One Inch Frames

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With a large enough scope, every writing workshop more or less looks the same. The ones I took in my college years were full of aimless students (myself included) and headed by professors who knew their time was better spent elsewhere. To give structure to the workshop books were introduced. One week, it was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The professor asked for my thoughts on it and I said something to the tune of “I’m sure she’s nice and all, and this reads fine enough, but she’s got a style that I would hate to read in fiction.”

Thinking back, I have no idea why I said that. For the next decade, I have had a copy of Bird by Bird somewhere within reach of my desk. I have a habit of picking up projects which have no definite end and end up being so huge I can’t quite see the edges of them. For that, one line out of Bird by Bird has come to the rescue time and time again.

I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.

Lamott goes on to break down the project into more manageable blocks. Not every ingredient of a dish needs to be explained if the only thing I remember is the profane conversation happening in the kitchen. For this draft of the scene, maybe we just focus on what the character is doing back in her high school instead of getting caught up in how much the fashions may have changed since she last was there.

While a frame can help bring a huge project back down to size, I find it also provides a better conversation between reader and writer.

When I coach writers I use the idea of framing to help get stories under control, focused. Whether fiction or marketing or branding, the story always hogs the spotlight. The story is always seen as the most important thing. I’d argue the frame beyond the story is more important. It keeps the focus on what the reader takes in, and what the writer puts out. Imagine a frame around a work of art. The art can exist fine enough without it, but hanging on the wall it can get lost in the wallpaper and fall flat. A frame allows something to stand out with a definition.

If you don’t provide readers with a frame, they will bring their own. Maybe that’s for the best, or maybe it takes what you wanted to say in an obtuse direction.

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