I like Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, I really do. She offers all kinds of good advice for writing, especially for those who, when they dutifully go to their office/fire escape/laptop in the garage, tend not to write but to crouch fearfully under a chair. She’s funny and tells great stories full of heart, encouragement, and snark.
There is, however, one piece of her advice that has always baffled me, and that is the One-Inch Frame. She describes hyperventilating over the enormity of the task facing her, as she sits down to start her next novel, and calming down when she notices a one-inch picture frame kept on her desk “to remind me of short assignments.” Short assignments are a great idea, helping you to bite off no more than you can chew or revise or (it could happen) write perfectly the first time. But I get caught up in the literal notion of a one-inch frame.
Math has never been my strong suit, but I manage to retain a few helpful theorems from grade school arithmetic. In this case, it’s the way one gets the measure of a space (or the space of a measurement, which sounds so much better even if it makes little sense) by simply multiplying its length by its width. So it seems to me that a one-inch frame would have one square inch of space, and that’s not much! Not much at all!
Because it was time to settle this once and for all, and also because today my one major goal on the ol’ To Do list is “write first draft of Lamott talk”, I made my own one-inch frame. Using the ruler my son used in school (embossed for all time “DANIEL,” in large magic-markered print), I made four lines, each one inch long, in the center of a 3 x 5 card. I had to use manicure scissors to cut out the one-inch piece, but I was determined not to mess this up with poultry shears. And there, voila, was my one-inch frame.
Since she calls it a frame, I assume this is something one can actually purchase at Michael’s, or behind the photo counter at Walgreen’s. I am trying to imagine what kind of picture Lamott might have put in that frame. Her father’s foot? Her son’s entire body, taken at a distance the day after he was born? A tiny flower, maybe one of those miniature daisies that grow out in the country? I can see using a tiny frame like this to highlight the cuteness of the face of one of my granddaughters. But you’d have to hold it pretty close to your face to make out what was in there.
As a tool for writing short assignments, I don’t know. Placing this frame over the page of Bird by Bird in which she talks about one-inch frames (I know, very meta) yields this:
all I am going to
first time we me
oor and onto the
expression on he
This could certainly make for some intriguing new haiku. It could, alternatively, be a maddening way for a serial killer to leave clues, like so:
how I will strang
into her mouth w
ury the evidence
ext town before t
So, okay. Maybe Lamott is being less literal than this. Maybe she is suggesting that the writer, at the very least, use the margins she’s allowed here, writing continuously rather than chopping off much of the page, thus enabling something more like:
sunny, Saturday m
orning was overco
at weather again,
I think that one-inch piece of real estate would have been nothing but annoying to the writer of the brilliant short story which begins with these nine words, which became — when paired with another of his brilliant short stores — one of my all-time favorite books. And yes! there is a prize if you figure it out. There might be. You never know.
It’s just that what Lamott says, in her advice about the one-inch frame and short assignments, is this: “All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.” Her hometown would have to one teeny-tiny place, crossed with miniature trains, and even then, I don’t think you’d have enough to inspire even the most cautious writer. You can’t fit a paragraph into a one-inch hole. What you want is chunks of writing, and a frame that’s a bit more accommodating. Say, a four-inch frame. I can fit an entire paragraph from her book into that. The important thing is, a frame has a limited space, a starting and ending point, and it’s a lot less scary to contemplate, as we sit flexing our fingers or sharpening our pencils, to look at just sixteen square inches on an empty white page.