Keeping it short, sweet and simple

Sometimes, I forget what it feels like to write just for the sake of writing. Most of my writing is purposeful, either for an essay or on deadline. One of the reasons I’m taking Intermediate Writing is so I can loosen up my writing and experiment with a different style.

This week in class, we did a short, 5-minute free-writing assignment associated with a personal object we brought. Although I left most of my very personal items at home, I did still have the prayer book I used in my bat mitzvah. I wrote about the thoughts that flitted through my head when I saw it, what it symbolized and why it continues to be important in my life.

After we all read our pieces aloud, we talked about what narrative components we had included in them without even really thinking about it. Characters, scenes, details and narrative arcs appeared.

Slowly, I think the mood in the class lightened. We could do this. We could write this way, and you know what? It really wasn’t so hard after all.

I think my biggest stumbling block is just getting out of my own way. Granted, my short piece was no work of genius, but it was genuine and unknowingly used one of Anne LaMott’s, author of Bird by Bird, writing techniques. She advises to take a one-inch picture frame view of a single scene, a single moment. The shorter assignments allow you to break through the distractions and random thoughts running through your head to actually accomplish something. And that’s what this free-writing assignment felt like.

I like how a lot of these theories can apply to bigger writing, such as putting together a series. Dan Barry, a reporter at the New York Times, who wrote a series on the small town of Elyria, Ohio. In a Poynter chat, he answers questions about how he put his series together, and he mentions writing about scenes.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to begin with the early morning, when Elyria is mostly asleep, and then take you to that moment when the OPEN sign is activated. After that, it was trying to give sense of place with specifics

Even in longer pieces, writing one scene at a time can still be an effective way to move through the process. His series spans months of observing, writing and getting to know the city, but he uses the same narrative components we’re learning about now.

In a way, it’s intimidating because he uses them with such artistry and skill. On the other hand, it’s reassuring that the rules for doing this kind of writing won’t change up on me down the road. If I could learn to approach all my pieces and projects scene by scene, or in one-inch increments, I think I’d get a lot more accomplished. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use some of these strategies as the semester goes on.

This week, our big assignment is coming up with four relatively fleshed out story ideas. The ideas can come from anywhere, but we are encouraged to use the “story seeds” we brainstormed last week. I always get panicky when I have to pitch stories, but lately, I’ve been trying to see them through a very specific structure that my editor last semester helped me develop.

She taught me to think in questions and then move to more specific questions and keep breaking it down like that. It’s been a method that works for me, and led to a big ol’ outline I kept for my project on the new Common Core State Standards in Columbia Public Schools. The first was general with lots of questioning that changed along the way, but the second was reworked based on the interviews I had done, and it brought my story’s purpose into much stronger focus (with many incomprehensible notes).

I’m going to go for a similar approach for my pitches this week. Based on my loose ideas,  I’m going to try to form large, broad questions. Then, I’m going to whittle them down a little further and add suggestions for sources. I’m also going to include information about the context of each story, what’s been done before, and why the idea is relevant.

My goal is that by breaking my ideas down into one-inch bites, I can start working in some of the narrative strategies I’ve learned so far.

Wish me luck!