THE GIFT OF THINKING SMALL

 

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

I'm not sure what it is about the genre of memoir that equates the writing of it with the creation of a book. A memoir can be ten pages (in which case it might also be called a personal essay). It can be two pages. It can be whatever length it needs to be. It does not need to be a book-length work. And unless you've been writing and publishing for years, I'd like to encourage you to let go--for a moment--the idea that your memoir must be a book. Here's why:

Writing a book is the marathon of writing. It is, hands-down, the hardest, most agonizing, sanity-squeezing, soul-flaying exercise you will ever do as a writer. It is. Anyone who tells you any different is also likely to tell you that raising a child is as simple as following a recipe.

I'm not saying that you can't write a book. You can. But if you are in the early stages of writing seriously, let me offer the following metaphor in the hope that might be helpful.

Let's say you've been a walker for a long time and you've now decided to take up long-distance running. Terrific idea. Now, which would you say is the wiser way to begin: a) jogging around the block, gradually increasing your strength and endurance until you were able to run greater and greater distances, learning about proper footwear, nutrition, the importance of stretching, developing a steady running practice, dealing with injury, etc.; or b) registering for the next Boston Marathon?

I cannot overstate this: a book is the Boston Marathon of writing. And I have watched too many people become so overwhelmed by the task of writing a book that they end up abandoning the project and/or writing entirely. The saddest part is that they might well have been able to write the book, run that literary marathon, if only they hadn't set themselves that goal off the top.

Most, if not all, writers start small. We hone our craft by working on short, manageable pieces. In my own case, my first publication was a 500-word essay in The Globe and Mail. Gradually, the pieces I wrote got longer, my skills improved, and my capacity to tackle large subjects grew alongside the size of the work I was creating. Eight years after that first article appeared, I finished my first book.

Most writers I know have a similar story. Yes, there are people who sit down and begin by working on a book, but most of the writers you might think started that way (because their bio on the dust jacket reads: "This is her first book.") have years of largely invisible, largely unacknowledged, largely forgotten works of smaller size behind them. We all begin by jogging around the block.

By the way, this is meant to be encouraging. To assure you that you can do this, provided you don't bite off more than you're able to enjoy. Instead of living with a giant project that spills off your desk, bursts out of a binder, takes up far too much desktop space on your computer (in all its various versions and iterations), and keeps you up and night wondering how to corral it all -- try focussing on a single scene. A. Single. Scene.

Just one. For now.

 

When you work on smaller pieces, particularly in a workshop setting, you have the opportunity to learn how to do the writing well, to learn the craft of creating a story that flies off the page and into the hearts of readers. If you can manage to create one successful 5- or 10-page piece, you are capable of creating 30-60 of them.

If, on the other hand, you create 200 unmanageable pages that meander and trip and have clunky dialogue and weighty description and head off in a dozen directions over five decades and don't really go anywhere but around and around, you develop the equivalent of shin splints from running longer and harder than you were ready to.

The wonderful thing about working on small pieces is that nothing is lost in doing so; on the contrary, a book-length work can actually emerge from a series of 60 five-page scenes (or 30 ten-page chapters or 100 three-page vignettes) consciously strung together to create a full story. You can write these smaller pieces along your way to a larger whole and, if they are stand-alone stories, maybe even publish them as you go.

If this were just a theory, I'd be skeptical, but it is precisely how most books are written. In my own case, I began my first book in the middle, as I recall, choosing an episode -- one single scene -- that leapt out and inspired me, and I contained myself to just that vignette. When it was finished and polished, I sent it off to a literary magazine and it was published. And so it went: one episode after the other. Gradually, I began stringing the stories together and, eventually, they became chapters of a book. (And when the book was finished and I began looking for an agent, it was very helpful to be able to say, and these four chapters have already been published in this literary journal and that magazine.)

Think of stringing beads onto a necklace. Creating one pearl at a time. The sense of satisfaction you will get from creating and finishing one small beautiful piece (and then two, and then twelve...) will not only teach you to hone your craft as you go, it will give you the affirmation and incentive you need to go on to the next piece.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you'll feel peaceful. That alone is worth the shift in perspective.