Writers Talk About Writing
Let the Little Come Out of the Big
Several years ago I wrote a short book about guitar playing, Let the Little Come Out of the Big, my approach to the ancient and beautiful instrument.
The big of guitar playing, I explain, is strumming: your right arm and hand swinging up and down over the strings, your thumb brushing the strings going down, your fingers brushing them coming up: thumb-fingers-thumb-fingers-thumb-fingers ad infinitum. Strumming is easy; beginners start strumming five minutes into their first lesson. Once you've started, strumming, like walking, needs nearly no mental energy to keep going. Just get into the groove of the up-and-down rhythm, go with the flow. One chord comes out clangy and another you miss entirely? So what? Just keep strumming at an easy-going tempo; enjoy yourself!
The little is anything we do on the guitar more conscious, more willed than strumming—for example, bass lines, fingerpicking patterns, or single string melodies. Letting the little come out of the big means: don't tense up trying to play the fancy stuff right away. Instead, keep strumming and, by dint of a zillion repetitions, variations, and experiments, the little will grow out of the big almost of its own accord, until one day you'll feel just the same relaxed strength playing groovy Andres Segovia and B. B. King licks as you do strumming "You Are My Sunshine."
We can apply "Let the little come out of the big" to the art of writing. The bigs of writing are not physical facts like strumming, unless of course you must have your favorite chair, coffee mug, and pen before you can scribble a word. Writing's bigs, instead, are time-burnished principles that, like fertile earth, nourish the growth of our art. We all yearn to get fancy little stuff into our writing—an elegant epigram here, a magical metaphor there—but if we don't want our work waylaid by trifles or buried under surface detail, we've got to dig down into the big of writing.
Writing's biggest big? Tell the truth. Sadly, that's almost no answer at all. The truth can be so many things to so many people that it's hard for anyone to know for sure what is or isn't true. Writers are also humans who know the comfort of convention and the lure of laziness; no matter how high our brows, we hunger for money and fame just like the eager young singers on American Idol. Such temptations can tug us away from truth we care about and lead us into writing clichéd romances and publicity puff pieces, into chattering along with the chattering classes. Yet most writers write as they do because they believe what they write; they believe their characters would act as they describe, believe their political program better than John Doe's program.Well, I say, hang on to telling your own truth come hell or high water! Keep telling the truth, and your writing will have value, no matter how much you mangle your metaphors. The plainest true sentence will long outlive the most intricate lie.
Other writing bigs: Observe life. Life is our one great subject, an ever-flowing fount of ideas and information, endlessly fascinating as it grows and changes inside and all around us, endlessly feeding our minds and imaginations. We can't do all our writing at our desks, and when we get stuck, the best cure is often to jump up, go outside, and see what's happening. Even a short walk down city streets or along a country lane will fuel your writing, and back at your desk, you'll come up with ideas and phrases—"like a fat man getting off a bus," "like flies buzzing around a dead mouse"—that never would have come to mind had you stayed inside. Remember Jane Austen's Emma who, bored with shopping, goes to the merchant's door and takes in the village high street:
Her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman traveling homewards with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, [but] she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough....A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.
Get what you're writing into one sentence. Think for a moment of the first line of The Iliad:
I sing, Goddess, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.
That's the big of The Iliad, the immortal poem in nine words. No, says Homer, The Iliad isn't about the Trojan War, Helen and Paris, or the rivalries among the Greeks. It's about the wrath of Achilles: that's Homer's through-thread, that's what makes the poem one work of art. All the Iliad's littles—how much Homer decides to describe this windy speech or that bloody combat—come out of that big, are governed by that big. If Homer had made this his opening sentence:
I sing, Goddess, the death of Hector, son of Priam.
—he would have written an entirely different poem, even had he reported the same events.
Or think of A Tale of Two Cities famous "best of times, worst of times" opening sentence. By declaring that his book will encompass the best and worst, wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair, everything and nothing, Heaven, and hell, Dickens gives himself a big big enough to contain the full range of human experience. Under that inclusive arch as under a high proscenium, Dr. Manette and Lucie, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, Miss Pross and Madame DeFarge, have plenty of room to play out their interlocked dramas.
So keep asking yourself as you write, "What's the heart of what I'm trying to say? What's my big point?" Keeping your big firmly in mind will help you make you make a million little decisions, guide your steps on the unpredictably zig-zag journey from "Once upon a time" to "The End."
The books I'm quoting point to the next big: Read good old books. There's a reason why readers love the Bible and the works of Homer and Herodotus, Sophocles and Plato, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Fielding and Sterne, Balzac and Trollope, millennia and centuries after they were written: they are really really good! Good old books have a boundless vitality that can infuse our spirits with positive energy; reading masterpieces we feast on soul food. In their sentences, paragraphs, and chapters we'll find answers to all our writing questions; in their excellence we'll find inspiration for our highest ambitions. How the grand masters hew close to their bigs even as they delve delicately into the tiniest littles—ahh, let us read and learn, read and learn! So if you haven't read The Peloponnesian War, Boswell's Life of Johnson, or Les Miserables, what are you waiting for?
Every human is unique; we are all much alike. This big gives us, first, a way into our characters: though different, characters are enough like us for us to imagine their lives. Second, this big gives us hope that we can reach a world of readers who, though different from us, are enough like us to get what we are talking about. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day" is as true for you and me and Shakespeare as it is for Macbeth, Abraham Lincoln, and the lady with the cats next door. The more you can connect with this "we're all human" big, the more you'll connect with yourself, your writing, and your readers.
That's five bigs of writing, enough for one column. There are, of course, many more, and you may have your own bigs that mean the world to you. To conclude, I'll put my big point in one sentence: Have a ball painting every little tree, but never lose sight of the big wide forest.