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Following the Details Home

I asked her to draw a map. This is something I do sometimes when a student tells me they have nothing to write about. I have them draw their hometown or a place they know well. I have them sketch landmarks and points of interest. No detail is too small. At this early stage in the writing process, our work is to deal with self-doubt by gathering possibilities.

Kylie was a college junior, working with me on an honors thesis in creative nonfiction. She drew the Air Force base she’d grown up next to. She drew runways, hangars, rows of airplanes. On a dirt road just outside the base, she drew her rusty pickup truck. When I asked what her pickup truck was doing there, she told me she used to lie alone in its bed, watching planes take off and land. But what she really liked, she said, were the long stretches of quiet when nothing happened. When she could listen to crickets and count the stars.

One thing I have learned from my experience as a writer is that moments of contrast can sometimes help us to identify the edges of a story and find a way inside it. Consider anything carefully enough and stories emerge.

It was a lovely image, but long stretches of quiet where nothing happens don’t always make for the most engaging essays. She had chosen the detail for a reason, however. I was curious to know more. One thing I have learned from my experience as a writer is that moments of contrast can sometimes help us to identify the edges of a story and find a way inside it. So I asked Kylie to write a few paragraphs comparing those moments of solitude at the base with what was happening in the rest of her life. When we met again a few weeks later, she didn’t give me a paragraph or two — she gave me a handful of pages. She chronicled a complicated grief from her high school years. Those nights in her pickup truck counting stars had been how she attempted to cope. An essay was taking shape in those opening pages, a searing and beautiful one. Her map had given her the courage to get honest.

I don’t share this anecdote by way of saying you have to confess your deepest, darkest secrets in an essay. Rather, I want to illustrate how the details you know can lead to a discovery. On the page and in life, creativity is a function of your ability to understand the choices available to you at any given moment. When you draw a map, as Kylie did — or when you dive into Hillside’s “Ten Sentences” exercise — you sketch out options, ways forward. Consider anything carefully enough and stories emerge. As a beginning writer, I thought I had to know exactly what I was going to say, down to the last detail, before I could even start. Now I don’t start until I have a basketful of potential details. I don’t need to know exactly what I’m going to say: I make my choices and follow where they lead. 

When it came time for Kylie to end her essay, we returned once more to her map. Waiting for us there was a detail that, though exceptional, hadn’t by itself seemed important at first: she once witnessed a plane crash at the base. In light of her grief, however, the crash suddenly felt emblematic of everything. An evocative and powerful event in its own right — one she was able to describe in rich detail — it was also a potent symbol for what she had been through. 

To a casual reader, that ending might have seemed to have come from out of the blue, a spark of literary genius. But Kylie and I knew better: the creative process had delivered it to her. She had made a map and followed it home.

Steve is a Hillside coach.


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