This will be a brief post since it’s about small approaches to writing difficult material. That’s exactly what I’m doing now. I’m writing a memoir about something very personal and often times uncomfortable. I’m giving myself an hour each morning to write a small section. Unlike my usual strategy of telling a story from beginning to end, I’m jumping into memory wherever I can. I’m gathering sections that I hope are complete as themselves, knowing that eventually I’ll have to weave them into a narrative. For the time being, though, I’m enjoying these little pieces of flash that are allowing me to dive more deeply into characters than I might if my main concern was the narrative line.
I always start with something small—a detail, an image, a character, a memory—and then I see where it might take me. The stakes are low and the subject less intimidating when I concentrate on the small rather than the large. A breakfast table, a rocking horse, a cat—why do they lodge in my memory? To interrogate is to discover. The concrete detail tricks us into saying things we never thought we’d say. The miniature takes us deeper into the heart of what we’ve come to the page to explore.
For those of you writing memoirs or personal essays: follow the small details. Let them show you the larger story.