The Usefulness of Thinking Small (In Writing and Life)
I’m a big picture thinker. This is helpful when writing a novel, in which you need to keep an entire story arc in your mind. And it is great when you are planning your weekly schedule. But it can be overwhelming when you are trying to get words on the page. I start out writing a scene for Chapter Two, then realize how it connects to something that is going to happen in Chapter Ten and then the whole arc from two to ten is in my mind. And then it is hard to get back to focusing on the scene at hand.
Does this sound familiar? I can’t see the trees for the forest! I’m always skipping ahead to what’s coming next. (And, ahem, when I think about it, I do this in life, too. During a writing session, I’m constantly aware of when I’ll need to stop to start the rest of the day. In the car, I’m thinking about what I need to do when I get home. This is one reason why meditation is so helpful for me.)
And lately, working on a rewrite of my current novel, in which I have to drop certain bits in and keep track of them, I’m driving myself crazy. I have a long list of scenes and instructions for fixing them, but I look at it and my eyes glaze over. I can’t find a way in.
But I’ve found something that is helping me and it is thinking small.
I’ve not reread the Anne Lamott book Bird by Bird in years, but there’s a part of it that has stuck with me. She talks about how she keeps a tiny blank picture frame by her computer and when she gets overwhelmed, she holds that picture frame up to the monitor to remind herself that all she has to focus on is that tiny, tiny bit she can see through the frame.
And that’s what I need to remind myself of, over and over again. One way I’ve learned to do it is with index cards. Love those little guys, especially the smaller ones (3 x 5) that come in colors. (Yes, you could color code them, but I have such a right brain that I start out sorting them by color and then completely lose track.) For the rewrite, I’ve put one chapter on each card and then I can add notes to it as I need to.
Yes, I know, this is not revolutionary. Some of you have probably been doing this for years. And I have tried, but it has never worked for me before. (Which leads to another rule of writing–what works for you today might not work tomorrow. Doesn’t matter. Do what works in the moment!) But now it is enabling me to focus on one chapter at a time by containing everything to one small card.
This idea is helping me in life, too. As in, knitting. Have you ever seen a long page of knitting instructions, complete with abbreviations and lots of numbers? They are enough to make my poor brain explode with angst. But now I copy just a few lines of instruction at a time onto an index card. And that’s all I have to focus on until I get to the end of that card.
Boo-yah. Knitting stress solved.
So, if you’re struggling with overwhelm, or big picture fatigue, try stopping things down. Experiment with the index cards. Or maybe post-it notes! Or maybe something completely different that only you have thought of! (If so, please share it with us here!)
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