by Jaime Pollard-Smith
“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly wing.” ~Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees
Kintsugi is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. The word beautifully translates to “golden joinery.” This process involves piecing together fragments of broken pottery and filling in the cracks with gold. The shimmering seams not only add value, but they create a one of a kind piece that cannot be replicated. Brokenness builds beauty. I like to apply this same process when writing creative nonfiction.
My writing students often struggle with knowing where to begin. How far back do they need to travel to enter the story? They feel a burden to provide all of the context up front. We are conditioned to produce “Once upon a time…” and “Happily ever after…” stories; yet that is never how our minds actually construct meaning. Readers might crave chronology, but it does not represent our internal life. Our life itself is an act of “golden joinery,” which is why I propose my students dive right into the messy middle. They can pick any moment from their life that they remember vividly. William Zinsser encourages writers to think small. If they have held onto a memory, it is there for a reason. Writers such as Anne Lamott teach that we don’t have to know what we are doing in order to just start the process of writing. Writers might not even know a beginning until they figure out where they are going.
Once the writer feels the freedom to write in fragmented pieces, the possibilities are endless. It becomes a process of discovery rather than production. I tell my students to write in vivid detail, capture the feeling and paint the picture. Show us the sweater, the sunset, the creaky staircase, the broken crayons, the hole in the sock, or the tear stained cheek. Zoom in again and again like exploring different pinned spots on a map. Reel us in, then step out and re-enter a new time and place. These snapshots can be joined in a beautiful new arrangement somewhere down the road. Don’t worry yourself with those details at the start. Enjoy the unfolding as you pick up the pieces.
Explore writing piece by piece with Jaime Pollard-Smith and Zeba Mehdi: “Framing Our Experience: A Life in Pieces” at Charlotte Lit, Tuesday, September 12, 6:00-8:00 p.m. Info
Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor at Central Piedmont Community College with a Master of Arts from New York University. When she is not corralling two teenagers and a doodle named Dexter, she can be found practicing yoga, weightlifting, hiking, journaling and enjoying the arts. Her fiction has been published in Literary Mama, and she is a contributor for Scary Mommy and Project We Forget. Online: unbecoming.co.