How to Write the Big Heart of Small Moments

Last week, I inched toward a final draft of a poem I have written and re-written for six years. The seeds of the poem are more than seven years old, and there are at least a dozen drafts. And just because a draft is newer doesn’t mean it’s better. This has been the kind of writing process where things get worse, sometimes much worse, before they get better. 

Poetry is the only thing in my life that gets this much of my patience. And it’s not because of the poem, really. It’s because of the thing I’m scraping at within the writing, using the poem like a hammer to break it open. 

When we write in pursuit of something, especially a small moment or a memory that calls to us, there’s often a pause when we step back and wonder: Is this worth it? What am I chasing, and why? 

photo credit:  doug robichaud

photo credit: doug robichaud

In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro offers an answer:

“These traces that live within us often lead us to our stories. Joan Didion called this a shimmer around the edges. Emerson called it a gleam… That knowledge, that ping, the hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments… when we stumble upon it, we know. We know because it shimmers. And if you are a writer, you will find that you won’t give up that shimmer for anything.” 

I love the idea of a shimmer or gleam. It sounds a bit otherworldly, and I think when we really open up to our writing, it is otherworldly. Some days I’m consumed by the shimmer. I’m Alice down the rabbit hole. Around the time I nudged that stubborn poem to completion, my husband scared the hell out of me while I was lost in thought, rerouting lines in my head. “You should really consider dual citizenship,” he said.

So how to follow the shimmer, that gleam, until it forms a strong poem, essay, or story? This feels like a lifelong experiment, but there are a few things this particular poem taught me:

Break it down (and avoid becoming a deer in the headlights).

My shimmering moment: Seven years ago, my parents, grandmother, and I visited my brother at his new house. He led us to the backyard, where bees mauled his pear tree. They were storming rotten pears across the ground. My dad is a forester and bug man, so he began the usual inspection. My grandmother was sliding deeper into dementia then, and she kept getting too close to the tree. There were the bees, and then there was my grandma. Both a little unruly, both in need of careful attention. And then all those sad, rotting pears. I couldn’t let go of those images colliding at once. 

And then two more moments gave me that electric knowing. First, my grandmother wandered away. I spotted her in the garage, where the previous homeowners had stored an old piano they would soon pick up. There she was at the keys, grinning and plunking out a song of her own design. She had never played an instrument. She looked half-gone, and happy for it. 

When she joined us again, we were waiting on my dad’s prognosis. Before he could announce the death sentence for the tree, my grandmother said, “Oh, you can bring it back to life.” She said it like it was secret knowledge, like something she had learned in that in-between space she was living in more and more.

For years, these all felt connected to me. In my mind, the memory is tight, as if it took place in a five-minute span. It wasn’t until I tried a segmented poem that I realized I had a collection of smaller moments, each with their own gleam. I was so enamored with the big idea that I hadn't paid attention to its parts.

What I learned: If a shimmer feels like a beacon, it’s probably not yet a shimmer you can work with. Break it down. Search for the smaller parts. 

Writing Prompt

Think back to a time of transition in your family’s history, or in your character’s history. Find a moment when you (or your character) knew things wouldn’t be the same. Look around the room. Notice body language. Try to recall what people said, how things tasted, the colors that stood out. Each of these is a gleam to explore.

Trust what’s beautiful. It wants to be followed, not forced.

Think of each gleam as a rare stone. You’ve just uncovered it from a secret place. You might be the first one who has held it in a long time. What is your first instinct?

My grandmother said and did those beautiful things. I uncovered them from a secret place, or just got lucky to notice them. What did I do next? I carried them in my pocket for seven years, greedily checking from time to time to see if they were still there. I rearranged them often, begged them to make the reader see what I did.

If they were a rare stone, then my early drafts were a choke of diamonds and a thick gold band. All those shimmering moments, and I did not trust them to stand on their own. I wanted to write a poem that matched how they made me feel. I was writing about something, rather than writing into something.

Instead of creating a beautiful container around the moment of inspiration, follow the moment. Chase it if you have to. But trust it. I feel like that’s what my poem still wants to teach me: to trust the seed, the shimmer. 

Writing Prompt

From imagination or memory, think of a time you or a character began to tear up unexpectedly. Freewrite, as steadily as you can, for 10 minutes about the experience, how it started, how you felt, and what happened next. Ask questions of the moment if you need to, but follow it.

Remove a piece of jewelry before your writing leaves the house.

Sometimes no amount of breaking things down or following the moment goes far enough to find the heart of the story. In my case, I tried different forms of poetry, played with essays instead of poems, flipped the poem’s ending with its beginning, and so on. But the poem still felt clogged. 

I’m reminded of the old advice that you should remove one accessory or piece of jewelry before leaving the house. This might be especially relevant for writing that involves weighty moments or emotional content for the writer. In the almost-final draft of my poem, I kept just one of the initial moments. That was when it finally started to show itself.

This is similar to the advice of “killing your darlings,” but it doesn’t have to be painful. In practice, it can be freeing. Focus on one of those shimmering moments and see what remains. You might follow what’s left down its own rabbit hole. You might refine that shimmering moment until the very essence of the story remains.

Writing Prompt

Return to a story, poem, essay, or other piece of writing and try one or more of the following:

- Remove the first line or sentence. Is any meaning lost?
- Put the last line or sentence at the beginning of the story. Remove what’s left of the last stanza or paragraph. What happens?
- Find the first image that appears in your poem or story. Remove it. What does it affect in the piece?
- Remove the first image that appears your poem or story, and turn it into a new title for the piece. Does that make the idea more or less powerful?
- Take an inventory of each image or metaphor in your poem, story, or essay. List them in order of your preference. Remove the two bottom-ranking images or metaphors from the piece. Is anything lost? What feels sharper or clearer?

What do you do when you spot "a shimmer around the edges"? How do you follow the seeds of an idea? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook. If you liked this post, sign up for Voice & Vessel's studio letters for more creative practices, or check out the upcoming workshops.