Weekend Write-In: Making Big Things Small

Want to be a better writer? I say to my students. Then here is the most important thing I have to tell you: The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. It isn’t my original idea. I heard it over twenty years ago from poet and teaching writing guru, Ralph Fletcher, and I have used it ever since (check out Ralph’s website: http://ralphfletcher.com). What it means is, when you want to write about the big things – love, loss, fear, your feelings about someone, etc. – you think of what concrete, definable object, setting, or scene conveys that overwhelming emotion, that characterizes a loved one.

For example, my father was an easy person to write about: undersized and powerfully strong, world-famous in cattle circles for a bull he once owned, capable of incredible physical exertion and then, impossibly, pausing to pick May flowers at the edge of a field.

My mother, however, felt short-changed. “You never write anything about me,” she said.

Well, you know how it goes with mothers like mine, mothers who do absolutely EVERYTHING for you. A poem about my mother would rival the Iliad, so I started thinking small and came up with this: she loves purple passions. Those velvety-leaved vines? And when she loves something, anything, she overindulges (Suzi Q’s, soap operas, the New York Yankees, etc).

And here’s the thing, I think, that Ralph Fletcher was talking about: I can’t describe my mother to you in one tiny poem. But I can describe a purple passion and, of course, I knew my mother’s kitchen intimately.

Try this: think not of adjectives, but of objects, favorite pieces of clothing, collections, gestures, anything that you could run your fingers over, that you could capture in a photograph. Start there, tiny, tiny details and see if something big doesn’t bloom.

Here’s my poem:

My Mother’s Purple Passion

When her children left, my mother

bought a purple passion at the grocery store,

raised it on game shows on the kitchen TV

until it learned to solve giant crossword puzzles,

guess the price of popcorn to the nearest nickel.

She kept it away from boiling potatoes

burping angrily on the stove and from cupboards

pushing pans out in clattering crowds.

It grew quickly on warm water, soil dark

as chocolate cake and my mother’s gossip.

My mother bought a bigger pot, painted it

yellow to flatter the jealous curtains. Later,

she made new plants from the first,

and when her children came to visit, they found

plants in every window, as comfortable as cats.

They rubbed the leaves velvetless, said, “Mother,

too much purple.” My mother laughed, watched

a lady win a diamond necklace, peeled potatoes

and winked at the plant, quiet over the cupboard

of too many pans, always restless.

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