In Focus, Part 1, we talked about ways to focus a story* in progress. What if you haven’t written the story? Suppose you wish to explore a nascent idea or relay an experience. The idea feels blurry, because it hasn’t quite taken root in your head. How do you focus?
Let’s say you’ve been ruminating over the idea that our relationships with our parents change as we get older, as do our relationships with our children. You’re driven to write about these changes, but you’re not sure how to go about it. Should you pen an essay? A short story? A novel? Every one of these forms is appropriate for exploring relationships.
Before you go further –
Decide what form your story will take
This may seem basic, and to some extent it is, but there’s currently – currently because, like anything else, writing trends – a great deal of crossover between fiction and nonfiction. I’m not referring to content, or writers trying to pass off lies as truth and vice versa, although of course that happens. Writers use the same techniques to craft narrative nonfiction as they use when writing fictional stories.
In the past, questions about form often came down to whether the writer preferred or felt more comfortable with expository writing or fiction. It’s no longer necessary to make that distinction. Frank McCourt’s wonderful memoir Angela’s Ashes, for example, reads like a novel, with carefully rendered scenes, dialogue, description and so forth pulling readers into the moment. This flexibility gives us greater freedom, and also presents a confusing array of options.
Consider your purpose
What do you hope to achieve by writing this story? For you? For your audience? If your goal is to educate readers, you might consider a news or magazine article, in which you state your ideas in a straightforward manner, and then use concrete evidence – facts, examples, expert testimony – to support them. If your goal is to create a work of art or enlighten your audience by inviting them to experience a situation, choose narrative. Read about purpose.
You’ve defined your purpose, you know what you hope to accomplish, now –
Although most how-to articles offer specific suggestions – map, create bubbles, free-write – experience tells me that there is no one correct way to brainstorm. For some writers, mapping works, while others, like me, figure out what they want to say only after writing it down. My advice: do whatever you makes you feel comfortable. The idea is simply to get past the nasty internal editor in your brain who says you’re no good.
Don’t worry about focus just yet. Try to get as much down on paper as possible. Allow yourself to digress. If you’re writing about parent-child relationships and suddenly find yourself writing about baseball – let yourself go. That may be the perfect lens for your story.
Draft and assess
Write a draft of your article, essay or story. Now read what you’ve written. As you read, ask questions. What appeals to you? Why? What stands out? What surprises you? Why? What catches your attention? Where did you spend the most time?
Look for patterns. Which words, descriptions or snatches of dialogue have you repeated? The answers to these questions will tell you what interests you most in the piece.
If you have trouble answering these questions or finding a pattern –
Create a rough outline
I know: you’re creative. Creative people don’t outline; they write organically. That’s fine – lie, if you must. Tell yourself this isn’t really an outline.
Go through, paragraph-by-paragraph or scene-by-scene – chapter-by-chapter, if you’re working on a book – and jot down the main point in each. No need to write in sentences, but each point must be simple, precise, and clear. When you’re finished, read your descriptions.
After we’ve read and reread a piece, words tend to blur. Ideas that seemed perfectly clear in our head morph into confusing, amorphous blobs. This exercise does two things: first, it breaks the work into component parts. There’s a reason marketers write in bullets – they’re easier to see, read and absorb. It also creates distance. If you don’t have the time to put the work away, let it rest and look at it later, dissecting it puts you in a different frame of mind and enables you to see the piece more objectively.
A story may have a clear beginning, middle and end, yet lack focus. While the plot moves clearly from A to B to C, the meaning or focus is unclear. This is called an anecdote. Focused stories add up to something; they have a focused meaning.
We can tell a story in many different ways. Suppose you witness a fire: you can ramble, give a directionless accounting, listing any detail that comes to mind. Or you can focus on a single aspect of the fire – the courage of the firefighters, for instance, or the way the community rallied around the victims. By shaping a story around one particular focal point, selecting and relating only those details that further the point, you convey meaning.
I’m not sure why, when we’re writing, this feels so hard. We do it constantly in everyday life, in discussions with others. Let’s suppose you’re sixteen. The Friday-night party you attended turned wild. With your parents, assuming they know something bad happened, you might talk about property damage or destruction (omitting negatives involving you or your friends, of course). With friends, you’d probably focus on the craziness – the sex, the drugs, the booze. Same party, essentially the same story – different details, different focus.
Take a look at the Sandra Cisneros story, ‘My Name,’ annotated below. The protagonist tells a story about her name, a name she shares with her grandmother. So the story is about her name. The focus is on cultural oppression. The protagonist inherited her grandmother’s name, but she refuses to accept the oppression her grandmother suffered. Through the lens of her name, she tells a story about cultural oppression.
Back to your parent-child story and the baseball details that emerged in your draft. Maybe to make your point about changing parent-child relationships, you tell a story about baseball. The plot relates the events of a story; the focus divulges your meaning.
Select and weed
Now that you’ve identified your focus, reread your draft or list. Which of the details or your list relate directly to your main idea? Which digress? Be precise. Muddy thinking produces muddy writing. Retain only those details that have a strong concrete or organic connection to your focal point. Cut all loosely connected ideas. I know – you can’t bear to throw your babies away. Don’t. Use them in a different piece.
Be sure each scene – every detail – relates directly to, or in some way clarifies or develops, your meaning. Emphasize the most important scenes or points – in other words, emphasize those sections that crystallize your meaning. In a story, develop key scenes or, as in the Cisneros piece, important details or descriptions. In essays, emphasize, or spend the most time developing, key points. Emphasis provides direction, tells the reader when to pay close attention. These signals clarify focus and pull your meaning to the forefront.
What strategies do you use to focus your ideas?
My Name by Sandra Cisneros
Note: in this story the protagonist struggles with cultural identity. She uses her name to focus the piece; her name is the lens through which she tells her story/makes her point.
In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.
Here she gives the meaning and associations she has with her name and sets up cultural tension. Note that she doesn’t tell us her name, but she identifies her name with qualities.
It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female-but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.
Notice the familial and historical connection, as well as the narrative distance-she begins with her grandmother and connects generally to the male-dominant culture/s. She identifies with her grandmother – both are strong-willed – and she must fight the cultural perception that women should not be strong.
My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild, horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it.
Here she gives specifics of her family history; she shows her grandmother’s oppression.
And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.
Here she connects her name with the oppression her grandmother suffered. She’s inherited her grandmother’s name, but she doesn’t want to inherit her fate. Like a wild horse, she is strong and independent, but that strength and independence are stifled. Doe she accept male domination as part of her culture? No she refuses.
The point of this piece: she inherited this name, but she will not accept the oppression.
At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as my sister’s name Magdalena–which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- -can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza.
She can’t escape her name. As long as she is Esperanza, she is doomed to sadness.
I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.
Finally, she tells us just how far she’d go – what she would do – to escape the name she’s inherited, to escape her grandmother’s fate. Her new name, X, is strong, dramatic, hard.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. 25-26.