begin writing the moment or the scene with the details they collected in mind.

            Haley Morton, a previous student of mine, practiced Going Small in her piece “Early October,” a fiction piece about a narrator who runs:

            “Sweat burns through my pores. Catching my blonde skin up in its path. Gathering itself   into lines of pearl and opal across my neck and forehead and heaving chest. It’s hard for me to think about nothing. Especially now. When my legs collide with the ground  without a hint of grace and my thumbs tuck into my balled-up, pumping fists. I try to linger in each step with purpose as I bob past the arching oaks and violent palms with their saw limbs, all rooted in a hostile soil that seems it would be home to nothing but tumbleweed.

            When the students share their post-exercise writing, it’s usually their best piece of writing so far in the semester. When they read out loud in class, it’s clear for the rest of us to see that they are somewhere else, back in time, and we get to see the inside of their childhood house: the fast food bag on the table their dad brought home, their mother’s pearl earrings she got from her grandmother, or the Last Supper picture their older brother found on the side of the street. Their pieces come to life, glowing with sensory details and specific images. From hearing themselves and their peers’ pieces, they start to see the importance, the poignancy, in a broken coffee cup, in a shiny trinket, as opposed to the topics that were just too big to pin down, too big to write well in a first draft.

            In Phillip Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell, he writes that famed novelist Philip Roth would go to bed reminding himself, “Don’t invent, remember.” This is to say that oftentimes, when we imagine, we are actually more distant from accuracy than if we were to pull from what we see in our actual lives. To pull from our lives is to go over the mundane, to collect the seemingly insignificant, and to Go Small, finding a kernel, a part in the work that symbolizes or speaks to the bigger feeling, the bigger moment, we so often seek to convey.

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About the Author
Annalise Mabe is currently a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida where she teaches nonfiction and professional writing.