As an editor, I spend a whole lot of time talking about how to fix up writing you already have. But what do you do when the words don’t come?
For this month’s nonfiction know-how (thanks, Cyn!) I want to talk about finding ideas when you don’t think you have any, and how to dig the real essay out of the thing you just wrote.
What if you only had five minutes to live?
I bet you could come up with a lot of stuff you’d want to do before you died, right? And then, if you’re anything like me, you’d spend four minutes and thirty seconds in a state of complete paralysis and the last thirty seconds apologizing. Still. Five minutes is a pretty short time, right? Probably not enough time to have an epic adventure. You can’t hitchhike across Europe or swim the Bering Strait in five minutes.
But I bet, if you think hard enough, you’ll realize that most of the stuff that really changes your life happens in moments, not hours.
So let’s focus on the moments.
Live like you only have five minutes left
I’m not talking about trying to complete your bucket list today, or make amends to everyone you’ve wronged. I’m asking you to take the next five minutes and pay attention to them. Really experience them, whatever you’re doing. Don’t take time out of your day, don’t stop working or making dinner or surfing the net or walking your dog. Just experience the next five minutes carefully. Pay attention to them.
No, really, it’s okay. I’ll wait.
That felt like a really long time
Didn’t it? A whole lot of things happened in that five minutes. And because the human brain is a funny place, I bet a lot of those things reminded you of other things. So here’s a thought:
Write about one of the things that happened in your five minutes, and about the thing it reminded you of.
Don’t judge this essay. Just write at least 50 words (that’s four sentences, you can totally do that!) and at most 2,000 (that’s a lot, but that’s okay! you might have a lot to say!) about something that happened in your five minutes. Relax. Talk about walking your dog, and the way your feet hit the pavement, and the fact that you heard somewhere that the pavement on your street had to be redone five times and how your commute is really awful because they’re always doing roadwork.
But don’t waste your time editing it, either.
Find the moment
Somewhere in this essay, there’s a perfect moment. Maybe it’s one sentence. Maybe it’s an image, a blowing curtain that reminds you of a story about your grandmother’s house. Maybe it’s the fact that every day on your walk you pass someone – let’s call her Linda – sitting outside on her porch. Maybe it’s the blister on your heel and how it’s more annoying than the time your toenail fell out for some reason.
Find that moment. Find the moment that means something.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve read an essay here at yeah write and thought “boy, I wish that writer had just taken the second-to-last paragraph” (and it usually is the second to last for some reason) “and written that essay instead.”
There’s something in your five minutes that you feel strongly about. Something that makes you uncomfortable, or happy, or exhilarated, or angry.
Write about that. Don’t flinch. Don’t second-guess yourself.
That thing is worth writing about. It’s worth sharing.
See, here’s the secret: anything that makes you feel something, that’s worth sharing. Getting your readers to feel that, or to understand why that moment is important, that’s our elusive so what. That’s the armature that any good story or essay is built around. And you can find it in just five minutes, if you trust yourself.
Still struggling with your five minutes? Here are some ideas and activities you can try to fill the five minutes with. Each one is sure to lead you to an essay, so pick the one that speaks to you today and go with it.
Go for a walk. No, I don’t care what the weather is like. It’s five minutes. If you’re miserable, spend five minutes being miserable and write an essay about how your mother used to drag you out on walks. Or why rain is the worst. Or why sun is. I have my first sunburn of the year already and I’m feeling uncharitable toward the daystar.
Somewhere in your house, car or apartment there’s a corner where all the daily crap accumulates, waiting to be a crapalanche the minute you need something. Spend five minutes sorting this crap. Sort some memories along with it. Does that receipt remind you of something? Someone? What is that sticky thing?
Take a shower. Take a bath. Wash your hands. Pay attention. Look at your body, your skin and your scars. What stories are in your freckles? What do the odd angles of bone and rolls of skin and flesh remind you of? Do you love them? Hate them? Are you proud of what they can do? Tell us about it. Nothing is more relatable than having a complicated relationship with yourself.