Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Write Small

I teach a two-hour creative writing class on Thursday afternoons in a lovely, sunny conference room on the Upper West side. One of the walls is lined with windows, and the table is large and surrounded by roomy, adult chairs. I am grateful for the sun and the space because I used to teach at night, in a dark, crowded room that was used as a nursery school classroom during the day. Some nights, I would walk into the classroom and it would still be set up for small children: Tiny tables, with even tinier chairs around them. I would call maintenance in a panic and beg them to bring up an adult-size collapsable table and folding chairs as soon as possible. Usually, they came right away but occasionally, they'd pretend not to know what I was talking about. When that happened, the students and I would squeeze ourselves into those teeny tiny chairs. Or if we were feeling energetic, we would grab adult-size chairs from other classrooms. We'd arrange the chairs in a circle, without a table to anchor us, put our work in our laps, and feel very large in a room that was designed for the very small.

I am telling you this story because I have been thinking about "writing small." I tell my students: Be specific in your observations. Steal details from real life. Wherever you go, take notes. Don't think twice about eavesdropping on people's conversations and using their words for dialogue. If you stub your toe, write down the pain. Raise the shade and write down the sky. Let the sun shine in on your story. If it's hailing outside, get your character some boots. Send him on an errand. Have him go to the farmer's market for a pound of red peppers and come back with eight pounds of grapes. Make the dog poop in her crate. Last week, I quoted one of my professors from graduate school, who said, "Whenever Chekhov didn't know what to do with a character, he took him out into the moonlight."

God is in the details. Or as my younger son's fourth grade teacher says, Write small.

Last night, my son sat down on his bed, put down his book (Hunger Games) and started talking about Mr. B.
"Mr. B. says that when you have a big scene happening, you have to 'write small,' " my younger son said. Mr. B. is one of these teachers who is so good that you think he should be doing something else but that's probably because he did do something else---he worked on Wall Street for a number of years. He has the kids keeping journals, in which he urges them to be specific and detailed in their entries.

I asked my younger son what Mr. B. meant about 'writing small.'
"It means in an important part of the story, show every detail. He told a story that only had one scene in it and in real life, it probably took 30 seconds but he made it last five minutes."

"What happened in the story? " I asked.
"He was alone in his house one night and he heard someone come in and make a lot of noise. He ran to his room. It was really his Mom in high heels but before he got to that part, he made the story last a long time. He told us every detail."

I love that idea. Write small.

1 comment:

  1. "Write small." Love that. I tell my students the same thing in different words. I think I will borrow this phrase. Thanks.